Grieving in the internet age is weird. Despite what many make out, millennials are actually reticent to get real on social media. Instead of being emotionally candid we’re perpetually sarcastic, self-deprecating and deliberately unpolished. Being “too online” or oversharing too readily is uncool. There’s a saying that you get one sincere online post a year; use it well. So then what do you do when someone has died?
One day in a Los Angeles bookshop in the mid-1970s, a thick City Lights softcover with a stark black-and-white spine magnetized a suburban adolescent’s eyeballs. “BUKOWSKI” the cover read at the top in big block letters, and at the bottom, in smaller letters: “Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness.” Between the author’s name and the title, the cover was … er, graced by a black-and-white photograph of an unbelievably ugly face, bleeding to the edges: a battered, pockmarked, leathery, lumpy mask covered with craters and burst blood vessels. That face looked like the result of some prolonged torture session. Little did I know (or at that larval age, really care) what manner of human experience had produced that hellish, baked-looking carnage.
Clearly a face like this “meant” something to a mature human being, but to a prurient kid that ghastly specimen said only: “Hey, you like ugly movie monsters, don’t you? Well, you’re gonna love this book!” Did I flip through the pages before I bought it? Not necessarily. But for the next few weeks I read the short stories in that hefty quarter-pounder while riding the bus to and from school, and they did turn out to be lotsa fun for a teenager ever on the lookout for new, perverse art-thrills. The sordid and funny “tales” all featured Henry Chinaski, the author’s alter ego, and recounted his athletic sexual encounters with boozed-out prostitutes and clumsy fistfights with drunken lowlifes in East Hollywood bars. Vomiting, too, was a running gag (as it were) in the Bukowski brand of avant-garde slapstick. And Chinaski’s violent arguments always seemed to end with all-cap, bilious outbursts like: “I’LL SUCK BOTH YOUR SNATCHES!” That part of Bukowski’s routine, I thought even then, got kinda old quick …
To avoid giving away too much—Frankissstein is, at its heart, a good read, and one best enjoyed cold—I'll refrain from dissecting the plot further. But, as with so much of Winterson's work, the most brilliant parts are in the connective tissue, the joints between themes and characters.
In the story notes section of his new collection, “Full Throttle,” Joe Hill muses that one of these days, he’ll “learn how to write a story with a happy ending.” I hope he never gets around to it. He’s already so good at endings of the unhappy variety. Shocking, terrible, whoa, cover-your-mouth-and-gasp endings. Endings that are perfect and yet a page early, arriving before you’re ready. Endings that tear off the story’s edge, leaving it ragged and bloody, leaving you wanting more. So yes, Hill has a way with endings.
Years ago, the magazine US Catholic ran a headline that had the air of being written by a devout believer who had just had an appalling realisation: “Heaven: Will It Be Boring?” If he believed in heaven, the Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund would answer with an unequivocal yes. And not merely boring: utterly devoid of meaning. “If I believed that my life would last forever,” he writes, “I could never take my life to be at stake.” The question of how to use our precious time wouldn’t arise, because time wouldn’t be precious. Faced with any decision about whether to do something potentially meaningful with any given hour or day – to nurture a relationship, create a work of art, savour a natural scene – the answer would always be: who cares? After all, there’s always tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.
I sometimes feel oppressed by my seemingly infinite to-do list; but the truth is that having infinite time in which to tackle it would be inconceivably worse. The question at issue here isn’t whether heaven exists. In This Life – a sweepingly ambitious synthesis of philosophy, spirituality and politics, which starts with the case for confronting mortality, and ends with the case for democratic socialism – Hägglund takes it for granted that it doesn’t. Instead, his point is that we shouldn’t want it to. Religious people, even if they don’t believe in a literal place called heaven (“white bean bags, 24-hour room service, fat babies with wings”, to quote Alan Partridge), nonetheless believe that what truly matters most in life belongs to the realm of the eternal and divine. The result is “a devaluation of our finite lives as a lower form of being”. Hägglund’s alternative, “secular faith”, insists that our finite lives are all we have – and that this finitude, far from being a cause for regret, is precisely what gives them meaning.
Architectural feats in inhospitable spots have long exerted a powerful fascination. How we build and live at frontiers, and how the sites thrill us or increase our anxieties, are the subject of four important new books.