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Spring 2005

The Trouble with Postmortality

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Elizabeth Tallent

Not long ago, in a frenzy of cultural homesteading, literary fiction began appropriating the personae of real individuals, mostly dead, mostly famous. While this wasn't a brand-new tactic, and its appeal had long been recognized—when Virginia Woolf chose to narrate Flush from the vantage point of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's cocker spaniel, she meant the novel to be a bestseller—the sheer number of writers relying on this approach was new, and suggested that the relation between narration and "reality" (when the word reality plunks down, the doves of double quotes fly up) was being reimagined, not writer by writer, but communally, in a far-flung literary project with a terrific appetite for figures who had in common two things: first, they were in some way compelling; second, they'd once lived and breathed. The spectrum of appropriated personae—appropriation is the term used by novelist and essayist Jonathan Dee in his Harper's essay "The Literary Reanimators"-ranges from Lee Harvey Oswald's to Vermeer's, Virginia Woolf's to Frida Kahlo's, but its finitude was suggested by the recurrence of certain figures, with Kahlo, for instance, turning up in three different novels. As Woolf knew, the charm of the keyhole view can cramp invention, and the forced whimsy of Flush is the signature of a conceit that failed wholly to delight its writer. The need to reconcile fiction's etymologically suggested happiness in fashioning or feigning with the relative determinacy of historical accounts is one of the new genre's problems, but a bigger problem is that history has minted only so much charisma. Not every dog that was charming in its own day looks charming now.

With the Oklahoma of real personae pretty much staked out, a new frontier has opened: call it postmortality. Whether they were once actual historical figures or not, the dead—as dead—crop up increasingly often in fiction. Versailles features a cheekily postmodern Marie Antoinette who also happens to be post-guillotine; the cool first-person of Susanna Moore's In the Cut lacks mortal warmth for good reason; death is only one among many harrowing adventures befalling the narrator of Mark Richard's Fishboy. Will Self's How the Dead Live maps a hectic necropolis the dead learn to navigate with the help of a twelve-step program, whose third step is "We make a decision to painstakingly remember our former lives." Keith Kachtick's Hungry Ghost has it both ways, since its second-person narrator lives in one of the novel's proffered endings and negotiates the Bardo in another. This synchronicity seems to echo the earlier flurry of appropriation in hinting at a far-flung consensus among very different writers: the communication of this consensus is as mysterious as the readiness of all members of a species of bamboo to flower in sync, wherever the individual plants occur on earth, however remote they are from each other. Even more puzzling is the meaning of this convergence, because if those historic personalities whose charisma hasn't rubbed off suggest enduring perplexities, while sexual adventurers contribute eros, the brilliant offer a chance to describe inventiveness or creativity, and the interestingly minor or somehow freakish serve up ironies, it's not immediately clear what use the dead are to fiction. Why, especially, should they narrate? Apart from the possibility of a last-minute plot twist—when the narrator's "deadness" is revealed—what do dead narrators offer that live ones don't?

Another way to ask this might be: What is a narrator but a kind of ghost haunting the text? Doesn't Nick Carraway at the end of Gatsby sound as ghostly as possible? Is the poignancy of elegy sharpened if it's voiced by the literally dead? To this last question, at least, the fiction of postmortality responds directly: elegy's over. The narratives offered by the new literary dead tend toward the cadaverously cool, as if a voice's temperature falls right along with its body's. These voices make Nick's seem hot—impassioned.

Really, the question of why so many dead are turning up in fiction could be answered more easily if being dead offered a new tonal range or somehow made it new, but the voices of the new literary dead sound chilly but normal. When Odysseus visits the dead, they are sickeningly other. They're almost transparent, they blow around like leaves, they drink blood, and if these things aren't enough to prove their eerie estrangement, Homer has Odysseus's dead mother fail to recognize him. Millennia can pass without erasing the strangeness of that baleful failure, because with that failure death shatters the most basic link between human beings, recognition, without which we are socially, emotionally, and in terms of survival as good as lost; and of all recognitions, death blinds the deepest, the mother-child gaze, which engenders the infant's own sense of self: self as stable, empathetically reflected, safely encompassed. It's a wild figuration of annihilation, subtly invoking the gazing, scenting, nursing, solicitous creation of self in order to portray death's absolute indifference to self. Current literary practice tends to substitute for any attempt to render the uncanniness of death a chummy, ironic ordinariness, the central irony being the fact that though the voice is dead it sounds okay. The flat-line affect at the beginning of The Stranger—"Maman died today"—now seems the expected response to death, even one's own, but the problem with this perversity is its very short half-life, because the reader quickly adapts to the sound of ordinariness, while the narration's non-ordinary twist, death, is obscured.

