Mortality

By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS

Anyone looking for a stately, meditative rumination on what it is like to die — provided such happy-go-lucky folks exist — would certainly find a haymaker-in-waiting with this collection of essays from Christopher Hitchens entitled Mortality. Felled by cancer around Christmastime last year — after being diagnosed in June 2010 — the irascible Hitchens decided to chronicle his life at the exit stage phase over the course of number of pieces for Vanity Fair, with those pieces now comprising the chapters of this book, a lesson in sidling up to the Reaper and learning something, despite the prickly company.

Thanatos-heavy works of literature — and this is one grim prose docudrama, despite Hitchens’s admirable curiosity and defiance — don’t exactly make for winning beach companions, something to pull out of the tote bag as the sun hangs overhead. But they can allow for moments of the most pungent black comedy, as any reader of the final installments of Tristram Shandy — with Laurence Sterne jokingly wondering if he’ll be alive to pen the next chapter — would grant. “I feel upsettingly denatured,” Hitchens declares, upon having his chest shaved, a man at once bemused and capable of irony, even as he accepts — grudgingly — that the particular life lessons on display are going to have to be picked up at an accelerated rate. Naturally, plenty of people step forward to try and forestall this book’s hulking inevitable, that figure of not now, maybe, but soon, very soon. A professor gets in touch to suggest that Hitchens have his entire corpus cryonically frozen, so that he can be unthawed someday, when a cure has been worked out. Break out the chuckles. “When I failed to reply to this, I got a second missive, suggesting that I freeze at least my brain so that its cortex could be appreciated by posterity. Well, I mean to say, gosh, thanks awfully.”

If Hitchens isn’t always convivial — and really, who could be, in such a situation — he’s perpetually dialogic, bounding from one conversation with himself to another, in search of answers — more so, one has the sense, for himself, than us. We’re here to pick up on any that he happens to come upon, for when, of course, it’s our turn to be on the examining table, or in the ICU, or poked and prodded by a couple dozen doctors who can only shake their heads, commiserate, and shake their heads some more.

Having said that, this isn’t something akin to Sherwin Nuland’s bestselling (remarkably? depressingly?) How We Die, a step-by-step walk-through on what you’ll experience as you meet your end, which is most likely to be through something clinical, although there’s also a chapter covering what it’d be like to be crushed by a car. And while Hitchens isn’t crushed by anything, really, in Mortality one does pick up on the oppressive strain of, simply, not knowing. What comes next, what the final few seconds will feel like, whether anything continues (Hitchens refused to renounce his atheism, which pleased his fans, and inspired a number of Christians to heckle him about the devil, hell’s fires, and various demon-devised punishments), and whether, in the end, it’s the mind or the body that prevails.

Hitchens can get a bit wordy as he chronicles his ordeal, yielding the sense that he’s determined to chase down that one perfect metaphor that had eluded him — just — to date, and which he hopes to capture, eleventh-hour style. But even when clichés start to filter in, lucidity remains: “So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion.”

Mortality concludes with its best, and most inchoate, chapter: a series of jottings, aphorisms, half thoughts, and notes that have a Pascal-esque poetry to them. “Paperwork the curse of Tumortown.” “Brave? Hah! Save it for a fight you can’t run away from.” “People say — I’m in town on Friday: will you be around? WHAT A QUESTION!” Indeed. But Mortality is a work where questions beget questions — to say nothing of fears, doubts, crises — along with answers of a defiantly personal variety, even if those answers are incapable of counterattacking the flow of inquiries. Not that there’d be any point to that, as a born question asker like Hitchens surely knew.