Book Review: Readings
The Thing About Life is an acknowledgement of the inevitability of bodily decline dressed up in elaborate literary garments
Reviewed by Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Feb. 29, 2008
The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Deadby David Shields
Knopf, 256 pp., $23.95
Many writers aim to capture the human condition in all its variety, audacity, and contradiction, but few can claim to get as close to their target as David Shields. Equal parts memoir, family biography, anatomy textbook, Darwin crash course, and compendium of literary epigrams, Shields' ninth book is that rarest of artistic accomplishments: the truly original vision brought to fruition.
Written by a man entering his 50th year, The Thing About Life is an acknowledgement of the inevitability of bodily decline dressed up in elaborate literary garments. In his introduction, Shields – a former finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and a frequent contributor to The Village Voice, Harper's Magazine, and Slate webzine – describes his book as "an autobiography of my body, a biography of my father's body," and a compilation of the "brute facts of existence, the fragility and ephemerality of life in its naked corporeality." Staring down the barrel of impending old age, he's caught between two world-views, represented by different members of his family: the blithe vitality of his athletic 13-year-old daughter on the one hand, and the dogged, almost Herculean physical persistence of his 95-year-old father on the other. Though his memory keeps leading him back to his own days of teenage athletic glory, Shields' declining physical condition is always there to remind him exactly which side of that family scale he's edging toward.
To understand that decline – in himself, in his father, in living creatures in general – and the fate it trumpets, Shields creates a remarkable blend of personal meditation and biological investigation that's both a celebration of and a howl against the human condition: that being the flailing of soulful beings caught between mystery and knowledge, between literature and cold, hard biological fact. Shields knows his descriptions of mating rituals and chemical reactions and dietary processes and genetic impulses won't save him or his father from decline. Nor will his references to Shakespeare or Tennyson or Woody Allen. But he also knows it's that attempt at understanding – that leap toward mastery – that offers some meaning to life and symbolizes humanity's deep well of longing in the face of infinite resignation.