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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 8, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 36
'Death makes fiction of us all'

Alistair McCartney explores beguilingly morbid obsessions in The Disintegrations
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'Death makes fiction of us all'

Alistair McCartney explores beguilingly morbid obsessions in The Disintegrations

by Michael Upchurch - Special to the SGN

THE DISINTEGRATIONS
ALISTAIR MCCARTNEY
University of Wisconsin Press
219 pp., $26.95


To describe gay author Alistair McCartney's wryly obsessive new novel, The Disintegrations, as 'fiction' is a little misleading. Figures from his personal life - including his colleagues at Antioch University in Los Angeles and his husband, performance artist Tim Miller - turn up in it. Newspaper accounts of murders pepper its pages. Its details on Los Angeles' Holy Cross Cemetery aren't just diligently researched but obsessively experienced as McCartney wanders the graveyard again and again.

The Disintegrations even comes with a three-page bibliography that cites an online 'Serial Killer Crime Index' and something called 'The Oxfordshire Bereavement Guide' [215-216] among its sources. McCartney's explanation of what he's up to is as ambiguous as it is illuminating.

'This is a novel,' he writes, 'a product of the author's imagination. Even when real names of individuals or places are used, the characters, settings, and situations should not be mistaken for nonfiction; as someone once told me, Death makes fiction of us all.'

The book progresses in a series of reminiscences and inquiries. As such, it has a kinship with the work of Teju Cole (Open City) and Rachel Cusk (Outline, Transit). All three authors use associative thought and rumination as strangely compelling storytelling devices, with highly readable results.

To be sure, The Disintegrations is a tad more morbid than anything Cole and Cusk have written. It's also witty, hypnotic and waywardly fascinating. Vivid characters emerge from its ghoulish eccentricity, including McCartney's fictional version of himself. ('I'm the world's worst listener,' he admits, 'except when the subject is death and my ears prick up.') [96]

What kind of guy, one wonders, would write a book like this?

McCartney was born in Perth, Australia, in 1971, and has lived in Los Angeles since the 1990s. (He got together with Miller in 1994.) His first novel, The End of the World Book, was as offbeat as The Disintegrations. It consisted of 26 chapters - one for each letter of the alphabet - in which McCartney addressed random topics that caught his eye. Under 'M,' for instance, he focused on macramé, mad-cow disease, magpies, milk bottles, moans, mustaches and more. The Disintegrations shares the same urge to impose order on chaos - in this case, the chaos of death. 'There are only so many ways to be born,' McCartney remarks. 'But when it comes to death, God is at his most imaginative. & The options seem to be infinite.' [41]

Cancer, heroin overdose, murder, suicide - McCartney gets into it all. It takes a peculiar sort of chap to dwell so intently on these matters, and McCartney is indeed an oddball.

'Death gives me a purpose,' he declares, 'a sense of direction. Death keeps me focused.' [13]

Spinning tale after tale, anecdote after anecdote, he winds up paradoxically writing a book that teems with life, even as it keeps its eye on the threshold where life vanishes. Think of McCartney as a morgue-fixated Scheherazade, and you'll get an idea what The Distintegrations is like. Throw in his inability to keep his sexual impulses under control, whether he's at a funeral parlor with his husband or investigating cardboard crematory coffins at Holy Cross, and you're edging toward farce.

All McCartney's stories are addressed to an unidentified listener ('I feel like I can tell you almost anything'), [21] but this 'you' isn't Tim Miller, with whom things are 'touch and go' [31] at times. Instead, McCartney's 'you' could be the reader or, perhaps, one of the book's murder victims who stir such deep responses in him - among them, a young UCLA student, mentioned on the opening page, who vanished from his dorm and was found dead in Oregon a couple of years later.

It's disconcerting when McCartney, who came of age at the height of the AIDS epidemic, declares, 'It's not that there has been too much death in my life. The problem is there hasn't been nearly enough.' [106] But once you accept this premise, The Disintegrations is wholly seductive.

It can even be hilarious. One of McCartney's first brushes with death came when he was a boy. A married couple who lived in his suburban Perth neighborhood were caught kidnapping, torturing and murdering teenage girls. McCartney's mother, who often commented on what an eyesore their yard was, wasn't the least bit surprised. 'Well of course they did it,' she says. 'Just look at the state of their garden.' [51]

McCartney's death obsessions, it's hinted, may be a carry-over from his taste for slapstick cartoons ('Tom and Jerry,' 'Looney Tunes,' etc.) when he was a kid. 'Those old cartoons were bright and jazzy, and above all, they were violent,' he recalls. 'We would watch, riveted, as these cute fluffy creatures were flattened with huge frying pans, run over by trains or trucks, blown to bits by cherry-red sticks of dynamite, and shattered by cannonballs.' [94]

McCartney goes deeper than this, of course, when addressing his adult life. His chapter on the strangely appreciative way his Antioch colleague, Aino Passonen, dealt with a lethal brain tumor is extraordinary.

'I'm learning so much about the brain,' she says. 'All this wonderful knowledge. When they split open my skull and removed the tumor, I felt like I'd given birth to something, like Athena sprung from the head of Zeus.' [137-138]

It's a genuine pleasure to be in her company, and for anyone who's had direct experience of death, McCartney's casual sidestepping of the usual hush and discretion surrounding terminal illness feels like an act of urgent sympathy. For McCartney, Aino's eventual death triggers a recollection of a forgotten exchange they had when his first book was published. His strangely clinical phrasing of how this moment came back to him is as beautiful as it is unusual.

'When people die, flow out of the world,' he says, 'a certain pressure can be relieved, through an almost hydraulic mechanism, releasing memories.' [143]

That same pressure drives the whole book forward. There's no single plot that unfolds in The Disintegrations, but there are forces of revelation that build from chapter to chapter.



'The relationship between the living and the dead is not fixed; it is unstable,' McCartney observes. 'The relationship is not reciprocal. We are above ground thinking about the dead who are below ground, ignoring the living.' [62]

With its conversational voice and elasticity of method, The Disintegrations runs bracing circles around 'Death, the great disintegrator, the gnarly unmaker.' [105]

Novelist Michael Upchurch (Passive Intruder) writes frequently for The Seattle Times, Boston Globe and other publications.

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