Though written in language that feels entirely liberated from the tradition of letters, from the tone of authority, from the heaviness of history—a language that sparkles not like special stones in the depths but purely on the surface of things—though the writing feels and flows with an energy that is new, sensitive to the thin film of the present, David Shields's latest book, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead, sings a very old song. "Sing me something," said the angel to Cædmon, the author of the oldest poem in English. "Sing me frumsceaft," sing to me about creation, about the world, its origin and its end. The song that the cowherd sings to an angel is the song now sung by the UW English professor: the song about the human condition.
But Cædmon's world had a roof over it, a "heofon to hrofe" and a "haleg scepen," a shaper, a maker of this roof. With Shields, the song of creation speaks of no shelter, or a maker of that shelter; it's a song about exposure. If there is a leading theme in Shields's work, it is exposure in a world where there is nothing left but humans, their bodies, fears, families. Not even the religion of literature offers us protection from the elements of reality. This is why Shields's language is so clear, so transparent. Everything from the world makes its way through the words to the reader with little or no distortion.
There is a trick to all this—but the trick works. That trick makes David Shields look like he is hiding nothing from the reader. And what he bares in this book is the existential situation of a writer in the middle years, the middle ages, the middungeard—the place between heaven (youth) and hell (old age). "In the middle of the journey through life I came to find myself within a dark wood," writes Dante. At this point in life, Shields, who is 51, decides it is time to sing about what it means to be a human being.
For the song, he employs three modes: the memoir, the quote, and science journalism. The portions of memoir give us the condition of the family. Shields is between his teenage daughter, Natalie, who is heading to her physical zenith, and his 97-year-old father, Milton, who is heading to the grave. Despite his great age, Milton is very much alive, very much in the world. "He's a survival machine," writes Shields with more spite than praise.
At the quotation level, Shields scans high and popular culture for thoughts about the body, youth, aging, and death. "Aristotle described childhood as hot and moist, youth as hot and dry, and adulthood as cold and dry," Shields writes in my favorite chapter, "Decline and Fall." "The rapper Ice-T said, 'We're here to stick our heads above water for just a minute, look around, and go back under,'" he writes in "Exit Interviews." "Joke courtesy of Dr. Herring: There are three kinds of married sex. When you're married, you're so lusty you have sex in every room in the house. After several years, the passion dies down a little, and you confine sex to the bedroom. After many years, you pass each other in the hallway and say, 'Fuck you,'" he writes in "Sex and Death (iii)."
At the final level, the level of science journalism, we are fed the biological facts of life. There's information on the leading causes of death, the function of sex, and the point at which this and that society declares you done—"In France, the brain has to be silent for 48 hours. In the former Soviet Union, patients needed to flatline for five minutes."
The movement between the scientific, the cultural, and the personal is effortless. Shields's greatest accomplishment is here: He never significantly shifts his tone when moving from one mode to the next. The science sections do not sound too lifeless; the personal sections do not sound too full of life. They are just about the same, and because he has a pleasant tone, he transforms a terrible subject into a pleasant reading experience.
Finally, his book has a heart. It's on page 212. The three types of text (memoir, quotes, science journalism) are held by this core—a word that means heart in French, "coeur," a word that gives us "courage" and also "cordial," and "cardiac arrest." What makes this book live is here: "What I've been trying to get to all along, in a way, is this: The individual doesn't matter. You, Dad, in the large scheme of things, don't matter. I, Dad, don't matter. We are vectors on the grids of cellular life. We carry 10 to 12 genes with mutations that are potentially lethal. These mutations are passed on to our children— you to me, me to Natalie."
Here we understand the curse of the second fall. Not the first fall from Eden, but the second fall from Cædmon's world. At the time the hymn appeared in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People—the eighth century—a human was lucky to live to 40 and likely to live to 30. But in that "brief crack of light between the two eternities of darkness" at least there was a shaper of all things and an existential roof over your being. Science has more than doubled our life spans but at the terrible price of living with the truth—that life is a process that has no shaper or shelter, that life is not about humans but about something else, something out of our control. We are gene robots. We are replicants. We live for long but we live for nothing.