Poking at death with a long stick

Bonnie J. Rough

April 19, 2016

It’s a hateful job, delivering news of death: the fact of its very existence, its unexpected arrival, its sudden probability. It’s heavy enough just to describe how it feels for the whole idea to swirl in, like a loaded paintbrush tainting the water in a jar. In her latest memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It, released in paperback today, Abigail Thomas reluctantly and humanely shoulders the job, “just poking at death with a long stick to see what happens.”

Thomas prods at impermanence with more than superficial jabs across the book’s tableau of individually-titled mini-chapters. Writing in her early seventies, the specter of loss looms as she reflects upon a key friendship; stare-downs with prose and paint; negotiations with nature and hodgepodge; and complex love with children, grandchildren, a deceased husband, beloved dogs. Layer upon layer, the book’s tiny chapters, many shorter than a page, create an impressionistic portrait of human mortality — and the painful consciousness of that mortality — filled with light, color, and air, as well as shadows, clutter, and clocks ticking out of sync: tick tick tock tock.

Why should anyone — Thomas in this case — require hospice-volunteer training simply to learn what really happens at the moment of a normal, natural death? The skin mottling starting with the toes, the mental confusion, the two minutes of awareness after the heart stops beating? Because it’s devastating. Nobody really wants to chat about it. Except the conversation seems possible with Thomas, whose magnetic vignettes allow the reader to whisk in and breeze out, pinned only briefly, only as necessary, under the weight of loss and knowing.

Thomas’ fear of death is brought on by age, but also by circumstance. There’s the tragedy that readers of her previous work will recognize: the loss of her husband Rich after a pedestrian accident severely damaged his brain, putting him in the hospital for seven years until his death. She shares her solitude with beloved dogs, who also die. Her best friend of more than thirty years, literary agent Chuck Verrill, contends with a dangerous liver disease. Her daughter is diagnosed with cancer.

Enough is enough for Thomas about a third of the way through her collage narrative, when she converts from never worrying about the future to thoughts running the opposite way: “Once the carnal knowledge of your own death has jumped you, your innocent days are over. You can’t put the shit back into the pig.”

It’s an unusual stance — a writer going on so long blissfully unbothered by human finality — given that so many literary types come to their calling precocious about mortality, founts of morose middle-school poetry. It’s refreshing, if not altogether probable, to read an accomplished writer admitting that she “never worried about the future” until it settled unwelcome in the gut. And “hard on the heels of this came a worse bit of news. My beautiful children, now in the middle of their lives, are going to grow old and they are going to die too.”

Coming to terms with the inevitable isn’t the only task Thomas tackles here. She writes to preserve fragments of herself for her family, and to preserve fragments of her family, including swatches of their own writing, for later. She’s enshrining a good friendship, in the way of Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty. She’s also busy being human: putting too much sugar in her coffee, soaking up dog pee with yesterday’s newspapers, playing Legos with her grandson.

She includes the odd daub on writing, too: the fact that her novel, about a wrenching real-life tryst between Chuck and Catherine (the daughter who eventually faces cancer), has failed in a dangerous sense: the story must be written as nonfiction instead. “There is ruthlessness to all writers,” she declares.

Turning occasionally to the dictionary, Thomas hunts revelations behind the words that dog her. “(Un)certainty,” in the worn American Heritage Dictionary she calls her “ersatz Bible,” has early meanings “to sift, separate, decide.” “Ambition” means “seeking votes.” For “failure” no history is given; failure is what it is. “Mortal” has a sound she finds pleasing until she discovers “goblin” behind it.

On gray days full of carnal fear, too many naps and cigarettes, too much junk television and booze, making paintings seems to pull Thomas from the gloom. She warns us not to take her painting seriously as art, but it’s clear we’re to use it as metaphor. She begins by dabbling in toxic substances, not so much willfully as ignorantly, hoarding quarts of near-discontinued oil-based house paint (it sticks so well to glass, her preferred surface), and regularly washing her hands in turpentine. In the larger story, she pries the lid off harmful vapors of another kind, unearthing the old affair, asking Chuck and her daughter fresh questions and discovering heartbreakingly late that clinging to the whole noxious mess had left her angry with her daughter for far too long.

Compared to writing, she says, her paintings are easier to love; she never apologizes for them. She paints in seasons, flipping the old canard that winter comes last. “I don’t know how to do autumn,” she says in the worst times, when her daughter’s life hangs in grave danger. And later, in a clearing, she forces herself to “try to make a springlike painting.” Finally, she tells us, “summer brings out every secret.”

Thomas’ method of painting requires applying color to one side of the glass, waiting for it to set, then turning the pane around to discover the result. Sometimes it works. Other times her images call for more work, or shatter under their own layered weight. But one thing is consistent: She likes the paintings once they’re finished, even if that means she had to give up on them first, scraping off the dried paint with a razor blade. Her favorite paintings initially disappoint: an ugly dark forest that reduces, with scraping, to the ocean she’s always tried to capture. A sorry apple orchard, also scraped, that reveals a ghostly stand of birch.

All of this peeling back reveals the unexpected: decades-old memories in sharp focus, other happenings fuzzy and speculative, all in a roughly sequential narrative with indistinct chronology. Precious few dates or ages make for guesswork when keeping track of the narrator, her friends, her four children, her twelve grandchildren. Or possibly it’s just harder for the reader to pry, to judge. How far apart in age were Catherine and Chuck during their affair? Should it matter? Somewhere near the end, Thomas gets around to mentioning that she rejects chronology, hates the way its rude fingers point always to the end.

“It occurs to me that what I’m doing is reinventing pentimento,” she writes of her work with the razor blade, and certainly the memoir too. It seems fair to peer behind the word. In a painting or in literature, a pentimento is a trace of a mistake or earlier composition, visible through the outer layers. It comes from the Italian word for repentance, remorse, a change of course. Going over it again, ever better.

Books in this review:
  • What Comes Next and How to Like It
    by Abigail Thomas

    April 18, 2016
    240 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Bonnie J. Rough is the author of The Girls, Alone: Six Days in Estonia, selected by Amazon as one of the Best Kindle Singles of 2015, and the memoir Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA (Counterpoint), winner of a 2011 Minnesota Book Award. She lives in Seattle.

Follow Bonnie J. Rough on Twitter: @BonnieJRough

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