February 2008

Alive and kicking–for now

By David Shields
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The thing about The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead is that it sounds like a very depressing book. Instead, however, it's an involving read, an unusual blend of science, culture and family history.

In his ninth book, David Shields uses sources from around the world and from his own life to consider what it means to be alive and human. This is a far-reaching quest: Lyndon Johnson, Arthur Schopenhauer, Shields' cat Zoomer, Wallace Shawn, Kurt Cobain, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Neil Young are all here, offering momentary points of illumination for Shields' often obscure search. Shields frames his unruly investigation in terms of his relationship with his 97-year-old father, and frames his book in terms of the human life cycle. At 51 years old, the author is preoccupied with mortality and encroaching death, while his aged father, fascinated by survival, also typifies it.

The author begins, naturally enough, with a chapter about infancy, and the chapters march along chronologically with discussions of adolescence, middle age and old age. Within several sections, there are chapters called "Decline and Fall," an echoing reminder of how different stages of life prefigure or recall others. Just as a 40-year-old realizes that his 30s, his most creative years, are behind him, a 65-year-old has to grapple with the loss of one-tenth of his brain cells. Each stage of life comes complete with its own downfall.

This is not necessarily an uplifting book, simply because its author's questioning of and sadness at the relentless nature of aging are too prescient to allow anyone to feel entirely carefree while reading it. But the book is not without hope, and Shields' constant probing is no less a means of survival than his father's tenacity. "He's strong and he's weak and I love him and I hate him and I want him to live forever and I want him to die tomorrow," Shields writes of his father. What, really, could sound more alive?

Eliza McGraw is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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