Dead Reckoning

02 Sep
This blog is notionally at least about writing and most of the posts have been about the writers and thinkers who have influenced me as I’ve gone about writing my novels, and how this has worked in practice. Fiction writers all however, even the most shallow or cynical, are really on about life and how it is lived. Lately I’ve been thinking and writing about other aspects of influence in this way – what comes to us by direct, lived experience, and how writers might or might not transform this in their books, what makes writing worth writing, and reading worth reading.That brings up the ultimate of the ultimates – the death that comes to us all. As I write thrillers, death or the threat of death is a key element of all of my books. And it is unknowable, unless you count experiences of people who have died and been brought back to life, or have had “near death” experiences.There is something these seem to have in common, in particular the “clear white light” seen/felt in the middle of the brain/mind featured in the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead – a peaceful, very calm and reassuring light. This experience can be explained in a range of ways from the most basic materialism to highly religious, and it can be communicated so as to make sense in all these.And after death? Writers do write about “after death”, sometimes quite strangely. Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo is about a man who dies midway through the book yet who continues to interact with the living. B Traven’s long short story “The Night Visitor”, also set in Mexico, is about a man who comes to the narrator night after night to complain that the narrator’s dog is eating his leg. There is a grave nearby that has partly fallen in and the dog has been feasting on the remains inside; when the narrator closes it off, the night visitor stops coming…These fantastic notions contrast with a more dour attitude like Celine’s. The French novelist has a scene in one of his novels showing the family of a dead man visting his grave and having a picnic; Celine describes what is happening to the corpse below as the bugs and worms do their work.

All these, fantastic and realistic, do not square up with the usual western attitude to death. Norman Mailer, in a long meditation near the beginning of his book about the moon shot, Fire on the Moon, argued that the expedition was an attempt by the scientific, rationalist west to abolish death. The idea came to him, he claimed, as he could not see well and used his nose to work out what was going on, yet in the Nasa headquarters there was no smell…no smell equals distaste for our physical nature, equals abhorrence of death equals attempt to abolish this unpleasantness. Perhaps I am being unfair to Mailer as this was one of the best things I ever read by him, a marvelous account and probing analysis of both American and western values. And not just “no smell”, Norman, but “some smell”…deodorants change the way we are perceived, and how we think about other people.

When living in Hawaii – obviously many years ago – I saw Elizabeth Taylor in a supermarket in the Kaimuki district; it was during one of her liaisons with Richard Burton. She was genuinely beautiful, pushing her trolley along. She hadn’t become a parody of herself yet – indeed she had shown she could really act in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where she starred opposite Burton, and won an Academy Award. I think Burton pushed her to excel; he had a commitment to his profession that inspired her, as perhaps Marilyn Monroe got from Arthur Miller, and when I saw her calmly making her choices of fresh foods from a cooler, I admired her for that, much more than for her assured yet understated poise at the controls of her shopping machine. (In case you are wondering, no one approached her, something that is unlikely to happen today anywhere in America).

What struck me most about Liz, though, was something I had read in an interview before this “near celeb experience” about her relationship with Burton that coloured how I saw her in the flesh, and appreciated her as an actress: that till she’d met Burton, she hadn’t realised that people could be so dedicated. He would not bathe for days while preparing for a part, and actually pong! She had never met anyone like that before.

Weeelllllllll…I understood that completely. To be confronted with real life after a lifetime cossetted in Hollywood pseudo-reality, dressed up with deodorants and perfume and hair grease…Eddie Fisher, her husband when she met Burton, could hardly compete.

And in my own life, the fiction of Hollywood was only an exaggerated version of the America of the time: real people disguised themselves with hair grease, and deodorants, and incredibly silly haircuts and clothing. The Beats, and then the so-called hippies, took this America by the short and curlies and gave it a good shake, and whatever shortcomings these two movements (the latter the child of the former) may have had, westerners are all, Americans or not, much better off for their contribution. We’ve got our bodies back, with their sweat and smells and wrinkles – creases! – and if there is still a great deal in life that is unhealthy and a masquerade, today’s world offers more personal freedom and more opportunity to be “real” by a great measure than that era so wholly make-believe only those who lived through it would believe it.

So: real life meets real death; the two are “obverses” of one another. Celine’s most famous dictum was “the truth of this life is death”, so perhaps it’s hardly a surprise. But we want it to be a surprise, I think. We want to avoid it, as Mailer claimed.

In my writing, I want death to be real, not deodorised, but I’d like readers to find in my accounts of dying, or murder and suicide and natural passage, something more than shock and awe, something more than “verisimilitude”: I want to provoke reflection, about life and death, about what this means in readers’ own lives.

Naturally I have my own opinions about what everyone should think about these things; the Kantian imperative operates in all of us to some degree. But for me it is less important that people agree with me about how to live, or what death means, than at least that they are prompted by what I write to think about their attitudes, and perhaps change them.