Again, then, what good is a dead narrator? Well, by virtue of their recently dramatically changed circumstances the newly dead could possess that marvel-ous narratorial quality: they could be curious. Dante's Dante, finally ascending to heaven, suffers from such urgent curiosity about God—in his words, "longing and questioning"—he has to be repeatedly lectured on decorum by Beatrice. In his passion to understand, Dante voices problems so metaphysically recondite that Beatrice, no flatterer, seems to admire their toughness ("You need not wonder if your fingers are unable to undo that knot: no one has tried, and so that knot is tightened, taut!"). Over longing and questioning, the new literary dead favor wariness and skepticism; postmortal fiction partakes of the weariness of a classroom in which questions are seriously unhip. As a result, postmortal narrators seem reassuringly unscathed by death, and maybe the almost offhand deconstruction of death, removing it from consideration, not simply as a trauma capable of inspiring terror, but even as a puzzling or strange transition, is one ambition these works have in common. Death once deconstructed, there's no more dying then?

In "The Passionate Man's Pilgrimage," written on the eve of his execution in 1604, Ralegh imagines his soul as "a white palmer." While acknowledging the conventions of pilgrimage, this image points to the soul's transfigured, purified state, its whiteness. Absent the marvelousness assigned it in old poems and theologies, the soul makes for a quirky—death being the quirk—narrator privileged to speak in a varyingly omniscient first-person. In terms of the fiction of postmortality, it's as if the question of the nature of the soul has been settled offstage, and it has been agreed for the purposes of contemporary fiction that what persists after death is a consistent, coherent individual consciousness—a self, pretty much, and a self that hasn't suffered much disruption or disorientation. For example, though she's experienced it, Susie Salmon, the narrator of Alice Sebold's bestseller The Lovely Bones, seems shocked less by death than by the revelation that ordinary suburban existence is subject to eruptions of violence. The Lovely Bones turns on a paradox: not only are the living transfixed (in a sense, at least, "killed") by grief, but death doesn't grant the dead any real life. If life is characterized by energy, change, increasing awareness, then this dead girl, with her fixation on some kind of ethereal TV—the logistics of just how Susie Salmon witnesses what's happening down on earth are left vague—resists it. Worse, heaven is a barren setting for a fifteen-year-old mind striving for insight: there are no books. Susie always refers to this setting as "my heaven," and the novel implies that for each soul, a private heaven is contrived; the reader shouldn't wonder at the whiteness of Susie's heaven, or the absence of starved Iraqi children, because the banality and insularity of her heaven mirror the qualities of her mind. An afterlife in which the failings and limitations of one's own mind determine one's environment could seem hell, rather than heaven, but the reader's meant, I think, to accept that the point of Susie's heaven is to afford her the optimum setting in which to deal with earthly trauma. In fact, until she deals with this trauma Susie can't leave "her" heaven for those other, perhaps higher heavens whose existence is hinted at. God, it seems, not only demands the individual psyche's wellness but, in order to insure it, has designed a heaven claustrophobically therapeutic.

Which makes God the ultimately controlling therapist, and the soul a prisoner of its psychology at the moment of death. When such a soul meets such a deity, the conclusion's predestined enough to tickle Cotton Mather. An odd consequence is that the safety of the soul means that the vulnerability of bodies—the open-endedness of the body's plot—makes for a better story and is sometimes, in such narratives, weirdly exalted. In the fiction of postmortality, bodies are where the action is. In The Lovely Bones the narrator's dismembered body is shut within a refrigerator submerged in a kind of sinkhole. This sinkhole is not simply a hiding place for Susie's mortal remains, but somehow also a link between her soul and body, since a visit—or "pilgrimage," as Susie's friend Ruth terms it—to this sinkhole precipitates Susie's "fall from heaven" and her ability to take over the (living) body of her friend.

