Penguin, £8.99, 225pp from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead, By David Shields
Friday 18 March 2011
H ow delightful and infuriating to have Brooklyn-Jewish former journalist Milton Shields (born Shildcrout) as your father. Into his nineties, he still jogs, lifts weights, plays tennis and is prone to terrible puns. Suffering from arthritis, he jokes as he swims, "Arthur, write us. Author, write us. Author right us". His son, the best-selling essayist David Shields, looks on with exasperation and fondness, chronicling his father's ability to outwit the statistical odds that provide a backdrop to this cutting-edge memoir.
Shields thematically links his father's imminent death, the birth of his daughter and his own ageing through a collage of quotes, anecdotes, statistics and facts on physiology, jokes and musings. What weaves together these monumental themes is Shields's bald realisation that "The individual doesn't matter... We're vectors on the grids of cellular life." Once we reproduce, we begin to age and journey towards death. While Shields senior finds these facts soul-killing, his son finds them both tragic and "eerily beautiful".
The Thing About Life is a demonstration of a genre that Shields advocates in his collection Reality Hunger. And it works. While I found Shields's manifesto somewhat vague, while appreciating its insights, his collage is engaging, thought-provoking and unexpectedly moving. An anecdote about basketball, a quote from the Yellow Pages and jokes by Woody Allen sit comfortably next to Zola or TS Eliot. Traditional memoir-narrative gives way to this seemingly random collection that, on closer inspection, provides its own dramatic tension.
The memoir begins with a letter to Milt, then is framed within the four stages of human development: infancy and childhood, adolescence, adulthood and middle age, old age and death. Natalie, his daughter, plays something of a walk-on part and the real emotional heart is the relationship between the son and father against whom Shields measures his own life. Milt, who is bi-polar and appears as equally caring and deeply self-involved, is outrunning his son, burning with an extraordinary rage against the dying of the light.
Shields has described his memoir as an autobiography of his own body, a biography of his father's body, and an anatomy of their lives together. At his ebbing sense of "animal joy" while playing basketball at 51, Shields writes, "I don't think my father started feeling this way until he was 95". Milton is sexually active almost into his ninth decade, shouting at a widow who refuses his advances after "dating" for six months, "If I wanted a friend, I would have bought a dog." While his son lives with a bad back that requires physiotherapy and medication, his father remains robustly active.
But however vigorously we defy our decline, Shields's recitation of biological data reminds us that we have no control over our final destiny. One night, father and son suffer from insomnia and watch late-night television. "On channels 2 through 99, we sought but couldn't find a cure for the fact that one day we would die." Shields observes that longevity has a downside for Milt. "My father now, at 97, seems bored beyond belief – virtually without a single interest or enthusiasm other than continued existence, day after day." Now, he can no longer jog nor play golf, weeps easily and fears his mortality. It's the beginning of the end.
So Shields encourages his father to repeat stories about his career as a journalist, his work for socialist welfare organisations, his bevy of lovers and long-vanished Brooklyn characters, marvelling at his "ceaseless capacity to reinvent and extend the material". This isn't a sign of insipient dementia but core to Milt's personality, while the need to redraft, edit, refine is a fundamental principle in Shields's own writing. Especially in memoir, there is no such thing as literal truth, he argues; we are all constantly inventing our lives.
If there is a downside to Shields's style, it is only where the facts appear as objective, rather than a snapshot in time. Passages on menopause or adolescence are presented as incontrovertible, fixed in stone. But I found their insertion sometimes a welcome relief from the intensity of Shields's Oedipal struggle with his larger-than-life, death-defying and, ultimately, slightly tragic father.
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