By John McDonough, Colorado Review Editorial Assistant
Let me come out and say it: the title of this essay is deceptive. I’m not here to construct a headstone, to bemoan the lack of popular interest in contemporary short fiction, or decry the work of my fellow writers as cliched or trite or regressive. No, I’m interested in a more compelling (and hopefully less reactionary) topic: the portrayal of death in American short stories. It seems to me that the relationship between death and the story is a troubled one: obsessive, surely, but from a distance, almost guiltily so, as if too direct an approach to death is somehow distasteful.
I imagine at this point that you are having something of a gut reaction (especially if you have any proximity to the quote-unquote slush pile of a literary magazine). Um, hello, the Cancer Story? you are probably saying, and I should clarify: yes, I am familiar with the genre. I’ve seen one or two, here and there. But the “cancer story” is a prime example of the standard role death plays in the work of many contemporary writers. Death is ephemeral, a problem approaching, a conflict by which others gain meaning. Almost never (in my experience, at least) does a character in a cancer story actually die. Instead, death is a promise a character reflects upon, by which an insight is gained, by which meaning is brought to life.
Alternatively, in many stories death is cast as something of a historical moment. A mother grieves over the death of a child, a son deals with the passing of a father, etc. While death is given more concreteness here, it is often lacking in immediacy. We observe the aftereffects of loss from months or sometimes a year or more down the line. In both of these cases the final moment—when a human being flickers from existence to non—is almost exclusively left off the page. Though we are willing to look long and hard at the consequences of death, when it actually happens we avert our eyes.
In part, the literary distaste for the act of dying may exist as a reaction against the popular fascination with it. Film and television are full of fatal acts, and often gleefully so (yes, I’m talking about you, Game of Thrones). These deaths are frequently the result of extreme violence, and generally fit into one of two categories: the triumphant (in which a hero dispatches a villain) or the climactic (in which a sympathetic character is killed off in order to progress plot). We reject these presentations of death because they are facile—progressing story on only a single plane (plot, usually) and lacking the complexity we expect of a literary work.
Perhaps this is the real reason so many short story writers avoid the portrayal of death in their work: it’s hard. The immediacy of the death of a loved one offers rich emotional possibilities, but ones that are remarkably complicated. Mine these emotions too heavily and you run the risk of sentimentality, but too cautious an approach fails to carry appropriate weight. Even in the work of some of our finest writers, I notice this same attempt to avoid the crucial moment. Leonard Michaels’s “Murderers” is about an adolescent falling from the roof of a building to his death, but the young narrator avoids explicitly mentioning that the boy has died, and avoids reflecting on this loss. Steven Millhauser’s “The Knife Thrower” confronts the complicity of groups in acts of interpersonal violence, but circumvents the personal impact of death by selecting a pluralized narrator with no emotional connection to the individual who is killed. While both of these stories are uniquely successful, they represent some of the twisting we engage in as writers to avoid a head-on collision with a subject we struggle with so mightily.
Of course, art is made of exceptions. Alice Munro engages death directly in the challenging “Carried Away.” Featuring a violent death on par with anything found on television, Munro masterfully depicts the experience of a witness who sees a brutal decapitation. “Oh, no, no,” Arthur thinks as he views the accident, and the rest of the scene follows this panicked confusion. Though Arthur doesn’t know how to respond—nor does he even have a personal connection to the dead man—he does respond, acting on what seems to be an instinctual level, and when we see his thoughts, they are as fractured as the simplicity of his initial reaction. The scene strikes the reader not only for the grotesqueness of its events, but also for the authenticity of the emotions it captures.
Similarly, Cynthia Ozick bravely confronts the visceral pain of the death of a child in “The Shawl.” The final paragraph reads:
All at once Magda was swimming through the air. The whole of Magda traveled through loftiness. She looked like a butterfly touching a silver vine. And the moment Magda’s feathered round head and her pencil legs and balloonish belly and zigzag arms splashed against the fence, the steel voices went mad in their growling, urging Rosa to run and run to the spot where Magda had fallen from her flight against the electrified fence; but of course Rosa did not obey them. She only stood, because if she ran they would shoot, and if she tried to pick up the sticks of Magda’s body they would shoot, and if she let the wolf’s screech ascending now through the ladder of her skeleton break out, they would shoot; so she took Magda’s shawl and filled her own mouth with it, stuffed it in and stuffed it in, until she was swallowing up the wolf’s screech and tasting the cinnamon and almond depth of Magda’s saliva; and Rosa drank Magda’s shawl until it dried.
In the lyric beauty of this passage, Ozick manages to encapsulate the breadth of Rosa’s experience. Via the slowing of time and the extensive use of metaphor—nothing in this scene is as it actually appears—Ozick portrays the feeling of unreality that accompanies death. We have in Rosa’s conflicting impulses to run and stand still the uncertainty and confusion that we see in Arthur’s reaction to violence. And finally, in those moments of overwhelming emotion—the wolf’s screech and the shawl stuffed into mouth—we feel the sheerness of pain, the indelible finality of loss. What Ozick has accomplished is a remarkable feat. Though the story ends on no epiphany, I learn more about death in this one paragraph than in six months of cancer stories combined.
This essay is not intended to discourage any writer from attempting to draw meaning from the slow decay of life or the painful experience of cancer and other illnesses. Instead, I want to question the way in which we approach death as writers, to challenge the mystical power it holds in the abstract. There’s something—many things—to be said about loss and fear, but by avoiding a direct confrontation with death, it seems to me that we run the risk of losing out on many of the essential truths of life.
John McDonough is a fiction writer in Colorado State University’s MFA program.