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Pól Ó Lorcáin
Paul Larkin

Chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind, to overcome in their soarings up and down, all obstacles of distance, time and place.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, Chapter The Ninth

Embracing life whilst claiming to prepare for death

Book review - "A Preparation for Death" by Greg Baxter, Penguin, Ireland 2010.

Greg Baxter is a complete liar.

Perhaps I should explain this bald comment, as I consider the author of "A Preparation for Death" to be a friend and a comrade in writing (he will hate that statement). Greg Baxter is  also a damn good writer, and the students who attend his very popular “Someblindalleys” writing courses in Dublin are fortunate indeed to be tutored by such a passionate champion of the written word as an art form.

In fact, and almost in spite of himself and his pretensions for high art in low places, Baxter is so good that I urge all of my hundreds of loyal readers to go out and purchase a copy of “A Preparation for Death”.

This collection of essays, incorporating a sexual, literary and familial odyssey, is not the book that Greg Baxter claims it to be (more of which in a moment) but it is always thought provoking and has some brilliant evocations of place and time. Baxter also strives towards moments of true revelation about the human condition. There is no doubting his sincerity.

In a happy coincidence, I am reading a book by Danish author Martin A. Hansen called LøgnerenThe Liar. This is one of the greatest works in the Danish literary canon and forms part of the explanation for my describing Greg Baxter as a liar. It's a compliment.

All writers are liars

In a fascinating interview in the Guardian a few years ago, muscular north American writer John Irving said this about writing and lying:

"…to any writer with a good imagination all memoirs are false. A fiction writer's memory is an especially imperfect provider of detail; we can always invent a better detail than the one we remember. The correct detail is rarely exactly what happened; and the most truthful detail is what could have happened, or what should have ... ."

Readers can see the whole article at

Article - Guardian

The point I am making about Løgneren (pronounced Loyneren) is an important one, because it goes to the heart of the debate about what writing is and what it can do for us as human beings. In other words, the dramatic lie that is fiction (when it works) often tells us a truth far better than any realist writing can.

In A Preparation For Death (henceforth APFD) Greg Baxter tells us that he is not aspiring to any specific form of literature - the author has no “aim” other than being utterly honest and, as he says in the Irish Times, to write the kind of book that has never been written before.

See - Irish Times

It is perhaps ironic, then, that the best and most readable bits of APFD come in the partially fictional and more conventional descriptive passages and not at the points of apparent brutal honesty. These latter attempts at candidness often have a naked sexual context and come across as being more contrived and worked at than the rest of the narrative.

It takes determination and a particular form of targeted writing to write page after page of detail about sexual fantasies, or the enactment of them. It doesn’t just come out.

Like APFD,  Martin A. Hansen’s novel is also a form of autobiography, except that is based on a diary. It is fiction but contains a lot of oblique references to Hansen's role in the Danish resistance movement against Nazi occupation in Denmark and his own thoughts on the question of human relationships.

Where Greg Baxter falters (by believing that writing graphically and shockingly about  sex is to reveal a “truth”)  Hansen shows that, at its highest levels, fictionalised autobiography can reach beyond itself to get much closer to the truth of our existence.

Thus, the two women in Hansen’s novel (after whom the alcoholic hero lusts) are never humped over tables or fingered inside telephone boxes as in APFD, but they are far more real as people - they are not simply orifices upon which the author can literally express himself.

A hunger for phone sex

For the most part, Baxter's women are deliberately described as objects of,  pornographic desire, whilst Martin A Hansen’s women with their false certitudes and doubts, their glimpses of body and suggestions of shape, are far more true, far more honest, because we recognise them as real people. They speak to us through words, or absence of words, gestures and body language.

Hunger Realist David Shields

Greg Baxter  makes no bones about the fact that he is heavily influenced by the idea of “Reality Hunger” as championed by the writer David Shields. To cement the connection, David Shields returns the compliment by providing the quote on the back of APFD – telling us that writing is (with a stress on the is) a preparation for death and that Baxter gives us an admirably “unvarnished confrontation” with that irreducible fact.

 Often admirable yes, unvarnished – no.

To cut a very long story short, Reality Hungerists (yes they do have a “cause”) believe that the novel as an art form can no longer give us “the sensation of life as it is lived” and that personal essays and autobiography can give us back our sensations.

Greg Baxter’s account of reality hunger is here:

See -  Irish Times

Now I think that it is a wonderful thing that groups of writers have begun extolling the virtues of the personal essay and autobiography but this revolution has already happened and not via David Shields or Greg Baxter but via the internet.  In fact you are looking at an example of it right now.

I also agree with Greg Baxter when he says that many novels are formulaic and reek of a particular affectation, which renders their characters as little more than cardboard cut outs, or marionettes speaking the author's lines. However, it seems to me that he has thrown the narrative baby out with the clichéd bath water.

Writing For His Life - Cormac McCarthy

What about Cormac McCarthy? His latest novel The Road is truly biblical in scope, is a gripping tale and deals with the most fundamental question of all – our survival as a species. McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, meanwhile is not only a sometimes terrifying murder and suspense story but also one of the most powerful anti drugs trade narratives that was ever written. The carnage going on in Mexico at the moment is a testament to his prophecy as to what is coming at us “down the pike” if we don’t take action. Where I live in Dublin, we are having something like a murder a week – and No Country For Old Men definitely gives me the sensation of life as it is being lived. 

Or take Michael Ondaatje’s The Skin Of A Lion, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, or White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.

