The Thing about Life is that One Day you’ll be dead
After reading The Thing about Life Is That One Day You’ll be dead I struggled for a while to find the words that would adequately describe the literature I was holding in my hands. By the authors own words in the first chapter, I don’t even believe he knew what to with the work he had just written. What may have started out as an exploration of death and how life precedes it has turned into something completely different. He has written something whose insanity and relevance cannot be adequately explained within a few pages or even a few words. After much personal deliberation, I found myself thinking that maybe the best way to start telling someone about this book is to simply start by using the first words the author used:
“Let the wrestling match begin: my stories versus his stories”
The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll be Dead is the new novel from David Shields best known for writing novels such as “Dead Languages” and “Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity.” By the title of this book it seems that shields attempts to create a volume which will explore the very definition of mortality. However, the book itself turns out to be much more.
When talking about the essence of the book. It is fair to say that the author began it and ended it with his father. His father as Shields describes is perhaps the most active and larger than life individual he has ever known. He describes several instances where his father would seemingly do the impossible. He tells of a story when he survived electrocution from stepping on a third railway track. He tells of another where at 87 he finished a tennis match and won while suffering from a heart attack. He even tells of simpler things, such as when he chided him for not jumping over the playground fence as a child. Apparently the author saw it was closed and left, much to the approval of his mother.
Milton Shields is apparently the perfect example of an alpha male. He has held more than fifty jobs spanning across several occupations from journalism to social welfare. He even details how sexually active his father still was while he was in 70s. He has also been psychologically disturbed for 50 years. He is a manic depressive who has received several electroshock therapies and yet even at the ripe age of 97 he is still very much alive. He is still the sort of person who wills still swim regularly and even run around the track if possible.
The author also while looking at his father’s past seems to be constantly in competition with him. Whether he faces him socially, physically or even sexually his father always seems to outperform him much to his chagrin. At 60 years old he even defeats him in footraces in his dreams.
Even till the end it seems that he is trying to balance out the sides he feels for his father. The one way in which he needs his father to die even though the prospect may be horrible and unthinkable and the other in which he believes he will live forever.
Through all the details the author gives he always seems trapped in his own reality. There he recounts several relevant facts and figures as if still awaiting the eventual death that will take him from this world. While at the same time lamenting at how his father still stubbornly aspires to live at 97 years of age. The author while writing these words seems extremely depressed at the very thought of the man. Shield now at 51 with chronic back problems actually sees his father’s youthful vigor and enthusiasm and becomes so saddened, so tired that he actually describes his father as taking the life out of him. At 51 years he is very much a man made by society. He constantly without hesitation tells his father to act his own age. Accept death he says to which his father replies accept life. His father it seems to the author wishes to reach his hundredth year through sheer stubbornness. The truly interesting thing about this relationship is that the author though continuously disapproving of his father’s habit always speaks with an air of envy and even love.
He announces from the beginning that his thoughts and ideas are intended to refute the optimistic and lively views his father has about life. This sets the tone for the various chapters to come, which range from depressing to repulsive. Filling up the centre of all this chaos is details about the authors own life. He recounts many embarrassing, depressing and saddening moments from his life. Sometimes he explores the effects of testosterone causing growth spurts in children before recounting his experiences with acne in childhood. Then he may jump ahead to his own age and talking about how men and women begin losing their reproductive faculties. He shares many details with the average readers that are not very prudent when taken into consideration with modern society. However, they are honest.
On the other side he may begin talking about how mirrors can soften the effect of the image in front of it then suddenly change the subject talking about Lyndon Johnson’s penchant for showing his privates to his employees. What begins at first as a candid and honest approach to the futility of life and existence quickly devolves into a mish-mash of medical knowledge, statistics and personal quotes from famous authors such as Carl Sagan, John Updike and William Thackeray, Woody Allen and more.
He may start with a chapter that recounts the experiences of his childhood sweetheart. He may tell of a footrace where the girl managed to beat him shattering their relationship and then turn to smoking a few years later becoming a cheerleader. Then in the next chapter he may completely abandon his life in favor of an entire mess of medical data that has nothing to do with the previous or next story whatsoever.
It’s perplexing and annoying that the author has written the book in this way. The factual data he has amassed are loosely related to the instances he wishes to tell from his life. However they never really manage to supplement any his recounting. Nor do they sometimes seem particularly relevant or even interesting. However there are certain instances where the entire puzzle does fit together and it doesn’t become far-fetched to say that on those notes he manages to reel the readers in every word. Sometimes the smorgasbord of ideas does manage to collate into an integral chapter which leaves the reader thinking about the meaning of existence. However these instances are few and far between.
