Thursday, July 27, 2017

Retreat into Nothingness

Dying turns many of us into counterfactual historians. But the alternate universe Taylor imagines is unusually provocative.

It’s almost inevitable that dying makes you reflect on your past, which perhaps explains why “Dying” is not merely a meditation on the present, but a journey backward in time, all the way to Taylor’s girlhood.

I was unprepared for how involving this stretch of her reminiscence would be. Half of its appeal is its simple Aussie exoticism — there’s talk of kookaburras, jackeroos. But her personal story is also packed with drama. There’s the greedy uncle who annexed the family patrimony. The grandmother who suffered a nervous breakdown. The unstable and bellicose father, an airline pilot, who was only at home in the sky.

Taylor’s prose is clear and direct, with flashes of surpassing loveliness. The poet-philosopher in her is in full bloom. “For what are we,” she asks, “if not a body taking a mind for a walk, just to see what’s there?”

This may not be quite as glorious a description of life as Philip Larkin’s “million-petaled flower of being here,” but it has a startling offhand grace.

Like Larkin, Taylor views her death as a retreat into the nothingness that preceded her. But there’s a crucial, melancholy difference: In the time between our non-existences, we’ve loved and created things. She quotes Harold Pinter, who wrote of his wife: “I shall miss you so much when I’m dead.”