Letter 28: Brief Interviews – “A Radically Condensed History…” and “Death Is Not The End”

Dear Dave,

Having already seen the film adaptation of Brief Interviews, I was thrown for a bit of a loop as I started reading it recently.  I realize now that the film focuses on the primary story line told through the Interviews themselves, but that there are also some great short stories that intersperse the Interview chapters and are certainly worthy of attention on their own.  I want to address the first two chapters and see if I can pull a common thread out of these very different stories.

The first story, “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life,” is all of 79 words long[1] with nameless characters that are mere embodiments of humanity.  It is an overly simplistic man-meets-woman story that has probably been repeated – both in fiction and in real life – an infinite number of times.  He cracks jokes, she laughs heartily; both drive away hoping to have made a good impression, longing for and hoping for acceptance.

Is that all that Postindustrial Life boils down to?  A desire for acceptance?  A desire for genuine connection with another human being?  If that is the case, it begs other questions, like is this desire limited to Postindustrial Life?  Or could this story be titled “A Radically Condensed History of Human Life”?  It seems that this longing has always been with us and has found itself at the thematic center of almost every story of yours that I’ve read.[2]

The next story, “Death Is Not The End,” starts with what is probably the longest single sentence I have ever read.[3] It is a two-and-a-half page enumeration of the awards and honors bestowed upon the “poet’s poet” who is spending a lazy afternoon lounging poolside reading a recent issue of Newsweek.  What strikes me is not the extensive laundry list of his accomplishments, nor is it his less-than-attractive physique so vividly described.  It is the abrupt transition[4] between this sentence describing The Poet[5] and the description of the quiet solitude surrounding him.  He is so secluded and alone, there is not even the ambient sound of birds or jet planes or distant lawn mowers.

Although the peace and tranquility are evident, the Poet’s feelings about his solitude are not.  Is he enjoying the fruits of an illustrious career and taking a much-needed vacation from the limelight?  Or are his fifteen minutes of fame over?  Is his solitude filled with loneliness?  Is this nameless character just like those in the preceding story, alone and searching for personal connection?  Has his fame and celebrity and talent stood in the way of real relationships with others?

And then the title contains much of the same ambiguity as the rest of the story.  If Death is not the end, what is?  Is this existence of sipping iced tea by the side of a secluded pool the end?  Is this life as a former poet, award-winner, etc. a fate worse than death itself?  He has enjoyed all the fame and accolades, but now has no one to share the rest of his life with.  Perhaps this loneliness is the real end.

It was Thoreau[6] who said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.”  We all need some sort of real, tangible connection with other human beings.  It is a desperate longing to touch and hold and commune with another.  To be understood and appreciated, not just by a blind date who laughs at our jokes or an adoring public who hangs on every word we write.  But to have genuine contact with our fellow man (or woman).

[1] I’ve seen footnotes longer than that.

[2] “Little Expressionless Animals” and “Good People” jump to mind, but I am sure there are plenty of others.

[3] I know this two-and-a-half-pager is nothing compared to some of Joyce’s infamously long sentences, but I tend to avoid Joyce like I avoid shaking hands with someone who has just sneezed into their hands.

[4] There isn’t even a paragraph break between the two.  Only a period and a capital letter.

[5] I couldn’t help but recall Emerson’s essay, “The Poet,” which is a sort of Transcendentalist version of a casting call for a great American poet to rise up from the populace and Whitman’s attempts to fill the role.

[6] A man well acquainted with solitude, but not necessarily with loneliness.


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