What does Susie want with her friend's body? Because her rapist-murderer deprived her not only of any future experience of sex but also of her virginity, Susie wants to have sex with a chosen boy, and not just any sex, loss-of-virginity sex. At this juncture, the novel could have shown more interest in bodies—in the meaningfulness of bodies, a meaningfulness mostly felt, in a healthy life, through sexuality. The particular body borrowed by Susie in order to experience the loss of virginity has been carefully constructed as lesbian. ("That fuzzy feeling of difference, that her crushes on female teachers or her cousin were more real than the other girls' crushes. Hers contained a desire beyond sweetness and attention, it fed a longing, beginning to flower green and yellow into a crocuslike lust, the soft petals opening into her awkward adolescence.") Why detail Ruth's emergent—yet so far unconsummated —sexuality only to have her abandon her body so that her friend can use it? Is a lesbian body, by virtue of not "belonging" to any male, more available for appropriation? A lesbian's virginity less important to her than a straight girl's to her? At the very least, this lesbian character loses the experience of devirginization, as Susie did; we're supposed to accept that in the case of Ruth, this is all right, because she's cheerfully volunteered to have her body occupied by another. It's troubling, in a novel addressing rape, to encounter this notion that a girl's body can be voluntarily vacated by her soul, and her body then freely "used" by another. What kind of cosmos is postulated, if one body can be voluntarily vacated for the sake of a happy sexual encounter, while another, a child's, must remain alive and aware throughout a rape?

Another striking characteristic of the new literary dead is their ability to absorb tremendous contradictions and absurdities with hardly a murmur. Instead, the prose murmurs, sometimes nonsensically, adopting the tone of consolation: "I would like to tell you that it is beautiful here, that I am, and you will one day be, forever safe," Susie says. "But this heaven is not about safety just as, in its graciousness, it isn't about gritty reality. We have fun." Dante wouldn't have let this medley—beauty, safety, reality—pass without a question or two.

Susanna Moore's In the Cut gives us the cold cosmos known as Manhattan, domain of the street-smart and sexually venturesome, predators, cops, and creative-writing teachers. You wouldn't expect Moore's Manhattan to have much in common with the cornfields and suburban woods of The Lovely Bones, but both novels give us female narrators who've endured terrible deaths; both are named after parts of bodies; both detail the meaning of bones, bruises, cuts, and dismemberment, In the Cut's detective Malloy arguing that wounds can, almost, narrate: "You black out everything else...You begin to put [the story] together. Slowly. You take a flashlight and you go over every inch of the body. You look at scars, tattoos, wounds, fingernails, ears...Your whole world at that moment comes down to that body." During her murder, Moore's narrator Frannie finds despairing consolation in imagining Malloy reading her body: "Malloy would know when he saw my hands. My arms. He would know. How I fought."

Telling her tale, Frannie possesses a knowing, allusive (along with other texts dealing with death she recalls "The Passionate Man's Pilgrimage") detachment complicated by a disturbing and highly self-aware masochistic undercurrent—hers could almost be called a shrewd masochism, if such a thing's possible. This was exactly Frannie's style while alive. She's not painstakingly remembering her life, she's leafing through some recent scenes with a dispassion uninflected by death. "Most people insist that they don't have regrets. Which I think is a mistake. I think that regrets are important. I like them. Or rather, I like my own." Because it casually undermines that great regret-based resource of literary fiction, epiphany, liking one's own regrets would be mildly startling in a mortal narrator. In a postmortal narrator, it points to a kind of death a person can take in stride.

Well, should death figure in a voice? The "narrator-then, narrator-now" doubleness of the first person in James Joyce's "Araby" allows the more knowing voice's subtleties to coexist with big adolescent simplicities. If you try to choose between the two vantage points, you meet with a perceptual wobble, like the break in a paintbrush partially immersed in a glass of water. The story's two voices haunt each other, and as reader you must tolerate innocence and knowingness, both. The "adult" voice is not the adolescent voice, but it couldn't have come into existence without the adolescent's "anguish": it's the voice anguish paid for. To tell a story postmortally in the very voice used in life is to deny death any ontological clout at all. "Araby" promises that the way a girl revolves a silver bracelet on her wrist can transfigure your imagination. In the Cut promises that even death can't.

When psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott writes, "Oh God! May I be alive when I die," he advocates that awareness contend with all experience, for to shy away from perception in the last moments of consciousness would be to die a lesser—in the sense of less meaningful—death than is possible for fully inhabited consciousness. In describing what he is to experience on the morrow, Ralegh uses images born of resistance to any deadening of the senses or blurring of awareness:

Just at the stroke when my veins start and spread,
Set on my soul an everlasting head.
Then I am ready, like a palmer fit,
To tread those blest paths which before I writ.

