Inappropriate sharing, incomprehensible ramblings, uncalled-for hostility: yup, it's a blog.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Death

Hopefully this is just a random thing: The past 5 books I've read (slowly) have been death-related. Four of the books have been supernatural-death related. This is strange to me because I don't usually do supernatural death, when reading. If I'm gonna go death, I prefer it hyper-realistic. Like, I dunno, Crime and Punishment.

Here's the thing: of the last five books I've gone thru--again, slowly--one was a non-fiction work on the process of death, and the other four were about zombies, or vampires, or some weird hybrid.

Also another thing: three of these five books deal with dystopian futures. Alternate realities. The only conclusion I can draw from my current choice in reading material is that I'm becoming a pessimist, and am just waiting for death.

I am, apparently, having a midlife crisis of literature.

Let's take my current reading material. The Four Fingers of Death (written by Rick Moody, available from Amazon or your local book shop, or else from, I'm sure, Audible.com). When I bought the book, for Kindle, I was knee-deep in The Passage (written by Justin Cronin, also available from Amazon or your local book shop, or else from, I'm sure, Audible.com), and I bought the book--The Four Fingers of Death--a month before its release. Why? Because I'd been told it was an homage to Kurt Vonnegut.

Kurt Vonnegut is a writer I both adore and imitate. Even his worst book, to me, is a wonderful book. I love Vonnegut the way I love Greg, my partner: with caution, blind devotion, and concern. Vonnegut died a few years back. He smoked Pall Malls for most of his life. He set his townhouse on fire because of his smoking; in fact, the introduction to his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse Five, mentions he smoked too much. He smoked, and knew it was bad for him, and knew it was bad for society, and hated himself for it. And yet he smoked.

Vonnegut's cause of death: a fall down the stairs, a hit on the head, at the age of 84. You never see death coming, even when you know it is. The Pall Malls might've kept him happily miserable for several years to come had he avoided the tumble down the stairs.

So, I've had these random books enticing me to read them, thru no fault of their own. The latest is The Four Fingers of Death, which opens like this: In Memory of Kurt Vonnegut. And it ends like this: He lives with his family in Brooklyn, New York.

Thing is, The Four Fingers of Death isn't Vonnegut. It's a depressing, cold, too-realistic exploration of isolation, without the relief of wit. Here's my favorite passage thus far:

[The set-up for this is that the year is 2025, and ecosystems are breaking down, and whooping cranes are forced into migration by a guy with a plane, and a guy on Mars, trying to save Earth by colonizing.... Fuck it, there's no way I can set this up by explaining it. Just enjoy]

