Welcome to the first post in my Opine section! I’m hoping this becomes well-populated, mainly with book and film reviews, but, you never know…I might post the odd rant here about current events.
Today’s post will cover a book on loan from a friend.
Death: A Life, “the shocking new memoir from Death” by George Pendle, is an easy, pun-filled read. A modern bildungsroman, it explores Death’s beginning as the only child of Sin and Satan and follows his existence up until present day.
At only 250 pages, it never plunges too deeply into its subject matter, but it is wildly creative, and the first half is chock full of laughs and opportunities to wince and squirm –
As a result, Mother and I were very close. One might almost say too close. No sooner had I been born than we began rutting. For me there were no glimpses of her getting changed in the bathroom stirring strange and complicated feelings. There were no ambivalent memories of being spanked, or of dressing up in her clothes while she was away. No. For me it was simply wham, bam, thank you Mom.
– or roll one’s eyes good-naturedly.
Who would want to kill Abel? I asked myself. Who but everything in Creation. They all had a reason to dislike him. My first suspects were, of course, his animals. […] My first stop was the cliff face above Abel’s farm. It was where the goats liked to sit.
“Any of you kids know what happened to Abel?” I asked.
Death really shines in this first half of the book, as does the storytelling. The curtain is drawn back, and we see Creation taking its first breaths and steps, and Death experiences the very human, very teenage sense of being invincible. But as the world matures, and he settles into his routine as psychopomp, scooping souls out of their shells to usher them into the Darkness, he finds himself drawn to his opposite: Life.
What better plot device than the most obvious for a classical character such as Death, to desire that which he heralds the end of, and by his very nature, must forever be denied? This is Death: A Life at its most psychological complicated (and even tragic), as Death ponders his existence. His relationship with God is at its most tenuous here, and is further soured by Death’s encounter with a human who, upon expiration, had no soul to collect.
Jesus’ entry into the story is a definite turning point, and upon reflection, I’m not entirely sure it was for the best. Jesus’ role as the spoiled only child of God – a definite foil to Death’s more grounded only child status – wears thin after the first few pages. The same audience that was offended by the film Dogma (a personal favorite of mine, incidentally, and yes I’m Catholic) will be tempted to stop reading because of the treatment of the Son of God in this book. (God’s characterization is interesting to say the least, if not wholly original: who among us hasn’t wondered if God is a bit unbalanced, absent-minded even, given the awful things He “lets happen”, and the creation of creatures like the platypus?)
Irreverence aside, Jesus is the weakest link narratively-speaking, and brings down the latter half of the book. (The only highlight comparable to the laughs we had in Eden occurs when Death is sent for compulsory rehab in a facility for entities suffering from identity crises.) To me, Jesus’ character is a missed opportunity for a much stronger, psychologically complex foil for Death to consider. Instead, he is a one-trick pony, more of a cocky jock than Savior, which says to me that laughs and shock were valued higher than substance. Death is the only multi-faceted character in these pages; even his love interest Maud falls just short of feeling “real”. And perhaps that is the point, to make Death more relatable by reducing the characters/ideas/standards we think we know to just their stereotypes.
As I said in the beginning, the book is highly enjoyable, even if it is a bit soured by Jesus. It’s equal parts “memoir”, coming-of-age and allegory, with an entire cast of familiar ethereals, and a few new faces as well. There is plenty of food for thought here. While, as a writer, and one who has tackled Death’s point of view herself, I like to think I could have written a stronger second half, I don’t mind admitting there were plenty of times I said to myself, “I wish I’d thought of this first.”
I give Death: A Life three &’s out of five.