La vie en noir

David Shields’ new book is heavy on the quotations and even heavier on the life.

John Sand

In his new book, “The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll be Dead,” David Shields examines the experience uniting the whole of the human race: death and its inescapability. The book, a jumble of biological statistics, quotations and anecdotes written largely in response to his 97-year-old father’s life, testifies to the universality of death and the limitless room for its interpretation. “The Thing About Life,” though at times engaging, fails to arrive at a concrete conclusion in its examination of death and dying.

“The thing about life is that one day you’ll be dead”

Author: David Shields
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, Random House Inc.
Pages: 225
Price: $23.95

The book is divided into five sections as a chronological exploration of human biology and corresponding attitudes toward aging, from infancy to old age.

The biological examination of the body touts facts of all kinds to reference the human condition as a system of variables that all equal the same solution. On average, “tall people outlive short people by 3 years; nonsmokers live 10 years longer than obese people; American immigrants live longer than natives.” Shields discusses a formula for living longer, in which he cites sufficient sleep, sex, religion, education and optimism as factors likely to increase your life expectancy.

The struggle against death, though, is futile. Regardless of your birth weight, the success and number of your marriage(s), whether you were born in Japan or Zambia, all human life ends.

In an attempt to solidify his argument for the universality of death, Shields laces quotes throughout each chapter. He cites Nietzsche, Bacon, Tolstoy, the Bhagavad Gita, saints, philosophers, basketball players and, often, his prepubescent daughter Natalie. The references contemplate the reasons behind death and the speaker’s own attitude toward aging.

“‘Forty-five,'” said Joseph Conrad, “‘is the age of recklessness for many men, as if in defiance of the decay and death waitingÖ'” Shields examines attitudes toward midlife crises and menopause. The quotations are overestimated in their significance, and their meaning is not thoroughly attached to the book’s meaning.

In a section called “Last Words,” Shields juxtaposes the ironic and poetic last words of famous figures. “Marie Antoinette, tripping over her executioner’s foot, said, ‘Monsieur, I beg your pardon. I did not do it on purpose.’ ” This is juxtaposed with Charles II, who said, “I have been a most unconscionable time dying, but I beg you to pardon it.” This portion, along with other collections of quotes the book contains, fails to make a striking statement. The references are not given valid explanations, and no conclusion is drawn about their meaning.

If death is inevitable – in its diverse manifestations and interpretations – how can we give our brief inhabitation of the earth meaning? Shields says, “The body has no meanings. We bring meanings to it.”

The book is woven with anecdotes of experience personal only to Shields and his father. The anecdotes, ranging from nostalgic basketball recollections to the Shields family’s supposed relation to actor Joseph Schildkraut, who played Otto Frank in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” seek to define his father’s life and death. Shields aims to define his father’s life in terms of experience. The characterization of his father is the most entertaining portion of the book, though it often removes itself from the book’s contexts, and would most likely function best in a separate book.

“The Thing About Life” is a fragmented examination of the fruitless struggle against aging and death, and the blossoms of truth and humor that bloom in our resistance to it. With the potential for greatness, the book falls short in its disjointed anecdotes and quotations, which often lose meaning as Shields attempts to transcend personal statement into universal declaration.