Sunday, March 14, 2010

Death by Increments

I'm about halfway through reading a first novel by a very young New Zealand writer, and at this stage am impressed and intrigued: The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton, which is partly about a group of college-age beginning students at an acting school and partly about a saxophone teacher and her group of students who go to an all-girls' high school where a sex scandal recently occurred. Among other ways the novel is beautiful, it is beautiful in the subtle and multiple ways the two stories overlap. Here is a short excerpt from one of the acting school sections, where the Head of Acting (also called the tutor) conducts a class:

"Stanley," the tutor said, pouncing. "Is death a great taboo?"

Stanley made his hands into fists and pressed his knuckles into the floorboards as he thought.

"No," he said at last. "Not any more."


"Because people pretend to die all the time," Stanley said. "I watch people pretending to die every time I turn the television on."

"So?" said the Head of Acting, but he looked eager, and his lips were drawn back.

Stanley said, "If death was a great taboo, then pretending to be dead would have consequences."

The Head of Acting gave a brisk satisfied nod and turned back to the group. Stanley drew a breath. He was sweating.

"Let me tell you about my father's death," the tutor said. "He died in his own bed, and after his death my family spent one evening with his body before he was taken away. I had heard about rigor mortis. I found it an interesting concept, but I was also a little suspicious of it, as if it might be an old wives' tale, something archaic that didn't happen any more."

"I sat by my father's bed and watched over him, and every hour or so I would sneak forward and give him a little poke, just a little poke with my index finger, in the fold of skin underneath his cheekbone where his skin was all pouchy and soft. I kept touching his cheek like this, routinely, waiting for the stiffness to set in. And after a while it did. I leaned forward and poked at his cheek and it was hard as a board."

"It was the delay that I found frightening," he said. "He was soft for so long, and then it was like somebody flipped a switch. The delay frightened me. The delay between two of death's symptoms – rigor mortis and the stopping of the heart. All of a sudden I saw death not as something solitary and final but as an incremental process, a slow accumulation of symptoms, a gradual stepping down. I had never thought of death in this way before."

They were watching him warily now.

"This is a very personal memory for me," the Head of Acting said, "because I had always imagined that at the death of my father I would feel very great sadness, even hysteria, that I would cry and cry like I'd seen my sisters cry, that afterwards I would feel a deep longing for what was irreplaceable about my father, and I would have to work to rebuild my life as normal. I imagined that after it happened I would take time to think about my own mortality, but with a new appreciation and reverence for the brevity of life." The Head of Acting's voice was steady but his voice was very soft, and somehow intensified by the hush, like the savage clear-blue flame of a gas hob turned low."

"But that didn't happen for me," he said. "I didn't cry. I didn't feel a great sadness, and I quickly replaced everything about him that I needed to. My own mortality was just as it had ever been, that was all. I thought I knew how I would react to the death of my father, and I was wrong."

Andromache Mourning Hector
Jacques-Louis David