Still Life With Dead People 

Vandy grad takes on the meaning of life in a new novel

Vandy grad takes on the meaning of life in a new novel

My Life with Corpses

By Wylene Dunbar

(Harcourt, 319 pp., $24)

Somewhere along the way we've picked up the idea that one person can be more alive than another, a theory most often invoked at funerals, when the deceased's tabletop dancing, rib-poking and high-decibel laughter have undergone the magical transformation from annoying to endearing. Suddenly it seems the departed made more of the time we are given, lived life to the fullest while the rest of us were merely drifting through, dead in all but physical reality. This view of life and its qualities informs the central metaphor of Wylene Dunbar's second novel, My Life With Corpses, a book about the dead that is thoroughly preoccupied with life.

The book is the surreal account of Oz Oscar, a Kansas farm girl who at 12 is found by a neighbor to be living with the dead bodies of her family. The child cannot explain either the cause of her family's death or how long they've been dead; in her mind she's been interacting with them all along. The narrative begins years after her rescue when Oz, now a professor of philosophy, believes that her parents and sister were dead all along, victims of emotional maladies that become the subject of the rest of the book.

Nicknamed for her ability to appear impassive and powerful in the face of dire consequences—a skill nurtured by her family of corpses, unable to show any emotion—Oz is traumatized by her earlier experiences. She finds herself surrounded by what she interprets as spiritual zombies, people killed by broken dreams, overbearing spouses, failure. Living corpses pervade every aspect of her life. Individuals that the reader recognizes as merely emotionally spent, Oz sees as the walking dead. After she struggles to come to terms with her talent for spotting the dead inside, Oz's life is disrupted when the grave of the man who discovered her comes up empty, in his place a pristine copy of a memoir she wrote of her early years, My Life With Corpses. When she travels to her hometown to investigate the disappearance, she is forced to confront a past she thought she had left behind.

The book is every bit as intriguing as it sounds, but the execution has its shortcomings. The most noteworthy flaw is that of voice, a particularly significant failure for Dunbar because her narrative rests entirely on Oz's underdeveloped shoulders. The first-person narrative grants Dunbar her central metaphor, but she too often labors for the conversational, sprinkling the text with obligatory you-knows and of-courses, which is increasingly infuriating in a book where everything is anything but a matter of course. Consequently, despite Dunbar's own intelligence and education—at the age of 24 she earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Vanderbilt—Oz becomes a condescending New Age know-it-all, sounding more than a bit stoned when dispensing her already sketchy wisdom: "I mean, are words waves or particles, or one of those virtually real entities whose existence has to be postulated to make all the rest make sense?" All this is only exacerbated by her penchant for capitalizing Truth (in the manner of someone unaccustomed to discussing it) and her dime-store philosophical allusions (Plato, Thoreau, Descartes and more Plato).

Possibly Dunbar's book teems with corpses because she fails to instill much life in her characters to begin with, tending instead to decorate them with occupations rather than actions and motivations. Oz's first live-in boyfriend wants to be a Lawyer. (He works too much.) Her first husband is an Actor. (Guess what? Flamboyant, larger-than-life.) Oz herself is a Philosopher, though any kind of recognizable philosophical discourse is notably absent from her account; she might as well be a Zookeeper, or a Professional Bowler. The man who finds Oz with her dead family is the most unconvincing Atheist I've ever encountered in fiction. Other lapses are less broad but just as telling. A "dying" character seems to take pleasure from killing three baby squirrels and their mother. Blue-collar workers drink RC Cola and eat bologna sandwiches. The only character that can reasonably stand on her own is Oz, and surely that's inevitable, given that this is her story.

The bulk of the book is spent cataloging the varieties of emotional, spiritual and intellectual death, rather than developing any kind of plot trajectory. We discover that academia is the profession most welcoming to the "dead." We discover that life flows freely between individuals in close contact, in what Oz deems life exchange. We discover that some people are like black holes, sucking the life out of others. At times, the book reads like a death-obsessed version of Kipling's Just So Stories, offering imaginative explanations of corpse treatment and behavior: To Oz, for example, the dead are buried in graveyards because proximity to their own kind takes the place of emotional and physical intimacy.

Some of this is clever, and some of it is a little precious, but it all tends to obscure the book's primary strength: the profoundly damaged Oz. The trauma of her early life has a suffocating hold on Oz, and the most moving sections of the book concern how it affects her personal life. Constantly pairing herself with insensitive and narcissistic men, she finds that glimpses in the mirror reveal a budding corpse, which she attributes to her unhealthy relationships. Her efforts to distance herself from these men and overcome the lasting effects of her past reveal the real emotional wisdom of this book. "[L]ife cannot be taken in and kept to yourself. It must move, flowing out of one to another.... If we have been unaware of the particulars, it is only because the process seems to be instinctive for those raised in the ordinary way." In a time where most would Zoloft their spiky EKGs into gently undulating waves, My Life With Corpses is a testament to vibrant and engaged life, with all the danger that it entails.

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