Rather than seeming like the author has used his own life and several references to create a world where the welcoming embrace of death should be explained. The author seems to be running from chapter to chapter. It seems that he begins prepared to share something which is considerably private and difficult about his life and then suddenly takes a turn supplementing it with outside data. This gives the impression of a heavy handed and apologetic man. Who is continuously lamenting the lost years of life and subsequently apologizing for living it that way.
Through it all he manages to keep up his internal conflict with his father. Though the author continuously be rides his father for his outlook on life. You can still tell that behind all the complaining and the whining that the author eventually degenerates to. Ranting about the acceptance of death and dying with dignity. The author still has a lot of love for his father. It seems that he simply cannot see the importance of his own existence.
The book itself is written in a style that feels like a personal letter to the reader. Despite the extensive referencing required for giving credence to his facts and figures. The tone and form of the book is written in such a way that the reader will not feel the heaviness of the facts before him or the tone of authority that normally exists in books like these. The language form that this book contains does not look beyond the surface of the issues that the author takes up. And many times he does not need to. The book flows with such an undeniable energy which connects the past, present of his life together. The book that has been written does explore a fact that has been extensively done many, many times before. The true theme in the book is never the character of death itself. But rather the various instances of disclosure that it brings about its very nature. It removes the various layers from the concept of death itself until there is nothing left but the very bones that makes up our bodies and the relationships we had in life. He brings all the information he can amass and the details of his personal experiences to the reader ensuring that his ideas cannot be distorted or misunderstood. He leaves behind the religious and spiritual thinking that may offer a person comfort in his time of death. Instead he embraces the cold hard facts that make up our society creating a dialogue which is informative to the reader. These facts do not give theories and ruminations about death. But rather it moves away from the zone that people create for them to understand it and explains as plainly as possible its very nature in this physical world right down to its core.
The trick to this method is that the author first creates an environment of familiarity and then brings the reader into it. He freely tells of many of his experiences trying to hide the truth and thus giving the illusion that he is opening himself up completely to his reader. At his stage of life the author is adept at understanding what has come before him and what will come after him. At this point Shields is writing simply about being a human being a subject which he seems to know well.
If the details that are written above sound depressing it is only because in actuality it is. Though, not how you would normally think of it. There is a continuous exploration here by the author about the various ways in which our bodies fail us before our time eventually comes. The facts themselves do allow a semblance of comfort to anyone reading them young or old. He starts from the titles and moves on to day that you are already dying. He says that strength and co-ordination peak at 19 with atherosclerosis possibly occurring at 20. 20 is also the age that your joints begin to deteriorate in their functioning. Hormone production levels off at 25 years of age. Bone mass does so at 30 years. Eventually your body odors, your fingers, your hair all are gone. At 40 years, you lose your strength, your breathing capacity decreases. At 90 years of age you lose one of your kidneys. Your body can no longer handle the toxins you intake. You skin dries; your organs shrink, you lose 15% of your bone density if you’re a man and 30% if you’re a woman. At 93 your brain is the size of 3 year olds. Not a pretty picture.
In retrospect, it may be more relevant towards readers who are older since they can appreciate the changes the author continuously mentions. However, the truly depressing part of the book is the emotive nature of the author himself. From the beginning of the book the author does express his acceptance of the futility of his death. However his increasingly somber mood and dark humor does have the potential to trap the reader in a depressive mood as well.
It is strange to say that books filled with the facts of death are not as depressing as the author himself. The reading material provided is easy to read, to understand, fulfilling, exhaustive, meaningful and informative. Even though some of the references given by the author are quite questionable in their own right and he does not provide any information about his sources to back them up. Even then the depressive mood of the author can be explained by saying that this book is more of a memoir than anything else.
The memoir that he has written here is as much his own as it is his fathers. Interlacing the entire data he has collected with personal stories from his childhood he has used death as a filter to unbiased examine the various relationships we go through in our lives and what they actually mean to us.
This book then also serves as a guide to the father son relationship that is clearly such a huge part of his life. And now that time seems to be running out for his father the author seems to reflect on his physical condition. How he is wrought with various pains which signal him that his body is failing while his father seems to be as energetic as he ever was.
In my opinion the book though not a must read is recommended to anyone who wishes to have a clearer perspective on life and death. Though there are better volumes out there which explain the intricacies of the end of life? This book serves as a good introduction and a constant reminder that our end is just around the corner. We just haven’t felt it yet.
Shields, David. The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead . New York: Random House , 2008.