Untimely Death, Without the Shiny Bow


By Elisa Albert
259 pages. Free Press. $23.

Books about death and dying tend to fall into two distinct categories: those that are weighty and serious about the subject, and those that seek to laugh at mortality. Elisa Albert's debut novel, however, falls squarely in between these two groups. Its inspiration, based on story idea and theme alone, echoes Leo Tolstoy's 1886 novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which fits snugly into category number one. But Albert, who mined poignancy from humor time and again in her previous short-story collection, How This Night is Different, does the same for this most gravity-laden subject by focusing her attention on a young woman who, up until now, lived her life "isometrically: action with no movement."

That phrase appears to be just another way to describe a slacker, though in 29-year-old Dahlia Finger's case, that word isn't precise enough. Sure, she begins her long journey towards mortality with a grand mal seizure suffered while eating frozen pizza and watching I Love the 90s in a house purchased for her by her father; she's spent the previous four years drifting in and out of questionable Manhattan circles comprised of fellow blissful, confused underachievers; her Jewish identity revolves more around what she doesn't observe instead of what she does; and a somewhat patronizing, easily mockable self-help book ends up being Dahlia's de facto guide to living and dying with cancer. But stasis also proves to be Dahlia's bedrock, allowing her to face death in a way that, if not quite the beacon of clarity, is infused with honesty:

Dahlia was… too young to die, certainly, but old enough, surely, to be taking on the mantle of her own illness, taking her own notes, sobbing histrionically at the imminence of her own mortality… It was always the same with these big life moments, these arrogant self-important moments demanding some purportedly innate, prefabricated response. She was to be sad, mad, sad, glad—well no, not glad, but it rhymes, what the hell? And then, after the predictable progression down the list, accepting. And then dead.

Dying gives Dahlia her biggest life gamble, a chance to come to terms with why she put herself in a position to risk so little up until then. It also allows Dahlia to reckon with the friction within her family, and how their clashing and breaking influenced the trajectory of her own life. Albert wisely eschews caricature and cliché for portraits that are more idiosyncratic, more indicative of contradictory emotion. Dahlia's parents, the Ashkenazi-American Bruce and his Israeli bride Margalit, may join forces in an attempt to present a quasi-united front for the sake of their daughter, but the volatility of their relationship—born in passion along dusty Israel roads and broken apart in acrimony when Margalit chooses personal freedom over family stability over and over again—never goes away. By trying to help, both of Dahlia's parents only reinforce her disappointment in them.

Bruce may give Dahlia a temporary home, an invisible lifeline when her ability to live turns ever more apathetic, but in doing so also instills in Dahlia the belief that she never has to try all that hard for he'll always be there to rescue her. Margalit, especially, comes off as a maddening figure, whose reckless adoption of fads and New Age credos show the lie of those fleeting gestures because of their effect on the developing Dahlia.

The most fractious relationship Dahlia has, and thus the most pivotal one Albert depicts, is with her brother Danny, a prominent young Manhattan rabbi. Here is a painful portrait of a younger sister's hero worship slowly evolving into contempt as a result of her brother's lousy and cruel treatment. Other works would put a shiny bow and have Danny and Dahlia arrive at a heart-tugging reconciliation before her untimely death. Albert knows better and shies away from any such positive spins. Instead of reconciliation, that inevitable scene begins as intervention, turns ugly and proves cathartic. "She didn't care," Dahlia reflected after berating Danny and his therapist wife upon their unexpected arrival at her home. "If not now, when? How could something that felt so good be bad for her? Who cared if it was bad for her? What if anything, was good for her? Sending her brother letters and mix tapes and clinging to him desperately in the wake of her parents' virtual and literal disappearance?"

Albert's answer, to this and other questions Dahlia asks herself throughout the course of the novel, is that only good comes of self-acceptance, but self-acceptance doesn't mean salvation, nor should it. Death is absolute, trumping familial bonds, societal expectations, and fear. By coming to terms with the failures of her life, by embracing and then stripping away the anger, the humor, the self-loathing, and the sickness, Dahlia realizes she's all that's left:

…Dahlia existed in a world that contained solely herself, in which she was entirely unconnected to anyone and everyone, from which she stood alone and apart. She had been moving toward this disconnect all her life, and she felt, finally, that she had achieved it. Which was something, all right. No investment, no hope, no expectation. She didn't belong to her life and her life didn't belong to her. Now what?

Watching Dahlia arrive at this conclusion is not without its awkward moments, especially when she seems to be the black sheep in any given social situation—whether it's family-, friend-, or cancer-based—but that is exactly the point Albert is trying to make. No wonder, as Dahlia spirals towards the inevitable and still surprising conclusion, she is seized by panic, the feeling of hesitation "like at the end of a phone call in which important things had been left unsaid." Death, as Albert reminds us, doesn't offer finality; we're lucky to be left with the lingering traces of unfinished movement.