Alistair McCartney's The Disintegrations
The Disintegrations: A Novel
(University of Wisconsin Press, 2017)
In his debut novel, The End of the World Book (2008), which took on the form of an encyclopedia, sandwiched between topics such as “Diana’s Wedding” and “Mad Cow Disease,” Alistair McCartney offered an entry on “Death.” In that section, he linked Death with actor Erik Estrada, and more specifically to the mirrored sunglasses worn by the character on CHiPs that obscured his face. McCartney wrote, “You can see your own reflection in death’s shadows, but you can’t see Death’s eyes. That’s the Death part.”
In The Disintegrations, his second novel and one that continues the nose-thumbing at novelistic convention, McCartney peels back those shades and looks Death squarely in the eye—but more than that, scrutinizes Death from a dizzying array of angles and perspectives. Not only do we see the reflection of McCartney’s narrator, who shares the author’s name, but we see our own, as well as Death mirrored fractally in a thousand-and-one instances, stories within stories, asides, koans, and aperçus. If Erik Estrada makes no cameo, the book feels at least as encyclopedic as its predecessor, exhausting a single subject rather than a gamut, or finding the gamut in that oneness. More than that though, the novel troubles itself again and again not only with the obdurate fact of death and all that that entails, but the question of what we can know, who we can know, and how we might forge connections even in the face of the unfathomable.
At times, reading The Disintegrations can feel a bit like dipping into one of those microhistories, obsessive and far-ranging geek-outs—the history of the pencil or the way salt shifted the axis of history. McCarthy’s narrator declares that death is “my primary obsession...[, that] which makes the function of obsession inevitable, indispensable,” adding that “Without death there would be no need to obsess.” And sure enough one unearths a slew of information related to death along the way, from the notable people who died in 1971 (Nikita Khrushchev, Coco Chanel, Jim Morrison, Harold Lloyd, and Stravinsky) to the time-span required for reincarnation in different Buddhist traditions (a second to seven years). One gleans arcana related to coffins—that it derives from Old French “cofin, meaning little basket,” and one comes to grasp the difference between coffins and caskets (the former follows the shape of the human body, the latter not).
But the genre resemblance quickly breaks down; here such facts are decidedly ancillary to the novel’s abiding concerns—how to wrestle with the overwhelming existential, intellectual, and emotional implications of mortality, and, perhaps even more strongly, how we might spend our living days otherwise in light of those implications. There is no shortage of self-examination, unsurprising given that it feels as though we’re at least in the neighborhood of autobiographical fiction, but this book is anything but solipsistic—rather, it insists on exploring a wide range of characters. Or, rather, let us call them people, since many of these portraits feel virtually four-dimensional, burdened, and blessed with lives and afterlives, as well as an essential dimension of mystery that McCartney is in no rush to dispel.
These are memorable portraits. There’s Aino, a colleague at the university where the narrator works. Born in Europe and of Finnish descent but having been exposed to many cultures, places, and languages, she works as an academic until she becomes sick and dies (there are no spoilers, one quickly realizes—or rather, the end of life is merely a point of entry). For her, McCartney meditates on language and translation, the body and soul, but also more bluntly, how we treat others. We meet Chris, a chef whom the narrator meets but a single time while stoned, and through him we are led into a rumination on attention’s fragility. There is Eun Kang, the victim of an unthinkably gruesome, seemingly random murder, who comes to speak forcefully to him in the form of a Gwisin, a Korean ghost. We’re introduced to Jill Yip, a dancer who seems ready to spring back to life at any moment in mid-leap, and Cooper, whose life lasts only a week but feels expansive and palpable in these pages. We meet Erin Doyle, a childhood girlfriend before the narrator realized he was gay, who travels from Perth to Tijuana for an assisted suicide. Of her, the narrator suggests that “Sometimes death makes people clearer, sharpens their outlines, but not Erin. She was more indefinite than ever.” Indeed, this might be said of almost anyone in the book, disintegration is part of the human condition rather than something that begins the moment death is pronounced.
As we wend our way amid these characters and stories, it comes to feel like wandering a graveyard with a friend as tour guide. Each chapter is a plot—some are smaller, the headstones tilted to near-flatness, the names weathered to a blur, while others are grander monuments, ornate, chiseled, and wide. But the book has the effect of democratizing its characters, as does death itself—elevating the forgotten and shunned in life while demoting the high and mighty with the swing of an Ozymandian gavel. In “Holy Cross” alone, McCartney has us imagine “163,471 varying states of disintegration, none of them identitical, all of them unique.” Even as most of them—and eventually all—will be forgotten, McCartney reminds us that each is singular, and might warrant a story as rich and compelling as those which he places before us. The question Lin-Manuel Miranda poses in Hamilton—“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”—is one that McCartney revisits as devotedly as one might a personally significant grave marker.
Along this tour, McCartney’s narrator engages the reader as a co-conspirator, a narratee trundling closely behind. While declaring himself “pretty reserved,” he suggests that something “got him talking to you.” At times, the narrative fourth wall becomes a thin scrim through which confidences might readily pass—“You remind me of someone,” declares the narrator playfully at one point, while confiding in the implied listener stories that he purports never to have shared before. While this “you” shifts throughout the story, its shadow pops up everywhere, and we come to realize that it is connection that the narrator seeks above all, a hunger or need that unites everyone within, and even peering into these pages.
Elsewhere the book explores how death vexes language as much as the body, how we anoint celebrity, the relationship between sex and death, and the pervasiveness of chance. This latter plays a particularly outsize role in the novel, from the narrator’s encounter with Robert, a Brendan Fraser lookalike who works as a body double, to a near-miss in which the narrator has a casual conversation with the Birnies, a couple who later turn out to be serial killers as well as perpetrators of horrific sexual assaults. A chapter called “Brushes with Death” recounts an appendicitis, a run-in with a rattlesnake in a Poppy Reserve, and others. The Disintegrations works through motif more than causality, and one becomes attuned to its echoes and reverberations, which themselves reflect the way in which the dead can insist on visiting us and occupying our thoughts. McCartney plays again and again with the symmetry of the living and the dead, treating them roughly in the manner that Joyce does in the final sentence of “The Dead,” i.e. as equals, buried under the indifferent blanket of snowfall. In the section “Demographics,” for instance, McCartney compares above-ground Culver City to below-ground Holy Cross Cemetery as though they are simply neighboring communities; picture Calvino’s Marco Polo working in an urban planning office and you’ll get the idea (yes, it’s bleakly funny, as is so much here).
In the end, though, while honoring and at times even favoring the teeming world beneath the ground, The Disintegrations recalls us to life, resoundingly. Even as the Alistair McCartney in its pages laments that “the dead remain unmoved by our words, our music, our tears,” his novel is sure to move nearly anyone who comes across these pages, all of us in various stages of distintegration, who yet manage to hold ourselves together as best we can.
TIM HORVATH is the author of Understories, (Bellevue Literary Press) and Circulation (sunnyoutside). His stories have appeared in journals such as Conjunctions, Fiction, The Normal School, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing in the BFA and low-residency MFA programs at the New Hampshire Institute of Art.