Tag Archives: Marion Coutts

Thinking about Dead Bodies with John Troyer (Hay Festival)

My second of three digital Hay Festival talks this year was by John Troyer, director of the interdisciplinary Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath. Troyer is from Wisconsin (where he was speaking from, having been trapped there during a visit to his parents) and grew up with a father who owned a funeral home. This meant that he was aware of death from a young age: One of his earliest memories is of touching the hand of a dead woman when he went to visit his father at work.

That’s not the only personal experience that went into his new book, Technologies of the Human Corpse, which I’m now keen to read. In 2018 his younger sister, Julie, died of brain cancer at age 43, so her illness and death became a late addition to the preface and also fed into a series of prose poems interspersed between the narrative chapters. She lived in Italy and her doctors failed to tell her that she was dying – that job fell to Troyer. (Unfortunately, this seems to be a persistent problem in Italy. In Dottoressa, her memoir of being an American doctor in Rome, which I read for a TLS review, Susan Levenstein writes of a paternalistic attitude among medical professionals: they treat their patients as children and might not even tell them about a cancer diagnosis; they just inform their family.)

Troyer discussed key moments that changed how we treat corpses. For instance, during the American Civil War there was a huge market for the new embalming technology; it was a way of preserving the bodies of soldiers so they could be returned home for funerals. Frauds also arose, however, and those taken in might find their loved one’s body arrived in a state of advanced decay. At around the same time, early photography captured corpses looking serene and sleeping. We might still take such photos, but we don’t tend to display them any more.

In the 1970s the “happy death” movement advocated for things like “natural death” and “death with dignity.” This piggybacked on the environmental and women’s movements and envisioned death as a taboo that had to be overcome. In recent decades a “necro-economy” based on the global trafficking of body parts (not organs for regulated transplant, Troyer clarified, but other tissue types) has appeared. While whole bodies may be worth just £2,000, “disarticulated” ones divided into their parts can net more like £100,000. Donating one’s body to science is, of course, a noble decision. Many people are also happy to donate their organs, though there remains a particular wariness about donating the eyes.

Troyer and Florence on my screen.

One section of Troyer’s book has become “uncannily resonant” in recent days, he noted. This is Chapter 3, on the AIDS corpse, an object of stigma. The biggest changes to death in the time of COVID-19 have been that family members are not able to be with a dying person in the ICU and that funerals cannot proceed as normal. In a viral pandemic, countries are producing a huge number of corpses that they aren’t prepared to deal with. (Indeed, the Washington, D.C. area is so overwhelmed with dead bodies that ice skating rinks have been requisitioned as makeshift morgues. The suburban Maryland rink I visited as a child is one such. Grim.)

Troyer spoke of the need for an everyday-ness to the discussion of death: talking with one’s next of kin, and encountering death in the course of a traditional education – he finds that even his final-year university students, studying in a related field, are very new to talking about death. A good way in that he recommends is simply to ask your loved ones what music they want played at their funerals, and the conversation can go from there.

We may not be able to commemorate the dead as we would like to at this time, but Troyer reminded the audience that funerals are for the living, whereas “the dead are okay with it – they know we’re doing our best.” The event was sensitively chaired by Peter Florence, the co-founder and director of Hay Festival (also responsible for last year’s controversial Booker Prize tie); the fact that Troyer got emotional talking about his sister only gave it more relevance and impact.

 

I’ve read an abnormally large number of books about death, especially in the five years since my brother-in-law died of brain cancer (one reason why Troyer’s talk was so meaningful for me). Most recently, I read Bodies in Motion and at Rest (2000) by Thomas Lynch, a set of essays by the Irish-American undertaker and poet from Michigan. I saw him speak at Greenbelt Festival in 2012 and have read four of his books since then. His unusual dual career lends lyrical beauty to his writing about death. However, this collection was not memorable for me in comparison to his 1997 book The Undertaking, and I’d already encountered a shortened version of “Wombs” in the Wellcome Collection anthology Beneath the Skin. But this passage from “The Way We Are” stood out:

After years and years of directing funerals, I’ve come to the conclusion that seeing [the dead body] is the hardest and most helpful part. The truth, even when it hurts, has a healing in it, better than fiction or fantasy. When someone dies it is not them we fear seeing, it is them dead. It is the death. We fear that seeing will be believing. We fear not seeing too. We search the wreckage and the ruins, the battlefields and ocean floors. We must find our dead to let the loss be real.

 

Just for a bit of morbid fun, I decided to draw up my top 10 nonfiction books about death, dying and the dead. Many of these are personal accounts of facing death or losing a loved one. In contrast to the bereavement and cancer memoirs, the books by Doughty and Gawande are more like cultural studies, and Montross’s is about working with corpses. If you need a laugh, the Bechdel (a graphic memoir) and Doughty are best for black comedy.

