:: Article

No Way to Say Goodbye

By Julian Hanna.


Stefany Anne Golberg and Morgan Meis, Dead People, Zero Books, 2016

What makes a life noteworthy and important? What makes a good life? And when a life ends, what constitutes a good summing up, a worthy eulogy? How can a writer, pressed for time, do justice to a life – a great life, presumably – within the hackneyed confines of a two-page obituary? How does one attempt to revive such a dead form?

Or if not dead, then at least resting – unsung, taken for granted – like the manifesto before Marx and Marinetti, when it meant simply a straightforward declaration of intent, no “spectre haunting Europe”, no “courage, audacity, and revolt”. The standard obituary form is: so-and-so was born, rose (usually struggled) to greatness, and died. There is almost a sense that words fail in the face of death, so it is best just to state the facts. How do you breathe life into such a predictable story?

In Dead People, Stefany Anne Golberg and Morgan Meis show us one approach to reinvigorating the form. The collection of twenty-nine obituaries has a provocative cover that makes it great fun to read on the metro. It was written mainly for The Smart Set over the past decade (there are exceptions drawn from n+1 and The New Yorker), and the almost single venue contributes to the high degree of intimacy present in the telling of each life. The authors strike a tone of late-night candour, loose and flowing in the warm glow of the third or fourth drink. But the easy style belies a deeper engagement, honesty about the subject, and a willingness to deal with difficult themes. “We’ve chosen to take these lives personally”, the authors declare in the preface. What Golberg and Meis achieve for the most part is an effortless distillation, boiling down the essence of a public figure’s achievements. The big idea, the breakthrough, the one thing that makes an indelible mark on the culture – this is what we are shown in each brief life.

The people in this book are celebrities, to a greater or lesser extent, who shuffled off this mortal coil sometime during the past decade. Writers and artists, mostly: Sontag, Updike, Achebe, and Hitchens are here; artists include Twombly, Rauschenberg, and Opalka. There are musicians as well: Sun Ra, Guru, Kurt Cobain, and Adam Yauch. There are actors, producers, critics, and other culture industry figures. There is also a category of subject that transcends boundary lines, and might be described as “infamous”: Osama bin Laden and Mikhail Kalashnikov represent it here. There are only two women featured, which is a surprising oversight in an otherwise excellent book. The earliest published piece is on Sontag, who died in 2004; Sun Ra and Cobain died earlier, of course, but their obituaries were written after an interval of years. As a result they are less emotionally raw than the majority of pieces, which were written and published days (or hours) after the subject’s death. The authors are co-founders of Flux Factory, an artist collective and residency program based in New York since 1993. This context lends the writing intimacy: many of the reminiscences are of personal encounters with the subjects.

In terms of approach, to convey the essence of a person in a couple of pages means the authors have to cut to the chase. They frequently skip major life events, bypassing conventional obituary fare. Far from giving the sense that anything was lost, however, the cuts feel exhilarating, dispensing with old rituals. The death of the art critic Robert Hughes, for example, is treated not as an occasion to revisit Hughes’s childhood in Australia, or to digest the many books he wrote, but as a jumping off point for a lively discussion of Hughes’s relationship to Clement Greenberg, the leading critic of the previous generation. Hughes departed from Greenberg’s once revolutionary formalism, favouring a return to spiritualism in art – he tried to steer art “back toward the realm of deep meaning”. This was his big project, his main contribution, and this is the focus of his obituary. Similarly, Chinua Achebe’s achievements as the “Father of Modern African Literature” are examined through the prism of his famous accusation that Joseph Conrad was “a bloody racist”, and an analysis of the contrasting views of Africa the two men present. Later in the (obviously eclectic) book, when Meis writes about the death of Adam “MCA” Yauch in 2012, he sums up the Beastie Boys as “a theological problem”: “How do you unify a trinity?” The answer, he posits, lay in their innovation of trading vocals inside a line, finishing each other’s sentences. With this discovery, the possibilities and complexity of rap exploded. The seemingly awkward tripartite structure of the group was a necessary precondition to its ability to venture into previously unknown territory. MCA’s death, Meis observes, also meant “the death of the trio of which he was one indivisible part”.

