If You Want to Know What It’s Like to Die, Ask Writers

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Edwidge Danticat

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Lynn Savarese

THE ART OF DEATH
Writing the Final Story
By Edwidge Danticat
181 pp. Graywolf Press. Paper, $14.

Writers of fiction face many unknowables. But death presents a special case. As the universal final chapter, it is an unavoidable subject, but by definition it resists investigation. As Edwidge Danticat asks, common-sensically, in “The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story,” “how can we write plausibly from the point of view of the dying when we have not died ourselves, and have no one around to ask what it is like to die?”

But we do ask. We ask writers.

Danticat, in her slim, absorbing volume on this enormous subject, one in the “art of” series published by Graywolf Press, takes a tour of the dark side, holding up for view the guises that death has assumed in works by Leo Tolstoy, Gabriel García Márquez, Albert Camus, Toni Morrison and others, and offering her own reflections.

She looks at suicides, mass deaths and executions, at death seen close up and death heard of from afar. There is no shortage of examples — certainly not in Danticat’s own work. “I have been writing about death for as long as I have been writing,” she points out. Novels like “The Farming of Bones” and “The Dew Breaker,” and the memoir “Brother, I’m Dying,” add up to an impressive résumé for addressing the topic at hand.

Much of the material in “The Art of Death” has appeared elsewhere in one form or another. The book occasionally turns into a digression-filled pastiche, and there are times when it feels like a homework assignment, with an aperçu by Montaigne, say, or a not particularly pertinent Chekhov short story, “The Bet,” enlisted for unwilling service.

But Danticat does full justice to her theme when she lingers over fictional scenes that have resonated for her, like the death of Kweku Sai, which slowly…

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