Wylene Dunbar’s second novel is about a child born into the ultimate dysfunctional family. “My mother taught me how to live without feeling,” the now-grown-up narrator recalls, though without any trace of bitterness; “my father never reached his hand to touch me.” As a result, “Intimacy was … missing from my life … Physical intimacy, yes, but also emotional intimacy.”
The same laments can be found in any number of confessional memoirs. But this Kansas family is uniquely, er, cold. Mother, father and sister are in fact dead — corpses who walk and talk, their lifelessness simply not perceived by the rest of the world.
It’s a premise that even the most generous reader might find hard to accept. Fortunately, the writing in “My Life With Corpses” is so beautifully — almost uncannily — assured that, within only a few pages, we have no desire to leave Miss Dunbar’s surreal fictional world.
The novel’s narrator, identified only as “S. Oscar” and of indeterminate gender, matter-of-factly explains the mechanics of deadness. Corpses don’t differ noticeably from the living in their appearance or behavior. They even eat normal food, to counteract their weightlessness.
But they are not capable of experiencing the living world around them, or remembering incidents from their own lives, except in a flat, secondhand way, as if they were viewing snapshots.
So the narrator’s mother, a talented artist in life, continues to paint in death; “What painting she did, however, was confined to strictly representational art. The dead cannot do otherwise.”
And the narrator’s sister, who had died at the age of seven, never matures into an adult. She is perenially a “child in death … only capable of experiencing the most primitive of representations. Television — two dimensions portraying three — was too abstract for her and she could only watch it by watching my mother watch it.”
Miss Dunbar’s account of these wholesome farm-country zombies is suffused with black humor. She has a gift for the neatly-turned, ironic aphorism: Of her parents’ post-deathbed conversion to a strict religious fundamentalism, the narrator says dispassionately, “I do not begrudge them the path they took. It is not necessarily a simple task to live life after one has died.”
Likewise, S. Oscar comments drily of his (or her?) own, highly improbable birth to a deceased mother: “Once they have died, women are generally unable to give birth to any more children. Indeed, the doctor told my mother unequivocally that she should not — would not — have another baby … Mules give birth on rare occasion and that supposedly is impossible, too. Whatever the explanation, there can be no doubt that here I am.”
If all this sounds too macabre, Miss Dunbar also offers vivid sketches of S. Oscar’s early experiences outside the family home, happily roaming the Kansas bluffs with a dog and pony for companions, learning how to be alive.
S/he befriends the town intellectual, an elderly widower named Winfield Evan Stark. It is Mr. Stark who first grasps the seriousness of his young friend’s situation. When he decides to confront the child’s parents with what he knows, the outcome is truly astonishing (I won’t say more, for fear of spoiling the surprise). And S. Oscar is launched into the world of the living.
Under the care of a foster family, s/he adjusts to non-dead life, experiencing new emotions and tentatively putting names to them like a person trying out a foreign language. The question of gender is finally resolved. “‘You do know that you are not a boy?’” her foster mother, Mrs. Branscom, asks. “I nodded. I knew I was not a boy … It was only my mother’s well-meant charade, to provide the requisite son, and my father had acquiesced.”
At the age of 16, the precocious girl — who, Miss Dunbar lets slip after more than 100 pages, goes by the nickname “Oz” — enters college. Very soon she falls under the spell of a brilliant, enigmatic philosophy professor named Jean Napoleon. Inspired by Napoleon’s “unsurpassed talent for thinking,” Oz continues to study philosophy through college and graduate school, eventually becoming a professor herself.
According to the book’s dust jacket, Miss Dunbar, too, is a former philosophy teacher. She brings her own generous, engaging spirit of philosophical inquiry to every page of this book. And she endows Oz with the philosopher’s habits of mind: a relentless logic, an addiction to theorizing and categorizing.
Academia gives Oz the intellectual stimulation she craves, but she’s troubled by its lack of human vitality. There she comes to realize that her family is not unique: Corpses wander the campus all around her. “There are, you see, more corpses in academia than anywhere else you might name.” (I’m sure most college students would vouch for this.)
Throughout the second half of the novel, Oz perceptively diagnoses her peers’ hidden causes of death — metaphysical causes, that is.
Her excitable college roommate Mogie dies of “histronia,” a terminal excess of feeling. Jean Napoleon, on the other hand, succumbs to what Oz calls “Donovan’s death,” in which a highly active mind sucks up all the body’s resources, leaving the victim “stranded there in her head cut off from the body that has sustained her and faced with a desperate, nearly impossible return to the body for sustenance.”
The opposite of Donovan’s death is “Jivaro,” a kind of shrunken-mind disease that afflicts “[t]hose who regularly and rotely enforce rules without regard to their underlying principle.” Not surprisingly, bureaucrats are most susceptible to it.
The absurdist conceit of “My Life With Corpses” doesn’t cloy or wear thin — a testament to Miss Dunbar’s abilities. But the plot stalls towards the end, as the adult Oz drifts into relationships with unsuitable (read: nearly-dead) men and analyzes their maladies, at somewhat excessive length.
Her marriage to Judah Connell, an actor, simply doesn’t ring true. What on earth would the impassive, fastidious Oz see in a man who smirks “O-oh! Doctor” when she introduces herself, and likes to greet his friends as “my man“?
Still, “My Life With Corpses” is remarkable for the subtlety and confidence with which its author handles such a daunting theme. Although there is a clear psychological aspect to her study of mortality, the novel never lapses into pat allegory: These corpses aren’t “really” just love-starved or depressed. They are both dead enough and alive enough to exist in that special, liminal realm of the best magical-realist fiction.
MY LIFE WITH CORPSES
By Wylene Dunbar
Harcourt, $24, 319 pages