Collecting nonfiction about a topic no one has ever come back to write about would seem a hopelessly ambitious endeavor, but that's exactly the task editors David Shields and Bradford Morrow set for themselves with The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death. Over twenty essays, the collection meanders from mourning a spouse to near-death experiences, with a couple of pit stops in science and theology between. And as it turns out, you don't have to die to know a few things about death; as Peter Straub writes in his contribution "Inside Story," "In life we are in the midst of death."
This becomes especially apparent in Robin Hemley's "Field Notes for the Graveyard Enthusiast," in which he visits a variety of gravesites as he searches for his own eventual burying ground. He discusses the big guns, like the Kutna Hora in Bohemia, where 40,000 human skeletons have been arranged into chandeliers and church décor, but more poignantly acknowledges the 37,000 bodies lying beneath the streets of London, bringing new meaning to the phrase "stomping on his grave." Yet as frank as Hemley is about the ubiquity of death, some essays feel like hopeful fiction. Sallie Tisdale starts out grounded enough, detailing habits of some of the 120,000 species of flies, but then indulgently drowns the fascinating physical realities of organisms' life cycles in a well of Buddhist teachings and her interpretation thereof. "Blowflies are the words of the old Buddhas, singing of the cast texture of things, a lullaby of birth and death," she rhapsodizes. "They came and turned him into juice and soil, the Buddha flowing gloriously like cream into the ground." It is almost as though the meticulous researcher who relates that the brine fly lives in hotsprings of up to 43 degrees Celsius has been reborn as an enthusiast of flowery fantasy.
More convincing are those writers who admit some ignorance and fear in regards to the impossible ontological questions. Their essays feel less like regurgitation of doctrine and are as forthright as they are frightening. Kyoko Mori candidly admits, "the main problem with death isn't dying but being dead. Much as I'm afraid of the process, the result is unimaginably worse." Christopher Sorrentino unpacks what legacy is left by the dead on the internet. As he combs through the search history of one deceased AOL account user, he questions not only whether the electronic footprint left behind offers any clue to a living, breathing individual, but also whether any textual evidence—including the works of his father, Gilbert Sorrentino—does.
Ultimately, these essays aren't to be read for answers, so much as intelligent questions and portraits of loss. While Jonathan Safran Foer bandies cheaply with kitsch in an essay that uses just about every symbol in the Wingdings font to connote unsaid statements (shades of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close's 9/11 flipbook), the experiences of losing loved ones related by David Gates and Joyce Carol Oates illuminate human reactions to loss without bogging down in sentiment. In death's insoluble mystery, the anthology shows, we see a source of limitless possibilities for the literary imagination.