The thing about life is that one day you’ll be dead

The Year of Reading Dangerously – David Shields

The experience of reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was one of the reasons that I decided to challenge myself with some more experimental writing in the course of this year. I’m not alone in worrying about the comfortable feel of Franzen’s fiction: here’s David Shield’s view of novels like Franzen’s:

“I read these books and my overwhelming feeling is, you’ve got to be kidding. They strike me as antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian novel mode. In no way do they convey what if feels like to live in the 21st century. Like most novels, they are essentially works of nostalgic entertainment.”

Shields has come to prominence lately as a result of his manifesto on the future of the novel, Reality Hunger. He argues that the traditional, story-telling novel (the one I, too, have attempted to reject this year) is out-dated and should be replaced by something that better reflects reality. He proposes a collage of different genres, a blurring between fiction and non-fiction, and particularly champions the memoir. But we don’t need to read his manifesto when we can see his ideas in action in the book he wrote prior to Reality Hunger, The thing about life is that one day you’ll be dead, recently published in the UK by Penguin to cash in on his recent fame / notoriety.

Shields describes The thing about life is that one day you’ll be dead as follows:

“This book is an autobiography of my body, a biography of my father’s body, an anatomy of our bodies together…”

The catalyst for the book seems to have been the rapid physical decline of his father, 97 at the time it was written, who had, up until very recently, still lived an active life, able to run and swim and exercise. This physical deterioration leads Shields to consider his own health and to meditate on the inescapable approach of death. The book is divided into four sections: Infancy and Childhood; Adolescence; adulthood and Middle Age; and Old Age and Death. Shields’ memories tend to appear chronologically throughout the narrative; his father’s life, whether presented as biography or autobiography (the book contains small sections written by his father, a journalist), tend to appear more thematically (to put it kindly) or randomly (less kind).

We are told enough to suggest his father led an interesting life, but not enough to make him seem an interesting person: in fact, I left the book with only a vague impression – sportswriter; served in the army; once completed a tennis match after having a heart attack; possibly related to the actor that played Otto in The Diary of Anne Frank. Of Shields I know about the sports he enjoyed playing when he was younger, and a little about his daughter – but of his relationships, his intellectual or emotional life – almost nothing.

Much of the book is instead taken up with swathes of information about the body. This might be biological:

“You’re born with 350 bones (long, short, flat and irregular); as you grow, the bones fuse together: an adult’s body has 206 bones.”

Or statistical:

“As people get older their ideal age gets higher. For 18- to 24-year-olds, it’s 27; for 25-to-29-year-olds, it’s 31; for 30- to 39-year-olds, it’s 37; for 40- to 49-year-olds, it’s 40; for 50- to 64-year-olds, it’s 44; and for people over 64, it’s 59.”

Of course, facts, even presented in this dull, text-book type way, can be used powerfully in literature, but this is difficult when they contribute 50% of the text. For a start, the reader feels slightly cheated: half the book is largely undiluted research, and in a digital age (something Shields likes to remind us we live in) research can seem particularly unimpressive. Shields use of collage also seemed pedestrian and predictable; not once did his juxtapositions surprise or amuse me. Above all, in literature, it is not enough for information to be interesting; it must also resonate emotionally and intellectually. We respond to art with both our hearts and minds: this book’s big idea is on its cover; and, despite it being about a dying father, it is rarely moving.

Danger rating: this book will make you feel old, and not because it intimidates you with its cutting edge.

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