Sunday, November 15, 2009

Five Books of death at an early age

Ian Wolcott’s moving reflections on The Blood of the Lamb startled me into thinking about other novels in which the death of a child is an occasion for more than grief. Wolcott describes Peter De Vries’s unclassifiable 1961 novel, reprinted four years ago by the University of Chicago Press, as a “tragicomic (and more tragic for all its comedy) fictional re-creation of his own daughter’s death by leukemia.” As I remarked in my review of Rafael Yglesias’s Happy Marriage, “The terminal cancer patient has the relatively easy part. All she must do is to die. The spouse”—or, in De Vries’s case, the parent—“is left with her permanent absence.” The Blood of the Lamb examines the question of how it is possible to go on living with such absence.

Are there any other books that deserve its company? Toni Morrison’s Beloved might be fit into the same category, but I am already on record saying it belongs elsewhere. Ditto Cynthia Ozick’s pair of stories bound together as The Shawl, which is about a different magnitude of survival. Any others?

(2.) Gabriel Fielding, In the Time of Greenbloom (1957). Also reprinted in a Phoenix Fiction edition by the University of Chicago Press, although now out of print. When John Blaydon was twelve he fell in love with a year-older girl named Victoria. Their young romance, which is something like Humbert’s island of enchanted time with Annabel without the sniggering onlookers, comes to a violent end when Victoria is murdered. John lives the rest of his life with the consequences of her death.

(3.) Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman (1966). Suspecting that “the world catastrophe which everyone fears . . . has already happened,” Will Barrett accepts an invitation to join a family of fellow Southerners when the younger son Jamie is released from the hospital. They are taking Jamie back to Alabama to die. No sooner does he arrive than Will packs Jamie away on a trip to New Mexico in a Trav-L-Aire camper. On his deathbed, Jamie converts to the Church of Rome, and Will, having helped him to “die better,” sees “for the first time the possibility of a happy, useful life.” Maybe Percy’s best novel.

(4.) Stanley Elkin, The Magic Kingdom (1985). A flock of dying children (“One case each of Gaucher’s disease, tetralogy of Fallot, osteosarcoma, cystic fibrosis, dysgerminoma, Chédiak-Higashi syndrome, progeria, and lymphoblastic leukemia”) travel from England to Disney World for a sort of Make-A-Wish come true. Elkin, who was himself living with a death sentence by this time—he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis thirteen years before—takes aim at the sentimentality surrounding children’s deaths. The truth may not seem them free, but at least it will prevent the dying from being prematurely smothered in syrup.

(5.) Francine Prose, Goldengrove (2008). When I reviewed this brilliant novel here last December, I abused the critics who naïvely assumed that it is about coping with grief. Nico’s older sister Margaret dies in a drowning accident shortly before graduating from high school, and what Nico is left with is not the need to cope but rather the necessity to reinvent personality in the collapse of a world. I have made my very deep admiration of Prose clear by now, but I remain perplexed by how little attention Goldengrove has received. It does not tug at the heart-strings nor go for the easy tears, but suggests far more profoundly that the presence of a loved one’s absence is the wellspring of either self-destruction or art.


R/T said...

Though this is not a book in the sense you use the word in your wonderful posting, I would argue that Keats' poetry--taken as a whole--is the poets' confrontation with his imminent death. Of course, plenty of other poems by other poets would also qualify: Ben Jonson's "On My First Son"; Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle in to that good night"; Emily Dickinson's "I felt a Funeral--in my Brain." And as for short stories, there is none more powerful than Katherine Anne Porter's "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall." Finally, to return to your premise, I would also argue that Flannery O'Connor's two novels (and quite a few of her short stories) are both preoccupied with the abject power of death (which is a reality we all face, but O'Connor's imminent death becomes a complication in all of her writing).

Lee said...

OT: a Francine Prose link you may enjoy:

(You'll have to click on nav bar's JUST OUT, then scroll down to Prose's A Simple Question.

Lee Ramsey said...

Thanks for these reflections. They call to mind Doris Betts's remarkable but underappreciated novel, Souls Raised From the Dead, which ends with the father Frank, having buried his teenage daughter, to figure out how to move on with life beyond loss and grief. LR