Death of an Ordinary Man by Glen Duncan

How would you cope with your own funeral? Charlie Hill enjoys a dark but dazzling novel
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The Independent Culture

We live in a culture of perpetual hysterical motion. The notion of a distinction between "major" and "minor" art is out of fashion. In place of considered judgements about the true value of the words and pictures that define our culture, there is hyperbole for hyperbole's sake. Yet paradoxically, amid all the extraordinarys and wonderfuls and importants, it is affirmative criticism that has suffered as a result. Most of it takes place in a slurry of decomposing superlatives.

Criticism should enhance our appreciation of language and increase our awareness of what it can do. And as criticism is stripped of its contextual nuances so facets of language slip away from us. It becomes one-dimensional. You see "dark" for example, and it means just that - "with little or no light" - whereas the darkest works are surely those which shine a light into every conceivable place.

Death of an Ordinary Man is Glen Duncan's fifth novel. It tells the story of Nathan Clark's funeral as experienced by his widow Cheryl - a writer - their children, family and friends. And by the man himself, who spends the novel as a "radical amputee. No body but a maddening imposture of sensation." Finding himself drawn into the consciousness of all those present, Nathan is compelled to discover both why he died and what happens next.

The problem for Nathan is how he lived. He was just not cut out for this kind of death: "Years ago he and Cheryl had divided the world into Seekers and Expanders. Seekers were, naturally, searching for something as yet unknown as the possible source of enlightenment. Expanders, on the other hand, concentrated on known pleasures ... Cheryl was a Seeker, Nathan an Expander."

In his half-life of half-memory and sentience-by-proxy however, Nathan is no longer sustained by what he has alone. To fill in the gaps, he has to examine "all the potentialities love left unfulfilled", the potentialities that exist in the "room that was around his love for Cheryl".

On his trip, Nathan encounters God and the adolescent fascination with the unthinkable. He juggles with the very essence of what makes us who we are. He passes Cheryl travelling in the opposite direction and takes pains and time to nail the relationship between reader and writer. He pauses to deliver a doozy of a one-liner, the only one in the book and one which will have you snorting into your soup for many a moon.

There is no one around posing the questions that Glen Duncan is posing in the manner that he is posing them. You find yourself turning the pages of Death of an Ordinary Man not because of any particular narrative urgency but because of the sheer force of his imagination. At the same time, his prose style is one in which an axiomatic acuity finds its way into the most high-flown and daring flights of conceptual fancy. What he is doing is wonderful, extraordinarily dark, and yes, important. It is important because he is a major writer.