People have no idea what death will be like, but they have a clear sense of what the books about it entail. Leaving aside survivor memoirs, we have the physician’s handbook (Sherwin Nuland’s “How We Die”), the novelist’s pained tally of his decay (Philip Roth’s “Exit Ghost”), the poet’s compulsory assay -- well, what poet doesn’t throw a cycle at the final hour? -- and now David Shields’ collection of brief, elliptical essays, which amounts to less of a trenchant examination than a “Notes Towards a Death Foretold.”
Shields’ work is a curious duck. Part childhood reminiscence, part exhaustive compilation of quotes, part statistical ticker, it tackles, Cerberus-like, the philosophical, emotional and corporeal ways our selves ultimately betray us and does so in well-turned prose heading in no particular direction. A chapter might, for instance, begin, “Testosterone initiates the growth spurt . . . stimulates sebaceous gland secretions of oil,” slide into a remembrance of Shields’ childhood acne -- “I became expert at learning what mirrors would soften the effect” -- then dovetail, amusingly, if inexplicably, into a former president’s privates: “Lyndon Johnson frequently urinated in front of his secretary, routinely forced staff members to meet with him in the bathroom while he defecated and liked to show off his penis, which he nicknamed ‘Jumbo.’ ”
As one makes one’s way through each brief chapter-essay, this hodgepodge stubbornly refuses to become a whole. I can’t help but think that this is because, although quotes and science are marshaled alongside the personal into patiently layered observations, this method patently owes more to Post-its and years of note-taking than to a sojourn at Tinker Creek. As Shields quotes a wide variety of writers, including Carl Sagan, John Updike and William Thackeray, on death, he seems most like a college freshman desperately trying to hide the fact that he hasn’t read the book.
And I would hesitate to show many of Shields’ scientific passages to a researcher in the areas he covers -- even my brief perusals of Glamour seem to indicate that many of the items on women, for example, are up for debate. (Descriptions of the degeneration of female sexual and reproductive faculties, incidentally, are exhaustive. None notes the failings of the male apparatus quite so vividly, but some subjects are more difficult to face than death.)
There is also -- nod to “Hamlet” -- a father ghosting through the narrative, against whom our essayist has quite an ax to grind. (The prologue actually begins: “Let the wrestling match begin: my stories versus his stories.”) His father, if you buy Shields’ take, is a man of singular feats: He survived an electrocution after stepping on the third rail of a train track as a child; remains priapic well into his 90s; finished a tennis match (and won) while suffering a heart attack. He’s bigger than life -- especially, it seems, the author’s life. Shield is at pains to describe his work (always a bad sign) as “an autobiography of my body, a biography of my father’s body; an anatomy of our bodies together -- especially my dad’s, his body, his relentless body.” But this is no autobiography. It is a hiss of asides boiling over into an unattended rage:
“Was my father ever not as skinny as a (third) rail? . . . Has a day ever gone by in which he didn’t exercise a couple of times? On long family car trips, did he ever not get out every few hours and execute 100 jumping jacks, to the admiration/puzzlement of other drivers on the highway?”
Toward the tail end of this onslaught, the reader wants nothing so much as to scream: He was probably trying to get a break from you!
No one could argue that Shields’ prose is not smooth and appealing, and very occasionally, the essays have a taut lyricism. “Boys vs. Girls (i),” for example, concludes with what is essentially a prose poem, a gloss on the sexes told through a story of how both Shields and his girlfriend, in childhood, used to race. It ends with the bleak: “She ran away from me. A few years later she started smoking cigarettes, lost her wind, and became a cheerleader.” It’s quite moving. However, far more often, we get yearbook-ready insights like: “Life, in my view, is simple, tragic, and eerily beautiful,” or “We’re just animals walking around this earth for a brief time, our bodies housed in a mortal cage.” But stripped of all context, brought to bear for an argument against no one and a story that has yet to be told, the mounting sentences can seem, as in one of Shields’ technical asides, like cells dividing into rough new parts -- skin, teeth, glands -- toward an unknown being. The problem is, just like our bodies, we like our books to arrive fully formed.