Review by Jody Keisner
I think it’s safe to say that Sue William Silverman thinks about death more than you or I, or most everyone except for maybe the town coroner. Astonishingly, in How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences (March 2020, University of Nebraska Press), she’s also hatched a plan to survive death. Silverman’s plan, which she lays out in the first chapter, includes recording and exploring her memories with “a pinch of scent, a flask of taste, a kaleidoscope of sound.” In this non-linear collection of essays that spans many decades, Silverman reaches for an understanding of death and how to outwit it with metaphor-dense prose and the aid of “archaic, obsolete, and obscure words” that function as chapter epigraphs. What results is an equally dense exploration of a lifetime’s worth of vibrant and sometimes reckless experiences and themes of abandonment, loss, and perseverance.
A book centered on death calls for a darker mood and a deep probe into emotional territory, but a few of the essays are light-hearted. In one essay, for instance, a middle-aged Silverman drives over three hours and waits in line three hours more for an Adam Lambert concert, in order to revive her youthful “flower-child self,” one who fretted less about fate. (The epigraph of this chapter is anabiosis, which Silverman defines as “return to life after apparent death.”) Adam, she writes, is “better than any defibrillator.” In a series of three especially humorous essays, Silverman obsesses over potential maladies on WebMD.com and makes return trips to a hospital, twice seeing the same pragmatic ER doctor, recognizing her hypochondriac tendencies but nonetheless convincing herself that she just as likely has a brain tumor as rheumatoid arthritis. Of course, she has neither, though during one visit, medical staff remove an inflamed appendix.
While at times her narrator spins out into “magical thinking,” her descriptions of death will have readers pondering the realistic and myriad ways she (and by proxy, we) barely skirt death, or perhaps die a little, each day. What will eventually “get us”? A basal cell carcinoma gone unnoticed? Necrosis from a back-alley ear-piercing? Lead poisoning? Preservatives from fast food? Or maybe the little deaths we suffer each day are figurative. Self-aware, quirky, and fiercely intelligent, Silverman writes, “I want an organ specifically designed to monitor an existential crisis.”
Juxtaposed with her fear of death are vividly detailed moments of her wildly living, like when as a New Jersey high schooler she nicknames Miss Route 17, Silverman cruises the city in her parents’ gold Plymouth, driving crazily and swerving to miss other cars, stopping to hang out with strange men in bars and random parking lots. In Silverman’s memories, sex and death are tightly intertwined. A college-aged Silverman jumps on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle at night, both without helmets. The ride is exhilarating but the danger palpable: the encounter ends in sexual assault. And, later as a young adult, she flees a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting where she has been imagining a pen-pal relationship with Jeffrey Dahmer—”But, one way or another, none of those men we seduce survive long enough for true love to nourish us” she envisions saying to him—and instead follows the car in front of her, which will “lead me to Heaven or maybe to a home where I don’t live.”
Readers will find both traditionally and experimentally structured essays in Silverman’s book. Because of the distinctive subject matter and Silverman’s vast writing talents, How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences will appeal to new and experienced readers alike; notably: it will also draw teachers of creative writing, who will cherish it for the many essays that can be taught as models of braided and segmented forms. Read any random passage from any random page of How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, and your ears will be delighted by a “kaleidoscope of sound.” Consider, for instance, this passage: “Is death like floating in a red haze to a distant horizon? Is it experiencing your molecules rearrange themselves, blending into the gray vapor of space? Does your shadow shimmer in a lattice of black-and-white starshine: a vague form only partially visible? Or does your soul shapeshift like phases of the moon?”
In addition to the physical deaths that Silverman contemplates, at the heart of this book are two spiritual deaths. Fans of her other books will be familiar with the death she suffered at the hands of her pedophiliac father. Silverman connects her fractured selves and dangerous behavior to her father’s horrific sexual abuse of her. “Does one risk birth another?” she wonders. Silverman’s sister and mother play roles in her memories, too; however, most of the essays investigate the narrator’s interactions with men. But there’s another deep, wide loss, one that occurs when Silverman is a young woman, and I won’t spoil it here. Each essay circles that loss—remembering the times she came too close, the times she behaved too recklessly, the times she loved too hard—until the final chapter, when her selves coalesce into one with the completion of this book. Finally preserving both her memories and whole self, Silverman achieves a kind of immortality.