31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 28: “The Obituary Writer” by Douglas Glover

May 28, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From A Guide to Animal Behaviour

A_Guide_to_Animal_Behaviour“I don’t want to make this depressing for you,” says the narrator of Douglas Glover’s story at approximately the midpoint. It is a somewhat ironic statement, given that the story, from its title onward, is about death. But, then again, the story is also about life, and existence, and the human condition – all of which is inextricably tied up with the subject of death, but all of which is also concerned with something else, a barbaric yawp in the face of human mortality.

Glover, one of the great unsung story writers this country has ever produced, tips his hand with the epigraph, from Philippe-Paul de Ségur, an aide-de-camp to Napoleon during the disastrous French invasion of Russia: “We drifted along in this empire of death like accursed phantoms.” Glover’s story locates itself in an “empire of death,” in which the inhabitants do, for the most part, drift along like accursed phantoms, not cognizant of their essential mutability and ephemerality.

“The Obituary Writer” does not take place in Moscow, but rather in Saint John, New Brunswick, where the narrator occupies the titular profession at a local newspaper, and suffers the breakdown of his relationship with Annie, a Catholic woman who is single-minded in her focus on her ailing brother, Aiden, in a coma as a result of a head injury.

The entire story, in one way or another, is about our various responses to death – or the threat of death – and the way those responses inform who we are and how we live our lives. At the age of nineteen, Aiden (reportedly, for the story is related in the first person, and therefore must be evaluated on the basis of that narrator’s vested interest in the degree to which we believe what he is saying) gets drunk at a university party and falls from a railing while attempting to perform a tightrope trick. Reduced to the status of a vegetable in the hospital, he becomes “suddenly moral” in the eyes of his Catholic relatives, who now forgive him for missing mass on Sundays, because he has a “ready-made excuse.”

Aiden’s sister, Annie, also “[goes] Catholic” by quitting her job and assuming a position on the night shift at “a home for retarded children,” so that she can spend her days sitting at her brother’s bedside. She only occasionally visits the narrator in the apartment they used to share together, preferring to spend her time in the company of her comatose brother, or in the hospital chapel, where “she and God are sorting all this out.”

Practically everyone in Glover’s story is dying, or has some relationship with death. Sergeant Pye, the policeman who owns the apartment building in which Annie and the narrator live, is dying of cancer. Mrs. Lawson, the narrator’s downstairs neighbour, tells him that the previous tenant in their unit died in his bed a month before the new couple took up occupancy. And there is Aiden, who the doctor suggests might be better off dead than alive in a hopelessly comatose state:

It was clear, from the doctor’s tone, his kindness and the set of his eyes, that he was telling Annie’s father: “I can let him die tonight, which would be better for everyone, or I can prolong this.” But you only had to glance once at the father’s face to know what his answer was. These people are Catholic; they have met the Pope. … They toe the party line. Whatever happens, they come down blindly on the side of life.

What it means to “come down blindly on the side of life” is precisely the theme of Glover’s story: the narrator’s idea that Aiden has a little man in his body who is keeping him alive but will one day throw up his hands and quit is countered by Annie and her family’s more religious notions of a soul and a life beyond this one.

The narrator writes obituaries, which are stories of lives told after their subjects have died. The narrator attempts to wring some emotion from the stories he tells, to pull at his readers’ heartstrings:

Let me tell you, it makes all the difference in the world if you can say so-and-so died “suddenly” and “at home.” Age can be a factor. From a human interest point of view, the younger the deceased the better. Death at an advanced age, say, past a hundred, elicits only a mild exclamation from the bored reader. But give me a little girl, who dies at three, and I can bring tears to the eye.

Of course, like most writers after Freud (and, let’s face it, many before), the narrator is unable to separate death from sex. Annie was a “technical virgin” when she got together with the narrator, having only been with a woman to that point. The narrator, “drunk and ironical and somewhat provoked by her coldness,” makes a pass at her at a party, after which he “[makes] her bleed.” The narrator’s description of their sex is telling: “‘I love you,’ she would say, and die.” The French term for orgasm is “la petite mort,” or, “the little death,” an association that Glover makes explicit in his story: “We both understand that I am titillated by her dual nature and her lesbian past,” the narrator remarks. “I am a lover of paradox, of outré juxtapositions and jokes – this is the way we talk about death.”

The narrator uses sex as a kind of shield against mortality, engaging in an affair with a local librarian after Annie begins to pull away from him in favour of her comatose brother. His orgasm leaves him “briefly, nowhere, lost, swirling in a semantic ocean,” the adjective doing double duty, implying both “relating to language” and “generative.”

The narrator is a humanist, devoted to the emotional resonance he is able to wring out of an obituary, and drawn to the human contact in the librarian’s embrace, both of which stand in contrast to Annie’s obsession over her unconscious and unresponsive brother. The fact that Annie’s confrontation with the narrator about his infidelity is conveyed in a parenthetical aside tells a reader all she needs to know about the relative importance the narrator places on this turn of events.

The final part of the story shifts from the present to the future tense, which has the effect of denuding the story’s immediacy, replacing it instead with a sense of inevitability. The final scene features the narrator and an erstwhile neighbour, who has been institutionalized for an unspecified dementia, sitting by a causeway on the other side of the city, looking across the water at the teeming humanity beyond, thinking that in their removal they have “entered some other alien, yet beautiful, universe.”

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