Not thinking about death – our own and that of the people we love – is probably a mechanism of the mind that prevents us from being paralysed by its inevitability. Although, paradoxically, death can provide the impetus to enjoy life while we have it, and to find the kind of perspective that allows us to gracefully deal with the daily frustrations and irritations that accompany a beating heart.
Roughly honest poet Charles Bukowski put it this way: “We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.”
She would probably flinch at the use of what is a relatively commonly used quote, and author Frankie Murrey certainly doesn’t use it, but it is a fitting description of her debut collection of short stories, titled Everyone Dies – A Series
It is an unsettling series of stories, as death is, and could be considered a book of poems rather than prose; rare is the paragraph that does not contain an arresting image or original turn of phrase. It is a world in which, refreshingly, expectations are not met:
“My doctor said I should watch my diet and suggested a pacemaker. I ignored him. And my son. Who I knew was hoping to one day have it out with me. I had been avoiding serious conversations with him since he started showing an interest in them at age thirteen. There would no doubt be consequences. And now, hospital-bound, tied to a bed by tubes, I can no longer escape him.” – Extract from ‘She said she was from the future’.
And yes, everyone does die, and not in a climactic Game of Thrones sense, despite the subtitle: A series. The drama here is internal, muted. Often it is not so much that someone – mostly the narrator – dies, as life having escaped, or at the very least been let go of.
Inherent in these thematically interlinked stories is a questioning of assumptions; of what is normal, what is accepted. Social conventions are anathema to Murrey’s characters, none of whom, unless I am mistaken, are given a name. Would it be in bad taste to call her characters spectral? Certainly in the longest of the stories, The Table, the woman whose thoughts we read fades almost visibly before us.
Dark? Obviously. But also with a constant undertow of humour. Not of the macabre kind, although there is that, arguably. It is self-awareness that provides relief, the kind that allows a person to laugh at themself. This is not the manufactured angst of a 20-year-old who in reality still feels immortal. It is the fictive reflections of a mature mind who is able to appreciate the irony of death and sardonically note our urge toward it warring with our antipathy to accepting it. As a whole, the stories cast a caustic eye on our death-driven society that puts such effort into pretending death does not exist. It is not surprising the characters are, if not outside it, at least at a societal remove.
Yet for all the emotional distance sensed in the arrangement of words depicting the lives – however short -and thoughts of Murrey’s intriguing characters, they also contain a breathtaking vulnerability, like a heart murmur behind the defiance of a bared chest.
Frankie Murrey is the co-ordinator of the Open Book literary festival and Everyone Dies is her literary debut. She will be dragged onto the stage of the Avalon Theatre to have a conversation with Book Lounge owner Mervyn Sloman at Open Book at 2pm on 9 September.