The People in Our Stories: Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking

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Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade is an examination of death and life through Lynch’s experiences as a funeral director. The book is structured as a collection of essays which range from a meditation on toilets to embalming his father to an essay against assisted suicide to instructions for Lynch’s own funeral. Throughout the book, Lynch asserts that funerals and all the things that people do surrounding death are really for the living.

The book is strongest when Lynch goes deeply into his own personal experiences. The experience of actually embalming his father and sorting out his own father’s funeral is a poignant one, which resonates deeply with the reader. Likewise, Lynch’s instructions for his own funeral, in which Lynch tells us “It’s yours to do – my funeral – not mine” (199), acts as a parting gift from Lynch, a reminder to be good to each other and that the details of the funeral – in February on a cold day, with no party – are really not the dead’s concern. It is also strong when it is being most straightforward – describing the processes surrounding death or the details that the living don’t think about. The route to the cemetery and why this matters, for instance, gives the reader a lot to think about in terms of how we think about death and its relationship to life and ourselves as individuals.

The book strives to look at the acts and ideas surrounding death in order to come to greater insights about life. This is a very ambitious goal and, unfortunately, many of the essays in this book fall short of that. The topic of death is so deep and meaningful and is ripe for insight and universal truths, especially considering the level of knowledge that Lynch has on the subject. I was so ready to love this book. However, instead of sticking to personal experiences and embracing the questions surrounding life and death, Lynch nudges his essays toward the pulpit. Some of the best books leave their readers with questions to ponder and things to ruminate on. Lynch is not shy about answering the questions he brings up.

Lynch takes the tone of a curmudgeonly old man as he bemoans kids these days and their technology and the way that they think about death. Instead of allowing the reader to come to the insight about how and why old ways were important, Lynch jumps straight to insulting possibly young readers by attacking the way things are done nowadays. He uses an incredible amount of “we” and “you” phrases assuming that his reader is on the same page with him. This reader certainly wasn’t and so these turns of phrase became incredibly alienating.

It was difficult not to question Lynch’s uses of other people’s names and stories in the book. The death of a loved one is an incredibly sensitive and intimate thing. Throughout the essays, Lynch tells the frightful details of the deaths that he’s undertaken, sometimes naming names and often giving enough detail to know who he must be writing about. I found myself wondering time and again if he had permission to write about people in this way.

It was especially egregious in his essay Uncle Eddie, Inc. in which he uses the gory details of a grizzly suicide to begin a rant against assisted suicide and abortion. This is, for me, was the point at which Lynch really lost me as a reader. He gives the details of the widow, who was suspected of having an affair, waking up to the spray of her husband’s blood covering her. He gives plenty of detail for the townspeople to know who he is writing about, but seems unsympathetic toward the widow, who he seems to think must have had it coming anyway. He uses this messiness to assert that assisted suicides should not be legal, because they, like abortions, are humans trying to play god. Lynch seems to think that it is fine for humans to play god by extending life, for he’s not against medication, but not shortening it. It’s hard for me not to commiserate with the widow in this story, to think of the way it would feel reading the details of her husband’s death for all the world to know, these details being used for a political essay, and then to even possibly wish that assisted suicide had been an option for the husband, instead of the terrible way that things had gone. Whether or not you agree with Lynch’s stance, the way it is written about feels off. It is hard to imagine that Lynch had permission to talk about this death in that way and for those purposes. It made him a questionable narrator, for sure.

There are moments in the book where Lynch certainly hits his mark, where the details and meaning that he makes about death and funerals give the reader new insights about life. However, these moments are so overshadowed with Lynch’s politics, his arguments and overexplaining, and the way that it feels like he’s using people that they lose their poignancy. This book is definitely a lesson in thinking about the assumptions that we make about our readers and as well as a lesson in the ways that we treat people as subjects.

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

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Magical Memoir: Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire

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Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy is a strange gem of a memoir. It recounts the story of his childhood in Havana, during the transition of the country to a communism and the effects of this transition on Eire and his family, culminating in his being shipped out of the country without his parents, to be orphaned in the U.S. This memoir is interesting and magical for a number of reasons. The reader knows from the start of the book what the outcome will be – the dustcover tells young Carlos’ fate. However, the genius of the book is in the way that Eire tells the story.

The book opens on the day that Batista is overthrown, as Eire says, “the world changed as I slept.” Right from the outset, we know that this is a different kind of memoir, one filled with whimsy and magic. On the very first page, we learn that Eire’s father believes that he was Louis XVI in a past life and that his mother was Marie Antoinette. For the rest of the book, Eire uses this interesting tidbit to extrapolate meaning and draw conclusions about what his parents might have thought and felt during this tumultuous time. He refers to them more often by these names than by their real names and this allows him more room to paint them as characters as well as give him distance from his relationships with them. In so doing, Eire gives himself the space necessary to examine people close to him without too much fear of spilling family secrets or offending.

This magical start to the book continues, as the metaphors grow and shift. There are thematic tropes that come up again and again, as if they are haunting Eire’s childhood. Lizards, Immanuel Kant, American movies, and Jesus’ eyes pop up in the strangest places, and yet they hold the narrative together. The repetition of these images gives the readers a touchstone to hold on to and ground them as Eire describes a world that is spinning out of control.

Eire’s point of view as a child helps as well. For much of the book, we are getting the perspective of young Carlos, seeing his parents as he saw them, seeing Cuba as he saw them. This gives him an incredible amount of leeway in terms of how factually accurate he must be. From the prologue, it is clear that Eire is writing from his memories. These are his own personal experiences and the way that he saw things as a child. Eire makes it clear that we are dealing with personal experience set in history, dealing with memories which can be fallible and malleable and may not match the history books or memories of others.

This emphasis on personal experience also allows Eire to take some very strong political stances. Even if the reader does not agree with Eire’s ideas about the Cuban Revolution, his individual experiences cannot be argued with. We see in very close detail the repercussions of historical events on his family and on him. He makes a very large, well-documented historical event into a personal life event. Interestingly, looking at the revolution from a child’s perspective gives us a view that feels somehow pure or untarnished because this child’s view does not have the historical or political context surrounding it. The reader experiences just the effects of the events. In this way, the reader is sympathetic to Eire’s political views because it is clear where they came from and how they developed.

The most interesting part of Waiting for Snow in Havana is the structure. The narrative itself is far from linear. The reader begins the book already knowing the end. However, Eire pulls us along quickly with his use of foreshadowing. He often mentions things that he promises to tell us more about later. The book moves from the day that Batista is overthrown to the day that Eire boards the plane to the U.S. However, the movement in between is not chronological. The book works like a memory itself, associative, repetitive, slippery. Part of what Eire is writing about is a different way of seeing the world, the way that growing up in Cuba shaped his view of reality, and the structure of the book mirrors this. It is emotional and metaphorical. The stories of his childhood in Cuba serve as jumping off points to tell the story of what happens to Eire and his family after he leaves Cuba. These childhood memories also serve to give a frame to discuss big philosophical and religious questions and to examine political views. In this way, Eire makes the magic, history, and whimsy of his childhood relevant and timeless.

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.