In Praise of Literary Prizes

I like a spot of competition. Whether watching Olympic figure skating, playing board games like Scrabble and Boggle, entering a low-key Oscars pool, or rooting for my favorites in American Idol seasons and Miss America pageants, I’ve always loved trying to pick the best. This means that literary prizes are hugely exciting for me, and I follow the races closely.

I’m particularly devoted to the Man Booker Prize. I was delighted to see Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life on the recent longlist (catch up on it here), a truly interesting set of books, diverse in terms of their genres and authors’ nationalities and nicely balanced between male and female writers (6:7). I’ve read four of the longlisted titles so far:

  • fishermenThe Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma (full review in May 2015 issue of Third Way): From a young Nigerian debut novelist comes a haunting tale of sibling rivalry and revenge. With sectarian riots afoot, the four oldest Agwu boys decide to make money by skipping school and fishing in the Omi-Ala River. Things get more complicated when Abulu, the local madman, issues a prophecy that seems bound to divide the brothers. The first quarter of the novel, especially, is drenched in foreshadowing (not always subtle, nor do the plot turns often rise above the predictable). Rich with prophecy and allusions, this owes much to biblical narratives and tragedies from Shakespeare to Chinua Achebe.
  • Lila, Marilynne Robinson – reviewed at For Books’ Sake
  • A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler – also reviewed at For Books’ Sake
  • A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara – reviewed at Shiny New Books

greenroadNext up: I’m reviewing The Green Road by Anne Enright for the November 2015 issue of Third Way. The Booker Prize shortlist will be announced on September 15th and the winner on October 13th.

 


Beyond the Booker, here are some of the other prizes I follow throughout the year, listed in vague chronological order:

  • shamefinnThe Not the Booker Prize run by the Guardian. On this year’s shortlist is Shame by Melanie Finn, a book I loved when I reviewed it for Third Way’s April 2015 issue. It’s a powerful story of regret and the search for redemption. Though it has elements of a straightforward psychological thriller, the daring structure and moral complexities are more akin to Graham Greene. In alternating chapters, Pilgrim Jones contrasts flashbacks to her car accident and the subsequent investigation back in Switzerland with her present-tense African odyssey. This is Conrad’s Africa, a continent characterized by darkness and suffering. The question of culpability remains murky, yet the possibility of salvation shines through. [Voting will take place in October.]
  • The Guardian First Book Award (open to both fiction and nonfiction): the shortlist will be announced this Friday, August 14th. One entry, Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume, has already been chosen by readers, and the other nine are selected from publishers’ submissions. [Winner announced in late November.]
  • The Costa Book Awards give separate prizes for fiction, debut fiction, biography, poetry, and children’s books, and also choose one overall winner. [Category shortlists in late November, category winners in early January and overall winner on January 26, 2016.]
  • The Folio Prize, only two years old, considers any work of fiction published in English; before the Booker expanded to include American entries last year, it was the most Catholic of the fiction prizes. Now it risks being considered redundant; especially since it lost its Folio Society sponsorship, it’s unclear whether it will continue. [Shortlist in February and winner announced in March.]
  • icebergThe Wellcome Book Prize is for medical-themed literature, fiction or nonfiction. Last year’s winner, The Iceberg by Marion Coutts, meant a lot to me for personal reasons but was also one of the most unusual and impressive memoirs I’ve ever read. I reviewed it for The Bookbag here. [Shortlist in March and winner announced in April.]
  • The Pulitzer Prize is America’s premier literary award. I confess I often feel a little out of touch with the winners and don’t necessarily make a conscious effort to seek out the nominated books. I’d like to be more familiar with Pulitzer winners. Next year marks the prize’s centennial, so there’s no better time! [Winners announced in April.]
  • The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is for any book that has been translated into English and published in the UK in the previous year. I’ve found some great offbeat reads by browsing through previous longlists. As of next year, the prize is merging with the Man Booker International award, which previously recognized the life work of a foreign author every other year. [Longlist in March, shortlist in April and winner announced in May.]
  • lostforwordsThe Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, the UK’s prize for comic literature, has run since 2000. Among the past winners are Paul Torday, Howard Jacobson, Terry Pratchett, Geoff Dyer, Gary Shteyngart, and (surprise!) Ian McEwan. I’ve read five of the winners, including Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn. [Shortlist in March and winner announced in May.]
  • The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange Prize). Ali Smith won the 2015 award for How to Be Both. [Longlist in March; shortlist and winner announced in June.]

Do you follow literary prize races? Do you make a point of reading the winner and/or the shortlisted books? All comments welcome!