The pause registered by the "and" separates two pulses of the blood-jet springing from the severed jugular. To write the verbs "start and spread" may be to come close to living a Winnicottian death—you write it before. Maybe to encourage tomorrow's self to remain as alive as possible in the instant of death, you imaginatively accompany that self in the experience. Tomorrow's self, less confounded by shock because it's already tasted this deep verisimilitude, may be readier to perceive the reality of death—may retain more of precious, witty consciousness (may keep more of its wits about it) even as the blow falls. But Ralegh expects this idiosyncratic consciousness, which has educated itself in reality up to the last possible moment, to end with death. He trusts that psychological torment ceases with earthly existence, and here he differs radically from the contemporary fictions of postmortality. This isn't because he loves the intricacies of self less than postmortal fiction: no, he's offering us a self we hate to part with. He's funny—"Seeing my flesh must die so soon / And want a head to dine next noon." Of all things for someone to be on the eve of his death, he's stylish, as if chic were not facile at all but, with Ralegh, goes right down to the bone marrow. He's also frankly enraged at injustice and cupidity, but he knows just how insouciance tempers vehemence, and why, in this traumatic context, nonchalance is a complicated tonal feat, daring and likable. The poem's spoken in the very voice he is about to relinquish, acquainting its readers with a supple, contradictory psyche about to be forsaken for the impersonal blessedness of the "white palmer." Though the fact that it's the eve of one's execution might stir the menaced psyche to frenzied resistance, mixing fantasies of escape with frantically caressed memories, pleading self-justification, and scorching indictments of one's enemies, all this tormented inner narration rising to a shout, Ralegh's first line is "Give me my scallop-shell of quiet."

Maybe a "scallop-shell of quiet" rings, to a contemporary ear, as a bleak prospect, as if quiet is a greater death than death, and we can bear to part with our bodies but not with our inner monologues. Perhaps our notion of what's valuable in a life has so diverged from that of the Renaissance that to part with one's sorrows is no longer liberating but dehumanizing. What kind of sorrows do you have if you can't bear to part with them? Sorrows that define you. There's no yearning toward any equivalent of Ralegh's "white palmer," because to be transfigured would be to cease to be oneself. In effect, there's no such thing as transfigured narcissism; where all sorrows end, so does self, and it wouldn't be heaven without me.

Right here, another argument tempts: if it's not the individual self that's in danger of being lost, it's something bigger. The literature of a moribund culture would of course be narrated by the dead, and postmortal fiction gives to a free-floating sense of loss a local habitation and a name, meaning that the genre itself constitutes an elegy, and need not sound elegiac any more than lamentation is the only proper chord for a wake. In this reading, elegy's not over, it's all that's left, and the literature of postmortality is a culture whispering to itself, I am dying, Egypt, dying. Awareness that one's world—culturally, environmentally —is no longer what it was, that it is in fact profoundly endangered, may well increase the individual's desire to outlast doom, as if to say, Whatever happens, I'll still be myself on the other side, and if there is some tension between these two different readings, the first with its reassuring psychological agenda and the second with its sorrowing global awareness, there's no real need to reconcile them, since one of the chief beauties of literary fiction in all its guises or genres is its huge appetite for having its cake and eating it too. Conceivably, though, an impulse more generous than narcissism, more modest than all-encompassing elegy, more archaic than either of these sources, figures in such narration. It could be that in its sudden proliferation as a genre, postmortal fiction implies something not about the way we see death but about the way we see fiction, and marks a writerly longing for the aliveness once inherent in the printed page. To argue that the dead work as signifiers of vitality, as I'm doing here, feels strange, but it could explain why postmortal narrators are so untraumatized by death; they don't need to register the experience of death but only to inscribe deadness on the page, thus rendering the printed page more meaningful. For this notion that death confers significance, there's interesting real-world precedent. "For the first time in millennia," writes Robert Pogue Harrison in The Dominion of the Dead, "most of us don't know where we will be buried, assuming we will be buried at all...From a historical or sociological point of view, this is astounding. Uncertainty as to one's posthumous abode would have been unthinkable to the vast majority of people a few generations ago. Nothing speaks quite so eloquently of the loss of place in the post-Neolithic era as this indeterminacy." "Loss of place," Harrison says, because places come to feel real—come to feel like places—by virtue of beloved or at least honored bodies buried there. "The establishment of belonging through burial," Harrison calls it. More than any fiction before it, postmortal fiction treats dead bodies as evocative objects that are not dead in the usual way, and not buried, either, in the usual way bodies are buried in texts, by ceasing to speak. It's an odd equation, maybe, but by virtue of the detached narration of the postmortal self, the mortal body, which can't be detached from (or about) life on earth, acquires a stubborn quiddity. If bodies make a place on earth feel real, feel significant, can they work this way in a book? Assailed by postmodern derangements and with the cold fastness of cyberspace rapidly expanding on every side, unsure how to reckon with the manifold forms of loss, the fiction of postmortality may be trying to make the novel a place again. Not a safe place. But one we haven't quite lost.

Elizabeth Tallent, author of the story collection Honey, teaches in Stanford University's creative writing program.

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