And somehow the whole situation reminds me of those last three hundred whooping cranes, those birds that somehow had been forcibly migrating back and forth from Florida for the past twenty-odd years with the aid of an ultralight [plane]. This small population of birds is not a sustainable[...] avian flu[...] crowded ecosystem[...] collapse[...] One germ[...] A beautiful thing, a whooping crane, and in the not so distant future there will be only a couple of them left, and they will have only one wing apiece, and they will idle on some lawn, like the lawn near Cape Cavaneral. One of these nonmaiting pair will die of old age and then there will be the one last whooping crane, and it will eat moldy popcorn from underneath the NASA reviewing stand, and it will have delusional thoughts, mothballed memories in which it was part of a flock, and this flock followed an ultralight [aircraft] down to Brazil for the winter, and then back again. What does our whooping crane think? The last whooping crane on the planet Earth? The last one? It thinks that the currents of air are a marvel, and it conceives of them in colors, spectra, as we think of the sunsets; just so does the last whooping crane, despite the fact that only the one wing works, think of those air currents; it remembers the treetops, which were like sofas to the whooping crane; back when it still had two wings, it could land in any treetop and put its head under its wing, and the whooping crane remembers, or believes it remembers, certain kinds of fish that are particularly savory, and maybe a certain level of freshness in the matter of seafood is what a whooping crane most prizes, and it remembers mating, because back when it was young it was picky in the mating department, and like many whooping cranes it was not, despite its lanky beauty, terribly kind to the girls; moreover, there was always the danger of infighting among the whooping cranes, and this last crane remembers all of this, and because the crane cannot speak of it, the memories are that much more painful, and now, in his loneliness, there is no other bird who protects that past of cranes, that long history of the most beautiful bird in this part of the country, and so the only other account of these events, after the others fade, is the memory of the guy who flew the ultralight, a balding guy with a not-very-good sense of humor, a guy who told the worst jokes, not that the whooping crane understood jokes, but rather the whooping crane recognized the timbre of this man's voice, a kind of ragged baritone that shaded into the tenor range, but with outbreaks of alto when he got nervous, and this was the call of the ultralight, as far as the last whooping crane is concerned, this guy's rather humorous voice; it was not the cry of the whooping crane, which is a majestic sound, it was the cry of some bald guy who never much expected to be piloting birds. He probably believed he would have a career in civil aviation, or maybe he thought he would be an astronaut or something, and in fact that is what he decides to do because the day comes when this pilot can no longer fly the ultralight, because there are not enough cranes anymore, there is only the one crane, and he is crushed, well, come on, everyone is crushed, life crushes you, and this is just one more story to stomp up and down on your crushed heart, this balding fellow going to visit the last crane sometimes, over where he thinks the crane might still be living, in some cage for injured birds, and he and the crane recognize each other, indeed, though they have no common language in which to speak of their recognition, there is no way for the crane to speak of the man as a man speaks of a crane, and it would all go fine if the man could speak in the tongue of cranes, but he can't. While he's visiting with the crane, there is, in the distance, a liftoff, one of the last space shuttle missions, and you can see it from almost twenty miles away, the conditions are that favorable in south Florida that day, and the guy, the balding pilot, the one with the bad jokes and the not-terribly-reliable timbre to his voice, thinks that maybe the only reasonable thing to pursue after the experience of flying the ultralight is the experience of going up into space, as soon as he can, and he sits on a bench by the one-winged whooping crane for a while, and then he notices that he is talking to the whooping crane, and he's saying, "Well, I don't exactly want to leave you here like this; I can't really think of anything worse, and I have left some people behind in my life, who hasn't, even some people I loved, but none of that is as bad as thinking I won't see you here again, and no one who comes here to see you will know what I know about you, and you won't recognize these people, nothing could be worse, but still a man has to move on sometimes, I can't just stay here doing this, and so I'm wondering, would you think it was okay for me to go ahead and undertake to be become an astronaut? Do you think you could possible give me your blessing?" He knows that the whooping crane can't answer him, that's obvious enough, but he feels he owes a reasonable explanation than he owes his wife or parents, and the crane can't see how bad the pilot feels, how broken up he is, when the man thinks that he won't be able to visit the crane again. When the crane is a thing of the past, when the crane is nothing more than fertilizer for creatures to come, the pilot will only learn of it online, because he will be off pursuing his ambition, flying his test missions, sleeping in the barracks, all that he might get the hell off the planet that slew the whooping cranes.

Whew. That was a lot of typing. No copy-paste job there. Pure read-interpret-type. The Four Fingers of Death, but it took ten lively fingers to type it.

Vonnegut, like I said, smoked Pall Malls by the bushel, or at least claimed to. He set his Upper East Side townhouse on fire once, because he dropped a cigarette. Died because he fell down some stairs.

I had a grandmother once. Never smoked, never did anything that'd cause her harm. Ate well. Exercised. Vital til the end, and that end was this: a brain tumor.

Maybe I'm reading these books right now because they're both silly and honest. I don't mind death--I can handle reading about it, and hopefully experiencing it. What bothers me, and what I'm working thru while reading these five books, is that death doesn't just happen to me; it's gonna happen to everyone I know. Not a profound thought, I know. It happens, survivors move on, what are you gonna do. But people I love will die. I'll feel bad about that, and don't want them to feel the same should I die first.

Death happens. Usually when you're making other plans. And in my case, I'm just planning to finish reading a book. One in a series about dystopian futures, and supernatural deaths.

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