The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead
By David Shields
Paperback; 225 pages;
ISBN: 978 0 241 95029 6;
At the forefront of David Shields’ The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (2008) is a terse mantra that, for all its simplicity, remains anything but casual: ‘Accept death’. Accept the inevitable, he seems to be saying; accept the inexorable fact that ‘in the end [you’ll] lose, as we all do.’ But at no point in his capacious non-fiction exploration of the physiological and philosophical implications of dying does Shields ask us to discard our sensitivity to the subject or adopt a stance of impassivity regarding it; rather, his resolute urge for people to yield to the consequences of mortality incites a meditative reassessment of what it means to have a biological expiration date, encouraging us to consider death in all its facets without commanding that we conquer our fear of it.
Shields’ struggle with understanding his 97 year-old father’s reluctance to acknowledge the viability of death provides a personal foundation upon which the book’s narrative portions eventually develop. He begins The Thing About Life with a prologue confessing an ‘Oedipal urge to bury [his father] in a shower of death data’, and it soon becomes apparent that readers are by no means exempt from the ensuing repercussions. Early chapters teem with an alarming number of disconcerting anatomical facts, leaving us- albeit temporarily- confused as to when the literary part of this self-professed ‘autobiography of my body’ will commence. Indeed, the sheer quantity of numbers present from the book’s beginning is staggering, the amount of statistics overwhelming and precariously close to tedious. However, that these facts come with a side dish of subjective commentary- fetuses are ‘aggressive’, pregnancy is a ‘tug of war’, and mere existence amounts to a kind of ‘warfare’- suggests that Shields’ literary ambitions exceed the robotic approach to understanding human relationships with life and death presented heretofore – and in fact remain disguised within the book’s torrent of data, rather than precluded by it.
Indeed, among the barrage of science in The Thing About Life is an element of humanity that emerges and permeates Shields’ work, managing to overwhelm it like a tour de force of pathos: philosophical notions temper scientific truths, confessions of fear accompany distressing facts, and what eventually transpires is the author’s vacillation between admiration and disconcert at the ease and relentlessness with which death appears to proceed. Shields’ soulful interjections ultimately establish in readers a sense of universality that we are all connected, not only in the inevitability of our death but in our incapacity to quell oscillating emotions about it, managing to turn what could easily be read as the artistic product of a mid-life crisis into an edifying work capable of provoking readers young and old alike into considering the role that death plays in life.
The emotions that Shields explores in his book- among them fear, awe and frustration- fluctuate wildly as he writes his way through a self-professed exploration of ‘the fragility and ephemerality of life’. Personal anecdotes accompany facts so as to make them appear either exaggerated or quelled, and clusters of historical quotes crop up sporadically to supplement remote statistics with a human face. While there is an initial impulse to deem the book a desperate attempt to transmogrify the vast tragedy of our expiration into a tidy bundle of statistics, the sentimentality of its narrative aspects injects a semblance of humanity that tenaciously illustrates one of the book’s key messages: ‘We are all thrillingly different animals, and we are all, in a sense, the same animal’. In this respect, we are reminded that all the myriad sources consulted and quoted in the book- from Thomas Pynchon and Ralph Waldo Emerson to John Wayne and an ‘unnamed teenager’- remain equivalent in their incapacity to be, at the end of their lives, anything other than ‘just animals’ indifferent to the struggles of life, sex, disease, reproduction, evolution, and eventually, death. While Shields concludes the book on a rather melancholy note- ‘in the end [my father will] lose, as we all do’- the ultimate message is anything but gloomy; rather, it bristles with a tone of resolve, echoing the very sense of acceptance that that opens the book and resonates in its epigraph by J.M. Coetzee: ‘That, finally, is all it means to be alive: to be able to die’.