My own ideas are still worth something, I think: that whatever the truth about “life after death” in the sense we usually take it, there is a life after death for each of us, in other people, and that is intimately connected with how we live. Do you, dear reader, care about how people will think of you after you are gone? If you do, you will treat others decently, that your memory, as it lingers, will be a kindly one. If you don’t, it’s immaterial. Doctrines of “enlightened self-interest” would suggest that you should be a nice person anyway, but it may be that this selfishness as a desire for a happy life beyond the grave is as good a basis for a “moral” life as any.

And it is clear – say I – that we do linger on, that it is not just our genes if we have children that carry us forward but our personalities. Those who love us, or who very emphatically don’t, have us there, in themselves, and however they are changed by their perceptions of us, mixed up no doubt with their perceptions of other people and of the world, we are there, in them. We persist, whether we like it or not.

In me there are many people, and they jostle for position, one leaping into prominence because of something they, or someone else does, or I do, only to be shoved roughly aside by another, more relevant, more instructive, possibly enraging, perhaps more loving.

In my writing this is usually put as memory, and reflection. Alex in Evilheart is profoundly affected by his woman Lisa, or at least believes himself to be – but his nemesis pushes himself inside of him at least as strongly, and stays there. The Kleiber Monster features a villain who carries on inside two of the characters for half a century, only to be vanquished at last by his own son – and not replaced – while those loved and gone remain. Savonarola’s Bones has several characters who work themselves into the fabric of the living after they have passed away. Demented has one character in particular whose entire life from boyhood is dominated by his dead father, and another who is confronted with a traumatic realisation as the father who’d lived within him was revealed to be…shall we say, somewhat unlike the image. The Russian Idea, finally, counterposes these elements of personalities – those who we know live within us, and those who do not, but who are there in real life, unknown to us.

And the new one? Kaos has these elements too, these passages of the dead into the living in an active way, but with new and I hope very different twists. While I honestly think my books satisfy my own demand that they be moral tales in a “frivolous” genre, they must satisfy the rules of the genre first, and when in a tight corner, as Raymond Chandler once advised, have a man come through the door with a gun…

Maybe this makes sense to you, dear reader. I hope so. If it does – 20 stars, in any combination of colour, shape and size you like; you can peel them off their backing and stick them near the vents in your PC case. If you don’t understand it – 50 stars! You stayed the course despite everything. You might have wanted more Liz Taylor. Sorry.

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Published on September 01, 2012 02:33 •


Posted by on September 2, 2012 in random chatter, Uncategorized


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2 responses to “Dead Reckoning

  1. Joleene Naylor

    September 4, 2012 at 4:44 am

    I had to see what blog could mention both Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe and fit with your series – and you’ve done it well 😉

    You are perhaps wrong though, about celebrities not being accosted. There are many small Midwest towns where they could get away with it as the citizens would never believe it was really them. “Holy smokes, that looks like Angelina Jolie! But she wouldn’t be here in BFE shopping at Target!” and so they would walk off and said celebrity would be safe. In fact I have read about foreign bands who enjoyed their tours here for that exact reason. One group was especially excited to have an uninterrupted meal at Denny’s….

    This blog deserves a longer comment, but I must go walk the dogs so I shall return for more 🙂

  2. Joleene Naylor

    September 4, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    Gawah! I am back!

    As one who believes in reincarnation, I think that is our after life per se – just another life cycled around with perhaps a break in between – but I also agree with your assessment of the last effect one has left behind, though I look at that more as immortality, as it is the closest we are going to get until science comes up with something better, which I don’t think it is going to, by the way. I am hopeful but not optimistic. (Yes, being a selfish and having a rather high opinion of myself I believe I would be a perfect candidate for said immortality – to quote Jorick, only selfish, greedy people think they should live forever 😉 )

    The question becomes, though, is quantity or quality, or can one have both? For instance is it better to spend one’s time touching as many lives/people as possible, with the full knowledge that you will only be able to skim the surface or is it better to instead hold close to a handful of people and have very deep, meaningful relationships? This is something I myself struggle with because having the aforementioned greed issues, I want both, which is impossible as there is not enough time in the day. I have compromised instead by keeping a core group and letting the outside two thirds sort of fade in and out to be replaced by new faces in an ever changing kaleidoscope of influences, but it is bound to one day catch up.

    The other problem with this form of immortality is we rarely know it was successful. For example as a child I went to church with an older lady named Elaine. I will shirted the story by simply saying she was a dragon type personality who ran the church and got everything she wanted – she was rough and blunt and most of the church people did not like her. Except me. I’m not sure her own kids even liked her. (She was really not as terrible as people thought, she just came off as very tough because I don’t think she knew any other way to be. I have a very fond memory of being at her house one time and she had crystal prisms hanging in her kitchen window, which of course fascinated me, so she took them down and let me sit in the kitchen chair and play with them.) Anyway, so she died a couple of years ago (I missed the funeral because I did not know until after the fact) but I still think of her occasionally but there’s very little chance that she ever considered that some random kid who went to her church and moved when she was 17 would ever remember or think fondly of the crotchety old lady who once let her play with the prisms in her kitchen window.

    Now I have gotten myself teary eyed. boo hoo. Bad Steve. i feel extra stars are in order :p


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