I’ll bet my first edition of Portnoy’s Complaint that when finalists for the National Book Awards are announced October 11, Philip Roth’s latest novel, Everyman, will be up for the fiction prize. This account of an old man’s journey toward death was a literary event this year, and not just because of its considerable power. The Grim Reaper was much on the minds of serious writers and their readers in 2005. Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, which describes the grief that flowed from her husband’s fatal heart attack and her daughter’s struggle with illness, had won the NBA prize for nonfiction. (It’s now headed for Broadway.)
The virtue of both these books is their refusal to gild the grief of dying with any higher purpose. But this unsparing candor leads to a self-enclosure that fits all too neatly into the culture now. It’s not surprising that two of our most important writers are telling us that death is an insular experience that transcends social circumstance. This ultimately conservative message is part of the same process that has put self-obsession front and center in American politics.
We expect great writers to stand against the tide, as Didion and Roth once did. Their best work is broadly dissident, and they’ve always written with acuity about class and caste. But death seems to have eclipsed their awareness. The major passion Roth’s protagonist feels is anguish at the loss of his youthful vitality–the “tubular sprout” he was as a boy. For Didion it’s the shattering of a routine that was central to her well-being. “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends,” she writes. At times it’s hard to know whether she’s grieving for her husband or the charmed life they led when he was alive. Roth, too, lets the affluence of his protagonist go unremarked, as if it were simply typical. But his Everyman really isn’t that, and her insights into mourning aren’t transferable to the vast majority of people. Death is when the forces that shape us show their hand.
The great literary realists regarded dying as a supremely social event. In Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, still the most powerful account we have of death amid prosperity, the spiritual and the social come together at the moment when a moribund civil servant, filled with bitterness at his fate and family, realizes that living well means living for others. Today that idea would be tagged politically correct or mystical at best. But Tolstoy understood that in embracing life around you there is solace. This concept no longer seems plausible, at least not to Didion and Roth.
The closest Didion comes to engagement is the brief moment when she considers those who died in the tsunami, but there’s no revelation in that passing thought, and certainly no solace in the Tolstoyan sense. The closest Roth’s protagonist comes to consolation is when he communes with his parents at their graveside. It’s not exactly ancestor worship, but neither is it humanism.
During the 1980s, when AIDS exploded, it was impossible to write about the demise of a loved one without acknowledging that others were dying too. While AIDS literature generally ignored the toll on people of color, it couldn’t avoid the fact that each casualty was situated in a suffering community. Such is the plague consciousness that Albert Camus famously described. But in these new books, there’s no sense of the manifold ways death reveals the conditions of life.
I first noticed this new attitude in 1994, when medical historian Sherwin Nuland published How We Die. His purpose was to demystify death by giving his readers a detailed picture of what happens to the body. Then in 1999 came Jim Crace’s stunning novel Being Dead, in which a thieving maniac murders a British couple on a beach. The book’s main focus is on the transformation of their corpses as nature and its tiny fauna operate. This utterly materialistic account echoes Nuland’s point about death, as he made it in a speech at Stanford: “The real determinant of how we die is our disease; it is not…who we are or who our doctor is.” Try telling that to people with AIDS in Africa.
Social detachment breeds a rigid narrowness, as Tolstoy understood, and it shows in the foreshortened sensibility of these two books. Gone are the ambivalent parental portraits that Roth is justly famous for; now the mother and father (especially the father) are paragons of hard-working virtue. No doubt they were that, among other things, and no doubt the perfect marital partnership that Didion describes really existed. But in her remembrance there’s not an inkling of resentment, not even the anger most people feel toward a loved one who has died. These complexities, which are central to the realist tradition, have yielded to a simplicity that feels more like a medieval morality play without the morality. What makes this hermetic approach to dying seem so credible? The answer lies in the aging of a generation and its retreat from the world. For many boomers, an I-Me-Mine attitude is preferable to the pain of struggling for social change in such a resistant time. Combine that with the heightened sense of vulnerability since 9/11 and you’ve got the sensibility of these two books.
Maybe their real subject isn’t dying but the perception that even charmed America is subject to what Camus calls “death from a clear blue sky.” You sit down to dinner (or breakfast) and life as you know it ends.
But where is the writer who will make us feel that way about other people? Where is our Dickens?