Anyone who has read any of the above novels will be in no doubt that the characters who inhabit their pages are real and will be gripped, often viscerally, by the events that take place as their stories are told. To paraphrase Terry Eagleton in his book Ideology An Introduction, Verso 2007 – the literary Avant-garde is declaring that the novel  is “out of fashion” just at the moment when, like ideology, it is reasserting itself in devastating fashion. 

Facing Reality?

There is another way that Hunger Realists use a post modernist conceit. They tell us that everything has to be totally honest. But to take Greg Baxter's book as an example, is it really completely honest and lacking in artifice? The answer of course is no. A Preparation For Death is full of natural editorial corner tucking that make Greg Baxter's honesty more conditional.

Is the author honest, for example, about the students on the writing course he teaches? He barely mentions them as individuals. Similarly, in all his sexual adventures, Greg Baxter never mentions the use of, or failure to use, condoms; nor is the threat of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) ever raised. However, as a former merchant sailor and subsequent barfly I can attest that these are constant topics amongst men who go gallivanting. Women also raise this topic frequently. Not it seems in Greg Baxter's ultra real world. 

Even where the author discusses literature, we find that he blindsides us. He praises Flannery O'Connor at one point as the best writer from the southern states of the USA but he never says why. This"honesty gap" on something that Greg Baxter obviously feels passionate about is yet another editorial decision, either made by the author himself or by his inevitable book editor at Penguin books.

Furthermore, proponents of more reality in writing seem just as prone to what the Yanks call "bullshit" as all other literary movements. The blurb on David Shield’s beautiful and very expensively produced book cover (not for the unemployed then) tells us that his detractors will see it as “an occasion to defend the status quo". So if you don’t agree with Hunger Realism you are part of the status quo?

Greg Baxter - in reality, preparing for life

So why do I recommend this book so strongly? Well, thankfully, Greg Baxter rarely does what he thinks he preaches. The word “beautiful” appears more often in APFD than in any book I’ve read for some time.  If readers can get over the graphic sexual content (which middle class Dubliners will pretend they hardly noticed as their stomach churns), they will find that he does indeed write beautifully and evocatively about, for example, Baton Rouge and a slightly fictionalised but utterly real southern states of the USA. The same applies to the often moving material on his  family and about his passion for writing.

Then, it must also be said, I suppose, that I have a vested interest. For, via his Someblindalleys website - Greg Baxter has published my essay on translating Ibsen and also my poem A Quiet Read.

The Ibsen essay can be read here -

Ibsen Essay

This despite the fact that we have, superficially at least, differing views on artistic creation.

In  a town like Dublin where the literati  say “orf" instead of off; give master classes to each other; frequent Southside muse restaurants and squabble over the Irish Times gossip cycle; Greg Baxter's genuine commitment to finding new literature and constantly urging new voices to speak out, is more than a breath of fresh air, it is a veritable oxygen tank.

Read A Preparation For Death - Warts and All and then let us pray that Greg Baxter and all the other Reality Hungerists finally come to understand that human beings, whilst often being fickle and exhibiting contradictory traits, also have core  characteristics  that bind us in a paradigm of empathy to each other.

For this reason, the creative impulse is not just about emoting what you feel at any particular moment; it is also about reaching out, engaging with and embracing your fellow man – be it because you have bad news or good.

In a literary context, this takes time and, dare I say it, conscious construction. There are many fine examples of this in Greg Baxter's book, despite his protests to the contrary.  

This is called storytelling and Greg Baxter, mid life crisis and all, is nothing more or less than a storyteller.


There is a crucial moment at the end of APFD, which perhaps in hindsight (and after having read more of Greg Baxter's own thoughts on his book) deserves more attention than I have given it here. This comes where the author is preparing to leave his family in Vienna, and in particular his almost suicidal cousin Walter, and return to Dublin

In this final essay, appropriately called Abschied – Departure or Farewell in German – Greg Baxter declares  that he is shedding his former self, the self who inhabits his anti-novel, to start a new life, a new self, beyond the confines of the life he has lived and recorded in his book.

Thus there is no doubt that the author sees the book as having a cathartic quality and that he now, chrysalis like, can emerge into a new life where his partner is expecting a baby and he can look forward to new challenges. In essence, Greg Baxter sees APFD as a purging of his former self that he now has left behind forever.

All that is fine except that it never works that way.

Part of the reason I love Kierkegaard so much is that, as writer, he went down into the very entrails of human existence in a way that books like APFD and my own pathetic scribblings can only dream of.

In The Concept of Angst  - Kierkegaard says that a human being is on the one hand an individual but on the other he is also the embodiment of the whole lineage of mankind. I am going to reproduce what Kierkegaard says next in the original Danish because  it is, in my view, one of the most crucial sentences in all literature and philosophy 

"Intet Individuum er ligegyldigt mod Slægtens Historie, ligesaa lidet som  Slægten mod noget Indidvids."

No individual is irrelevant in the story of mankind, just as the story of mankind is never irrelevant in the story of any individual.

In other words, there are aspects of Greg Baxter's humanity that belong to all of us and core aspects that belong to him alone and can never be shed.

It is the difference between being human and being a butterfly.

1 comment:

Go raibh maith agat a Chonchubhair.

Cén chineál leabhar atá i mbun agat a chara? Mholfainn duit ag labhairt le do bhean chéile fa dtaobh de, dá mba rud é go bhfuil sé ar dhóigh ar bith cosúil le A Preparation For Death!

mo sheacht beannacht ort agus do chlann

by: Pol (contact) - 13 Jul '10 - 08:22


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Title: Embracing life whilst claiming to prepare for death
Date posted: 12 Jul '10 - 17:12
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