Throughout most of our lives, we can ignore our fears about the threat of non-existence that yawns beyond the casket with as much reality as the non-existence out of which we came into our cradles. But when facing death, our own or that of a loved one, we feel compelled to review the idea of after life. Believers ratchet up their beliefs and atheists, like Hal in Jim Snowden’s Dismantle the Sun (Booktrope, 324 pages), hang tough.
According to conventional wisdom, atheists are imaginary creatures. No one (except other atheists) believes they exist, certainly not in the foxhole of impending death. This is why deathbed conversions are expected, even in the most “literary” of end-of-life novels, despite the fact that one of the accepted roles of a literary fiction author is to question how we make sense of our lives. If most novels have the same after-life-affirming answer, I wonder if these novelists are really asking themselves the question, or merely posing it rhetorically for the sake of a denouement. Every deathbed conversion, it seems to me, is another failure to actually question the meaning of life.
Snowden’s courageous refusal to backslide into belief for the sake of an emotionally “satisfying” ending makes him a strong contender for this year’s Dactyl Foundation Award for Literary Fiction (nominated by Paul Xylinides, see review). If the award were given for lack of sentimentality alone, Snowden would win, hands down. The novel is about Hal Nickerson, a high school teacher in Michigan, whose wife Jodie is dying of cancer in the dead of a Great Lake winter. Defending his individuality, Hal largely resents others who try to console him with their own death stories: how accurate was it for them to mix their “pain with Hal’s, as if they and the rest of humanity were manufacturing some sort of agony hash? Surely every death had its own, flavor, its own texture and temperature.”
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