Death. Decay. Doom.

A few years ago, I missed my dad’s death by a few hours. I had business not far from his house, but I decided not to see him. Later that day, he fell over and died, just like that. It was a merciful death, I imagine. That night, paramedics were thumping his wide chest, the chest that I had laid upon many years before and that I will always remember as the safest place anywhere. On the next day after his death, we all went to see what was left of him. He was cold and yellow in the face then, both there and not there. I hadn’t been able to see my mother in her death a few years earlier so this became the first time (I was 43) that I ever came face to face with a dead person who wasn’t a corpse yet. The dead turn into corpses later, I think, when the soul has properly left. In my father’s case his soul was still hanging around looking at us from above. I couldn’t see it but I could feel it. My daughter, who was only 5 then, showed scientific interest in the body, mixed with a natural reverie that I hadn’t quite expected. She seemed to ask questions not of us and get answers not from us either and I presume she could still see my father’s soul and commune with it. Of course she doesn’t remember any of this, all she remembers is that her grandpa shouted at her when she broke one of his Viennese porcelain figurines and that he called her “Mümpi”, which doesn’t mean anything (except to him).

My own birthday’s today, and a writer friend, Carol Novack, is dying. After I heard that she was likely to live only a week or so, I wanted to talk to her while she could still speak, but I delayed the call because I didn’t know what to say to a person who know that she’s dying. I wrote a flash instead, “For Carol Novack”. There’s a small virtual gathering of writers in Carol’s honor over at Fictionaut; a number of people have written tributes. In the town where she lives, friends have gathered around a microphone reading her stories. One of the sad things when a writer dies is that she won’t write anything new.
Made plans to go out for lunch and watch a movie — Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol —with the family today. This is a first since on my birthday I usually go off by myself to write, until at some point during the day I begin to feel sorry for myself and lonely and then I come crawling back, not without suggesting, indignantly, that a man shouldn’t have to spend his birthday alone. The laws of plain causality are suspended during birthdays.

I meant to watch “A Dangerous Method”, the new Cronenberg, on my birthday—looks like a movie about the competition between Sigmund Freud and his one time disciple, Carl Jung; with a love triangle: these two great men and a wild Russian woman, who, inevitably, will have an affair with at least one of the men and become a great psychoanalyst herself. Inevitably: because that’s what clever, resourceful women in the early 20th century did, become psychoanalysts, I don’t know why. Watching this movie would have connected me with my family’s century-old infatuation with psychoanalysis, but I couldn’t hunt down the original version and I didn’t feel liked seeing it dubbed. Instead I opted for Tom Cruise, whose women do most certainly not end as shrinks, though they may find themselves lying on a couch. There’s always an enemy and death is a commodity in these movies. If you feel like falling over laughing read Roxane Gay’s review of “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” (but beware: full of spoilers). We love her blog posts (and by ‘we’ I mean everyone around here).
Birthdays are death days. As always, but more so on this day than on any other, I feel the fear of not being able to do what I want to do in this life (and I don’t mean presidency, I mean writing). A meaningless fear when I look at it from further away because I can only do what I can do and that’s never been little but also, somehow, never been enough. I probably must slow down before I get to 50 (and that day’s coming up fast). Fears don’t give a damn about meaning, of course. Especially the existential ones don’t.

I’ve had a successful year as far as a writer: finished a proper novella. Published lots of flash fiction. Was nominated here and there. Wrote another novella in flashes. Edited a story collection to a fine, sharp point. Gave some great interviews. Read publicly on- and offline. Nurtured Kaffe in Katmandu. Started six more novels.

I began with my father and I want to end with my mother, who is somehow linked to my inability to go deeper in my writing. I feel that inability painfully with the text I’m struggling with right now—here’s an excerpt from the beginning:

«The writer left the embassy. He knew that he was an alien, normal in one world but not normal in this one. He wasn’t unhappy about it. He was already planning on turning anything that made him unhappy, anything that solicited an emotional response, good or bad, into his art. He wasn’t worried about being the copy of a man from Mercury. He was worried about one thing and one thing only: his voice.»

The answer to the question how the deepening of my writing is connected with my mother is not available to me at this time. It’s just a feeling, or rather, a shapeless knowing, but I didn’t want to leave it unmentioned since I believe in living my birthday as I wish to live the rest of my life.