Dead People treats the reader like a member of a casual but learned club. There is a lot of assumed knowledge in these pieces – we all know who X is, so let’s jump right in. But that frees up the writer to talk about what is most fascinating; the skimming saves us from a slog through a litany of facts about the life of a figure we may not especially care about. What is left over is the cream. I’ve heard enough tales of Christopher Hitchens’s heroic drinking, his hawkish position on Iraq, and how critical he was of Mother (now Saint) Teresa and her “cult of death and suffering” – and we are spared these here. Instead we are told, by someone who knew him, the One Great Thing about Hitchens regardless of his faults: “we all loved to have Christopher Hitchens around [because] … he was proof that life does not always have to be so relentlessly disappointing, so boring.”

Golberg and Meis wrote the pieces separately, in distinct but complementary styles. Their voices provide a texture of variation that is lively and refreshing, never jarring. They have just enough in common, and just enough to make them different. Golberg is subtle and expansive, often stopping just short of sentimental to deliver meditative and affecting eulogies. Her obituary on David Weiss, half of the Swiss artistic duo Fischli/Weiss, unravels brilliantly into a tribute to Rube Goldberg, the inspiration behind Rube Goldberg machines. She sidelines Weiss for most of the piece yet still hits on the essential accomplishment of Fischli/Weiss and their most famous work, the Goldbergian film The Way Things Go (1987).

Meis is blunter, more direct, and occasionally comes across as flip or arrogant. Summing up twentieth-century life, he writes: “It sucked.” Elsewhere he states: “The modern world doesn’t make great cathedrals, stone temples, or paintings…. The modern world makes cheap shit out of plastic.” (Neither pronouncement is quite wrong.) But he won me over in the end with gimlet-eyed summaries like this one, on the American art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto: “Thrown into a world of Velveeta and Chicken of the Sea, Danto found joy. Did he find too much joy? Did he surrender his critical edge in order to be amazed by Velveeta and Cheerios? That will always be the question with Danto.” Or his emotional declaration on David Foster Wallace, to whom he first expresses a collective critical guilt (“We called him an ironist”): “But you meant it and you were always going for a literature that means it. You weren’t like so many of the others. You were a fucking human being.” It’s nice to read an obituary with heart.

Neither author shies away from speaking plainly on difficult themes. Golberg’s obituary of Václav Havel, for example, begins with detailed and helpful summaries of Havel’s plays and Czech history before delving deeper into an analysis of Havel’s political philosophy:

The modern project to make humans more powerful – more in control of our environment, of nature, each other – resulted, rather, in a loss of power, a loss of meaning. And the deeper we experience the absence of meaning, “the more energetically meaning is sought.”
This is the point when individual people, alienated and lacking purpose, become susceptible to ideology, to placing their trust in an anonymous Power that offers them comfort, even if that comfort is a lie. It’s not even necessary that people believe in the lies they are told; they only need to behave as if they do, to conform to its logic.

(I can’t recall having read a better explanation of the rise of Donald Trump than this.)

Relieved of the tiresome burden of giving basic facts about their subjects, the authors frequently end up in unexpected places. Sometimes these are deeply philosophical or personal places, while other times they are more casually thrown out – the assertion that Tom Clancy and David Foster Wallace are “brothers” united by their love of facts, for example, or that John Updike brought together the “lineyness” of American experience (e.g. by using brand names) and the “painterlyness” of a great novelist. There are some pleasant surprises in the choice of subjects, too – choices helped by fate, of course – like the French-Polish conceptual painter Roman Opalka (1931-2011). I was not at all familiar with the artist or his life’s work, “1965 / 1 – ∞”. But once I read the piece, I couldn’t get it out of my head: a “project of painting time” that consisted of Opalka painting numbers on canvas after canvas, for decades, until the day he died.

In short, Dead People is how I would want my own obituary to be handled, should I ever come to merit one: not solemn or dutiful, a dull rehearsal of milestones and setbacks, but something lively and curious, an all-night drunken wake, a celebration of whatever it was I managed to contribute to intellectual life during my brief stint among the living. When the needle drops on Beck’s Casio drone cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” (thank me later), and the guests are swaying from side to side, and they’re lowering my casket into the earth or scattering my ashes to the four winds, I want some plucky young scribe in a garret to be writing about my life for a crushing deadline in just these terms.


Julian Hanna was born in Vancouver and lives on the island of Madeira. His research on manifestos and other subjects often appears in academic journals; his creative writing can be found in The Atlantic, Berfrois, Minor Literature[s], Numéro Cinq, and elsewhere. He is a previous contributor to 3:AM. Twitter: @julianisland and @crapfutures.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 14th, 2016.