Robert Rauschenberg, Mary Ellen Mark, Christopher Hitchens, Osama bin Laden, Václav Havel, Cy Twombly, Susan Sontag, Chinua Achebe, David Foster Wallace, Arthur Danto, and Thomas Kinkade: you are very dead. You, too, Günter Grass, Mikhail Kalashnikov, Roman Opalka, Tom Clancy, and the 13 other critics, painters, musicians, and inventors whose lives are the subjects of this alluring volume of eulogies by the writers Stefany Anne Goldberg and Morgan Meis.
Most of these 20th century people have died since 2008, around the time that Goldberg and Meis began writing the eulogies, which have appeared in The Smart Set, n+1, 3 Quarks Daily, and the New Yorker. The eulogies, to which the authors lend a homespun energy and quiet integrity, aren’t distant summations, but rather, they say, opportunities for intimacy. “It’s almost as if the person becomes more real by having so recently left us,” Goldberg and Meis write in the introduction. They suggest that “death gives us a chance truly to connect our own life with the life of the person who has died.”
Dead People is, then, a book of connections and interrogations, the object of which is the nature of reality itself and how we face it, if we can. Goldberg and Meis fix a gentle but inquisitive gaze on the lives of their dead as if they are modeling the form of their inquiry on its function. Some particularly monstrous realities of the 20th century—mass slaughter, failed ideologies, fast food, the dispossessed—demand courage to bear, but are also fertile ground for writers and artists. Those who faced them, the authors assert, directed the cultural flowering of their century.
Meis reveals that he came to support the Iraq war because he was convinced by the arguments of journalist and political philosopher Christopher Hitchens, whom he met at a Harper’s Magazine Christmas party. The next year, when Hitchens abandoned the Left in support of the Iraq War, Meis followed. But while Meis, and others, soon realized the war was a disaster and could admit it, Hitchens never would, even as a dying man. He wouldn’t face reality. When Hitchens died in 2011, Meis had to steel himself against the obituaries that would call Hitchens, the world’s best-known atheist, a great rationalist. “This is poppycock,” Meis declares. “Hitchens was a lover of argument and persuasion. He was a lover of being right and winning at any cost,” and this blinded him to the end.
The energetic eulogy of Hitchens is the first in this collection, which is, perhaps disappointingly, mostly about the lives of men; the last, by Goldberg, is on Günter Grass, who revealed, late in life, that at 16 he had been conscripted into the Waffen-SS. It took him until old age to explicitly admit reality.
Goldberg came to New York City as a teenager to study acting. Lonely, she took to Chinese food and her favorite novel, Grass’s The Tin Drum, whose protagonist, Oskar, refuses, quite violently, to become an adult. Oskar shields himself from reality and “the oafish antics of his father, the infidelities of his mother, the mocking songs of children, the traumas of war.” He settles into a liminal space, “not a child, not an adult, not a Pole, not a German, invisible and utterly conspicuous.” Grass explained to the BBC that the dwarf Oskar was “a mirror to all the things that happened” in Nazi Germany. By writing The Tin Drum, Grass sublimated a reality that was too difficult to accept. To help comprehend Grass’s revelation that he had served in the SS, Goldberg returns to the book and to those days, in 1991, when she reread it in New York while avoiding the acting life she’d set out to pursue.
In these personal elements, Goldberg and Meis, who are married, reveal the conflicted nature of their investigation of the real world. After helping to found the New York artist collective Flux Factory, they abandoned the city’s art and literary scenes for something less mediated and self-conscious, but also perhaps more off-beat; they spent immersive stints in Eastern Europe and Sri Lanka and then for a time rented an old farmhouse outside Philadelphia, a last stand landscape hemmed in by one of the 20th century’s legacy monsters, suburban sprawl. They lived there, like Oskar, in a liminal world.
The human monsters that drew in the photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who also died last year, were, like the warped townscape of the suburban shopping center made legitimate by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas, themselves a proof of 20th century reality. Mark’s often-marginalized subjects—street kids, prostitutes, women in an asylum—would ultimately form real communities. “The monstrosities that held these people apart from the mainstream, from their families—sometimes from themselves—connected them to kindred spirits,” Goldberg observes.
Updike mastered American fiction when he set a long, loving gaze on what became the real setting of American life, which borrowed precisely from Las Vegas’s roadside fakery. Here is Updike in Rabbit at Rest, in a passage that Meis quotes:
He likes to pour salt out of the shaker until he has a heap and then rub the French fries in it, one by one. The French fries and about a pound of salt are all the kid eats; Harry finishes his Big Mac for him, even though he doesn’t much care for all the Technicolor glop McDonald’s puts on everything—pure chemicals.
“You can’t overestimate how difficult it is to write about McDonald’s that well,” Meis reflects. What he means, I think, is that it’s nearly impossible to love a monster. Updike loves the real stuff of McDonald’s, toxic as it is; Meis and Goldberg love the makers of monsters, of all of them here Mikhail Kalashnikov most poignantly. Love for these dead people, each real and therefore imperfect, is why this book is an impassioning read.
Kalashnikov invented the 7.62mm assault rifle, the AK-47, while injured during World War II. He wanted a gun he could use to defend himself against the Germans. Did he know the weapon would become an indelible tool of mass murder? “There is danger at the core of every invention, no matter what it is,” writes Goldberg. “We think we are creating miracles with our inventions but, at the same time, we are creating monsters, too.” For decades, Kalashnikov refused to admit the murderous reality. But then, in old age, he allowed himself an unflinching gaze. Dying, he sat with a priest and wrote a letter to the world. “My spiritual pain is unbearable,” he wrote. The words were published after his death, at 94, in 2013.