It was in that spirit that I began reading The Disintegrations, Alistair McCartney’s novel about death. Each chapter is a meditation on an aspect of the phenomenon: some detail the narrator’s walks through Los Angeles’s Holy Cross Cemetery, others describe the deaths of people in his community — a former co-worker, neighbors, a childhood friend grown distant, family members. In the chapter that deals with the death of the narrator’s grandfather, he says, “I come from a long line of ghosts who are interested in words.” He also says, “I come from a long line of ghosts intent on self-deception.” Indeed, The Disintegrations is not just about death, but about the radical, frustrating unknowability of what lies beyond it — as well as about fiction’s power to flirt with the unknowable, if not to illuminate it. Ultimately, it’s about the self’s drive toward self-knowledge.
Like the author, the novel’s narrator is named Alistair. It would not be a stretch to consider this novel a work of autofiction, but it also blurs the distinction between fiction and nonfiction in other ways. Alistair relates stories of real people’s deaths, and some of the details are Googleable. Each chapter functions like an essay, with a self-contained topic and an introspective narrative voice, driven by theme more than plot. A disclaimer in the beginning reads:
This is a novel, a product of the author’s imagination. Even when real names of individuals or places are used, the characters, setting, and situations should not be mistaken for nonfiction; as someone once told me, Death makes fiction of us all.
The blurring of genres, then, embodies the tension inherent in reckoning with death through writing: we are dealing with real characters who are no longer real, who have entered a state we can only imagine.
“I may not know much about death,” Alistair admits, “but I know this: we know nothing about death, absolutely nothing.” He often refers to death as a “hole in the world” through which we all will pass, and once we pass through it, we are “irretrievable.” Importantly, this is not a conclusion he draws after his walks and meditations — it’s the assumption he holds before setting on his search. Sensing he can learn nothing, he continues to ponder.
Alistair’s alienation from other humans is a recurring theme. He says he prefers “books to reality,” that he doesn’t “like being near other humans when their bodies are blurting out their emotions.” “Corpses,” he says, “are easier to be around; they’re so calm.” Alistair isn’t pained by his alienation and isn’t trying to overcome it; alienation is merely a facet of his personality, which makes this sustained reflection on death possible.
I was often struck by how the book manages to capture the complications of mourning — the sense that the departed are shockingly distant yet painfully proximate, forever absent yet frozen in memory. In remembering a late dancer, Alistair muses on reincarnation:
Jill must have been reborn by now. I’m inclined to think she came back as a dancer; she’s condemned to die and return as a dancer, again and again, until her feet are ruined, her ankles shattered, until she has perfected her technique and fulfilled her promise.
Alistair is haunted by Jill’s thwarted potential, “even if,” he says, “it’s a haunting of a linguistic nature.” And in his mourning, he gives Jill another life — a frightening, mythical existence. He recognizes that his memory, and therefore his accounts of lives and deaths, are not reliable: “No, I’ve imparted a false account of Erin, warped and twisted her truth out of shape, like death distorts us beyond recognition.” This analogy between the physical decomposition of the body and the decomposition of truth in recollection is the central truth of The Disintegrations: “Death makes fiction of us all.”
We, the living, make fiction of the dead as we recall them. We make something out of nothing, compensating with words for the absence of flesh and spirit. But in the stories we tell of the dead, we also make fiction of ourselves. In his essay “The Death of the Postmodern Novel and the Rise of Autofiction,” Jonathon Sturgeon writes, “All of these novels” — Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Ben Lerner’s 10:04, and Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper — “point to a new future wherein the self is considered a living thing composed of fictions.”
If death makes fiction of us all, what does fiction make of its readers? Perhaps it makes us into mediums. In one chapter, Alistair recounts his experiences after learning that his neighbor, Eun Kang, has been murdered in her home. He claims he has started receiving visitations from her ghost, and he channels her words onto the page. To read this book is also to channel the narrator, the author, and, perhaps, the dead who are, in the words of the book’s dedication, interred within its pages. We are the counterparts to Alistair, channeling him as he channels Eun Kang, removed and inaccessible to him, and yet receiving his words.
The book ends with the narrator imagining his own death, his body confined in a hearse: “Just like a kid, my corpse will be excited, overly so, but will soon grow bored.” He imagines himself fidgeting and calling out to an unhearing hearse driver: “Are we there yet? Are we there?”
This immediately brought to mind the end of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, in which the protagonist suspects that he’s not asleep and dreaming but perhaps actually dead, which is why he can’t wake up from his “dream.” He then finally manages to “wake up,” only to walk outside and begin to float off the driveway, out of reach of the car beside which he’d been standing and away into the abyss of the sky. At the end of The Disintegrations, having spent so much time with its many dead, the narrator’s imagination of himself as a mildly annoyed, childlike corpse felt somehow uplifting — less like a tying-up of loose ends than an untethering.
Though the narrator says that he would, if he could, “board up that hole” in the world, “nail it shut,” he knows he cannot. Instead, The Disintegrations shows him reckoning with, and reveling in, death’s mysteries from the liminal space of the writing life.