Picking up on my gloomy pre-birthday mood, my lovely, talented, gorgeous wife wrote me a funny birthday card:


«Happy Birthday my dearest husband (or should I say my imperial pretzel). Doom. Death. Decay. Sound of bells tolling for me and thee. See, it’s not so bad. Rather jolly, lots of alliteration.»

That cheered me up. Not so bad the story, so far. 48. Plenty of love and lots of looking at the stars. Perhaps we’ll spend the day coming up with many  more D-words, driving the demons of death down the drain…

Death, decay, doom? Diddly-squat. Birthdays are dandy and deconstructive. Dollops of delight, don’t doubt it.

Since it’s my birthday, here’s the unabashed vanity part of this post; I’ve had publications all over the place in December: Northville Review; Airplane Reading; Fatboy Review (ongoing for 12 days until January 5th, 2012); Dogzplot; Letras Caseras; Necessary Fiction (including the first publication of my daughter’s art) and The Rumpus. Very, very happy about that & thanks a lot to all the editors!

12 thoughts on “Death. Decay. Doom.

  1. Marcus, though your birthday is tinged with sadness, may it also be filled with kindnesses, family and laughter. And much alliteration. Congratulations, too, on your many literary successes this year. May this new year in your life bring you many more. Do develop delightfully dramatic doggerel (just for fun) and dastardly yet dazzling dactyls while sipping dadaist daiquiris. (It’s your birthday, you may as well celebrate with a daiquiri.)

  2. Darling Marcus, the delicate dandy, dust off the dismal dandruff of despair and dance with your dear delight of a wife… okay, my ‘d’s ran out there.  ‘In the midst of life we are in death’ seems trite but true here, as does its opposite, ‘In the midst of death we are in life’.  My condolences regarding your friend and your family bereavements, and congratulations on such a successful year.  And finally… Happy Cakeday!

  3. Happy happy birthday, what an amazing blog post. I am so sad about Carol, we met once in New York about 12 years ago, and she remembered that occasion years and years later when I was published in Mad Hatter’s Review, we’ve been in touch every since. One of a kind, she is an amazing person, such energy. I wish you a wonderful year ahead – funnily, rather than worrying about getting everything one, I am thinking about my 102-year-old grandmother and I am wondering how I might fill up another 60 years. Maybe you could outsource something to me?!   

  4. A very moving post, Marcus. And deeply all over the place with such human tangents. I wish you a Hippo Bird Day that will let your words fly.

  5. Happiest of birthdays to you, brilliant man. I’ve been 48 for a couple of weeks now, feel no closer to the end than I did at 47. If that’s any consolation ;) Reading this reminded me of the importance of each step I take towards another goal, however small. My own dear mother passed at 44 and I swore that each year I lived after that age would never be wasted. As long as you spend the time you have well, dear Marcus, (and you obviously do) you will accomplish enough. Never everything you want, but enough. Cheers! 

  6. Happiest of birthdays to you dear man! Yes, it does all seem doom and gloom, but I figure if you live each day as if it is the best and last, then there’s little room for decay.

    Congrats to you for a productive year. If I may say… every year gets better. I will be closing in on 50 in a matter of (shhhhh… months) and other than an achy hip and a proclivity to walk a tad more slowly, I have never felt more confident and sure of writing than now.  Yo shall not burn out, we won’t let you. Peace…

  7. Many thanks to everyone who wrote and commented. I’m deeply touched by the level and the character of your responses. The fear of death and resisting it, creating in the face of daily decay undoubtedly is what binds us all together and makes prose and poetry possibly in the first place.  May the muse walk with you all and have a great, write-ful 2012.

  8. Sadly, Carol Novack has now passed away: “Carol Novack is dead. She died of lung cancer today [29 December] at 8:55 pm. She was a genre-defying writer of lyrical and inventive work who single-handedly brought together thousands of artists from around the globe in collaboration and exploration as publisher of the groundbreaking Mad Hatters’ Review. She was also my good friend, quite irreplaceable.”  (via Larissa Shmailo on Facebook)

  9. Belated birthday greetings, dear Marcus, and many happy, bittersweet, life-filled, returns of the day to you. xxxx

  10. I have been away and did not know that it was your birthday, nor that Carol Novack was dying. I wish you every happiness in 2012 and send my condolences to everyone affected by Carol’s death. Your post feels like winter. I hope you enjoy the lightening nights. 

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