Facing Down Death
Erica Jong’s novel Fear of Flying came out more than forty years ago – 1973, the year I graduated from college. If you don’t think a book can change the way people think – well, think again.
Fear of Flying unabashedly discussed women’s sex lives, and it advanced the notion that women might occasionally have sex…..for fun! She coined a term for this that I can’t use on public television, but it was short, creative and to the point, and it sent her on her way to becoming a household name.
The heroine of Fear of Flying was Isadora Wing, a married woman academician and poet who goes in search of a sexual experience free of attachment, obligation or coercion. Isadora has mixed success with that goal. Nevertheless, Fear of Flying greatly contributed to the tumult around sexual roles in the 1970s and beyond.
Now it’s four decades later and Erica Jong, going bravely into areas many writers would steer clear of, has published Fear of Dying, about another married woman, now in her sixties, whose depression at the physical decline of her parents prompts her to go in search of another extramarital affair. Carpe diem, as the Romans used to say. It’s a neat inversion of the previous book, and it taps beautifully into the life path of all the Baby Boomers who read the first one and who are now grappling with mortality.
This is the state many of Jong’s readers and contemporaries are in – we are having to confront the fact that we are not going to live forever. This made me think of books that go boldly into that territory – books that look death in the face.
First up is the wonderful work of Roz Chast. We had her on Well Read a couple of years ago, when her unique book Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? came out.
As many of our viewers know, Roz Chast is a cartoonist for the New Yorker, known for her wonderfully funny cartoons that send up our anxiety-driven modern life. The book was something much deeper – it chronicled her struggles to take care of her aging (and eventually dying) parents.
The uniqueness of this book was that Chast told her story in a manner that managed to be both unflinchingly honest and achingly funny. And she did it in cartoon form. I have never read anything quite like it, and many other people thought the same, because it won the National Book Critics Circle award for memoir and a raft of other prizes.
This reminds me of another great graphic story, in this case, a memoir, that involves death and a child struggling to come to grips with the death of a parent – Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. Bechdel, an accomplished cartoonist, told the story of her upbringing in her family’s funeral home, of her father’s unhappiness (he was a closeted gay man), of his likely death by suicide and of her struggles to come to terms with it. Also a great book, told in graphic form.
Another book that addresses our mortality head-on is Donald Hall’s Essays After Eighty. Hall is a much decorated poet (he’s a former U.S. poet laureate) who lives in a farm in New Hampshire. As he has aged, he has moved from poetry to prose writing.
In this book, he writes about what it is like to become old. It’s fearless and humorous. The New York Times review called it “a slim volume, alternately lyrical and laugh-out-loud funny, in which Mr. Hall, now 86, describes the “unknown, unanticipated galaxy” of the very old, so unimaginable to his younger self. He describes aging as a process of letting go of things; his driver’s license, for starters. On a much sadder note, he describes losing his beloved second wife, Jane Kenyon, to leukemia more than two decades ago. He still looks at life with a poet’s eye, and even as he confronts the toughest of material, the lyricism of his words reinforce the fact that the subject matter notwithstanding, this talented man, the author of 33 books, is very much alive.
Another book I have just picked because it just came out is Raymond Tallis’ The Black Mirror: Looking at Life through Death. Tallis is a British professor of geriatric medicine who has published more than 200 research articles on the neurology of old age. He takes his cue from E.M. Forster’s quote “Death destroys a man, but the idea of it saves him.” He writes that we cannot possibly imagine death, but we can use it as a platform to look at the very precious qualities of living.
This book is one of those where you have to take a deep breath every page or two – not because it’s depressing (though some of the subject matter certainly is), but because he packs so many thoughts into his prose, it takes a while to digest them. He is a formidable writer and thinker.
This book reminded me of Siddhartha Mukerjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: a Biography of Cancer. Like Tallis, Mukerjee is a physician who can write, and someone who has witnessed some of the very toughest passages of humanity. These two men possess a rare ability – to take their body of very specialized and scientific knowledge and interpret it in a way that general readers can understand. I think this is one of the greatest services a writer can perform, and wish that there were more scientists who labored in these fields.
Finally, I have to mention Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. Gawande is another highly regarded physician AND a highly regarded writer – he is a regular contributor to the New Yorker. This book, which stayed on the best-seller lists for weeks, is both a meditation on how to live with the inevitable frailties of old age and a call to the field of medicine to treat patients’ decline and death in a more humane and realistic fashion. Gawande contends that medicine, rather than solely devoting its efforts to preserving health and survival, should first and foremost enable well-being. For the dying, those two goals can be different, Gawande persuasively concludes in his book.