Grieving is a universal process, but wading through that morass of grief is something everyone handles differently. Some try to numb the pain with alcohol; others throw themselves into their work. When Meghan O'Rourke's mother died in 2008, she turned to Google.
"One afternoon, about three weeks after my mother died, unable to get far from bed, I googled ‘grief.' I was having a bad day. It was two p.m., and I was on the bed wondering: Was it normal to believe surviving is pointless? Was I losing my mind? I wanted a picture of this experience from the outside: a clinical picture. So I began to read, thinking that information might stop me from feeling that I was floating away."
O'Rourke presents that clinical picture of grief, along with a personal one, in her new, frustrating memoir, The Long Goodbye (Riverhead). Neither a deeply moving account nor a particularly informative one, The Long Goodbye is all the more exasperating for the many flashes of brilliance that sparkle throughout.
I should probably acknowledge here that I once vaguely knew O'Rourke—we had a couple of classes together in college, though for the life of me, I can't remember now what they were, and as she was two years older, I doubt she has any recollection of me. Still, I've always followed her career with interest, perhaps mainly because I am a longtime reader of The New Yorker and Slate. (O'Rourke has been an editor at both publications and now regularly freelances for the two.)
When I heard the news that O'Rourke was writing a book about her mother's death, I was intrigued. I, too, had a parent die of cancer far too young (my father was 47; O'Rourke's mother was 55), and as O'Rourke notes early on, there just isn't that much written about grief that isn't a self-help book:
"We've subscribed to the belief (or pretense) that [grief] happens in five tidy stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. (The jaggedness of my experience hardly corresponded to these stages.) As grief has been framed as a psychological process, it has also become a more private one. … Although we have become more open about everything from incest to sex addiction, grief remains strangely taboo. In our culture of display, the sadness of death is largely silent."
I couldn't agree more. Grief for many people, myself very much included, is not tidy at all; if it lasts too long, it is labeled as a psychological disorder, "complicated grief." Our culture treats the funeral as closure for the grieving family; in reality, in most cases it's nothing but a blur. I can remember the dress I wore to my dad's memorial service, but I have no idea who spoke at it. And after all the flowers die and the casseroles are eaten and the "In Sympathy" cards trickle away, you're still grieving, but no one really wants to talk about it. Most companies' bereavement leave policies (if they have them at all) only provide for a couple of days off—enough time to travel to the funeral, perhaps, but not enough time to actually stop being bereft.
O'Rourke claims to be open about her grief in The Long Goodbye, but she never delves too deeply into the untidy parts. She describes in great detail the agony of her mother's battle with colorectal cancer—the chemotherapy, the remission, the recurrence, the death. But she spends just a page on her decision during this time to end her marriage after only eight months. O'Rourke talks about struggling with her grief, but she never really does an adequate job of letting the reader into that agony.
Instead, she therapeutically offers citation after citation—an expert on grief, another expert on grief, her father citing an ancient Egyptian scholar on grief, a novelist on grief. Burying herself in months of research and reading may have helped O'Rourke bear her mother's loss, but so many citations fill the second half of her memoir that they lose all meaning. She hops from one scholar to another with little context.
These citations would work in the context of a short essay, or in the blog-post-style pieces for Slate in which a good portion of this book originated. But far too often, they distract from an otherwise powerful scene, such as when O'Rourke and her brothers and father are scattering her mother's ashes in the ocean: Instead of mentioning that she read the beginning of Keats' "Endymion," O'Rourke feels compelled to quote the entire passage. This happens again and again.
It feels unfair to compare The Long Goodbye to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, because, really, it's just unfair to compare almost any writer to Didion. However, it's impossible not to read the former without thinking of the latter. Both are memoirs about grief that take place mostly in New York, both ask the question: How can you write about that for which there is no words, a pain so intense and personal it is beyond comprehension?
Didion's memoir of losing her husband is so raw and painful I had trouble reading it a dozen years after my father's death. Only fragments of O'Rourke's book came close to being that powerful. Her chapter describing her mother's actual death, written entirely in the present tense, is stunning, but as the rest of the book is a straightforward narrative in the past tense, also jarring, not in a good way.
I think The Long Goodbye might have worked better as a collection of essays, dividing the personal and the scholarly into separate thoughts. As it stands, it is a somewhat interesting, partially well written meditation on loss that could have used more editing.