What We Talk About When We Talk About Death

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Dying
By Cory Taylor
Tin House Books, August 2017
152 Pages, $19.95
Reviewed by Aditya Desai

The finality of death usually invites us to make concrete decisions about what was previously vague and interpretive about our lives. There is no more time to worry about what things could mean, but simply what they do mean, here and now. Cory Taylor, an Australian novelist and screenwriter, was diagnosed in 2015 with melanoma-related brain cancer (she’d first been diagnosed with melanoma ten years earlier when she had a mole removed from her leg), and wrote her memoir Dying in the space of a few weeks to chronicle the experience and to account for the memories that defined her life.

Such a premise sets the stage for an arduous journey of suffering, but Taylor is less interested in the existential than in existence itself. As she describes her exchange with her Buddhist home nurse, “If she says she has witnessed the body give up the ghost, then who am I, a complete novice in the field, to argue?” It’s a fair thought because the intangible is ultimately a less satisfying means of storytelling. Taylor’s story starts off in earnest, sketching out her life in Brisbane, the various forms of care and therapy she’s undergoing, and considering what afterlife would mean when she is not religious.

Then midway through, she writes:

“The problem with reverie is…it is always a better version of the life you’ve actually lived. The other life is more significant and more purposeful. It is impossibly free of setbacks and mishaps. This split between the dream and the reality can be the cause of intense dissatisfaction at times. But I am no longer plagued by restlessness. Now I see the life I’ve lived as the only life, a singularity, saturated with its own oneness.”

For Taylor, lives are defined by the tension between how people wished to live, and how they actually did. Much of the memoir triangulates this idea through three people—her grandmother, her mother, and father, all consumed by late-life melancholia brought on by feeling trapped and kept from a greater bohemian life by family bonds. It’s in this middle section’s grounded moments that the book works best, like when Taylor and her mother visit the family ancestral home, treated like a museum by bristling uncles and aunts, taking bottles of the property’s dirt back with them. We see snaps of holidays in Africa, spurred by her pilot father’s penchant for overseas escapades, or grandmother Ril, looking out to sea, feeling hopelessly imprisoned.

The family comes to be defined by their places—echoing Susan Sontag’s describption of cancer in Illness as Metaphor, “not so much a disease of time as a disease or pathology of space.” When each of Taylor’s parents pass, she and her siblings are scattered across the continent and must call one another just to confirm the fact.

But this redundant and cyclical pace, “a plot worthy of Austen,” in Taylor’s words—a revolving door of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and cousins who bristle against each other and gradually drift apart—makes for a narrative that’s a bit slippery and shapeless, undercut by reflections on what she will miss most: her husband and sons, her travels, her writing. It’s hard to put cohesion to these threads.

She outright eschews connecting threads, when she writes, “It is in the nature of memory that different people will remember different things…even in my own recollections about my life, which are porous and mutable and open to contradictory interpretations. If I use them in my work, which I often do, it is to fit them into a particular narrative, to shape them to a purpose, because that is how fiction is made.”

This style of deathbed diary recalls novellas from two of my favorite authors—Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile and Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl, both slim volumes told more or less in monologue from a sickened and dying narrator. Like Taylor’s book, both have a fairly straightforward opening third until spilling over into impressionistic streams of memory and illusion. In fiction, the delirium of a deteriorating body invites many opportunities for playful prose and immediate conflict. Hedayat’s narrator, for example, hallucinates the wife he may have killed, and we’re pitifully engaged into his descent. But we can afford to deprecate fictional men —it’s different when holding a real person’s final words in our hands. In Dying, we don’t get that forward propulsion towards the end.

The advantage with non-fiction memoir, if there is one, is that Taylor can’t fully eulogize herself how she does her relatives. She doesn’t yet have the complete story, nor any answers on how to grieve. It subverts the genre, offering cherry-picked reportage without wrought description or melodrama. Of any greater truth, it reveals only that ultimately, we know death best through the others we lose.

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About Author

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Aditya Desai's stories, essays, and poems are published or are forthcoming by The Millions, The Rumpus, The Margins, District Lit, The Aerogram, CultureStrike Magazine, and others. He received his MFA from the University of Maryland and teaches writing at universities and schools in the Baltimore-DC area.

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