McCartney, Alistair. “The Disintegrations”, University of Wisconsin Press, 2017.
The one thing that all of us know nothing about is death and that is what we hear from the narrator of Alistair McCartney’s autobiographical novel. Even though he knows nothing about death, he is constantly thinking about it. Originally from Australia, he is now living in Los Angeles and living what he calls a “detached life”. He finds no comfort in others and researches on the internet at whatever opportunity that he can. He reads and thinks about stories of suicide, serial killers and just natural deaths. He often takes walks in Holy Cross Cemetery looking for answers as he formulates his own philosophies.
We soon understand something else—someone is causing him to have the memories that he has and just as death has preoccupied him, so does the book take over the mind of the reader. It is difficult to ascertain what is true and what is fiction, what is
“story and eulogy, poetry and obituary”. Wry yet somber, astringent yet tender. As the author of “The Disintegrations” faces the impossibility of understanding death, he also deals with the never ending desire for immortality. When I read something like this, I realize that there is some use for my degree in philosophy and I am challenged to think about death and memory, the sense of loss that death brings about that is always personal and many times communal. If you have read Alistair McCartney before, you are familiar with his gorgeous prose and you will find that same beautiful language here. I wonder if by reading this, we can better deal with the concepts of death and the end of life and if it is possible to unite the ethereal and the real and if so, how? There were moments as I read that I felt as if I was simply one who had been left behind by those who died before me. Is it possible to think of death as both remembrance and disappearance and does death make us filled with awe about being alive? The fact that we are afraid of being erased from the memories of those we knew figures very large in how we think about death. I am often irritated when someone says of a recently deceased person who suffered that he is in a better place. We know that there can really be nothing better than life and by remaining alive we have a gratitude for living. Yes, there is a sense of dread and terror in contemplating death as both remembrance and disappearance and I really believe this is because our fear of erasure. As time passes, the past does become dimmer every day and so do those that came before us.
McCartney brings a new concept to death by showing that it is a language with its own dictionary. Life becomes a map of those we have lost and/or disappeared and in many cases, we define our own lives by those who came before and left. Thanks to this book, I now think much differently about death and dying and had it not been written up so wonderfully here, I perhaps would never have openly and vocally thought it about so much.