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The Joy of Funerals:
The Joy of Funerals: A Novel in Stories is rife with desperation: the desperation of people who have lost loved ones, but also of those who know not death but absence. The women in these nine tales yearn for connection, whether with friends, lovers, or absent fathers.
The debut work of fiction of Alix Strauss, the book was inspired by a 1998 essay Strauss wrote for the Lives column of the New York Times Magazine, about how as a child she relished funerals as rare opportunities to spend time with extended family. The book’s eight short stories feature unrelated characters, with the longer, titular tale at book’s end tying all of the previous together. If funerals don’t figure into every episode, death is at least a presence in most of them.
The collection begins with “Recovering Larry,” a startling story of sexual healing. Leslie, a young, recent widow, is introduced setting fire to a picture of her husband, Larry, and sprinkling the ashes over her cereal. Even after she ingests the concoction and feels sick, she defends her unusual action: “I sit on the cold tile in my bathroom, my head against the ceramic bowl, refusing to spit him back out. I will not lose him twice.” Leslie’s mourning rituals soon involve others, as she hunts the cemetery that Larry is buried in for other mourners and attempts to find solace in their arms. Among her prey are Jacob, a young man visiting his grandfather (“Sex with Jacob was hurried and sloppy and I wondered if I was his first….Afterward, Jacob thanked me profusely”), George (“I followed him to the men’s room and waited for him to come out, knowing he was perfect. From the back he looked just like my husband”), and Harold (“Harold was old. I wasn’t sure how old, but he had an odor that elderly people carry with them, known only to passersby, a silent understanding that soon his time will be up”).
“Recovering Larry” is the most heart-wrenching tale of the book, filled with not only details of Leslie’s loss but also the circumstances of the men she beds: “[Harold] told me about his wife, Elsa. About their sixty-year marriage, how he was supposed to die first, how he wasn’t there when she tripped and fell and that he came home just in time to see the body being carried away.” Despite the risk of heavy-handedness inherent in recounting so many deaths, Strauss’ graceful writing allows them to feel tragic rather than merely melodramatic. Leslie’s own grief, for example, is related in almost casual-sounding details: As she’s comforting Harold, Leslie thinks, “I was afraid to tell him that it was Larry’s voice that woke me in the morning rather than the deafening sound of my alarm.”
Strauss then gives the reader a bit of a reprieve from the constant sorrow with tales about women to whom death isn’t an immediate concern. There’s Gail in “The Way You Left,” whose subconscious pining for her long-deceased, adventure-seeking father causes her to be attracted to grocery-store robbers. Daddy issues also come into play in “Versions of You,” one of the stories in which the loneliness of the central character is most palpable: Shannon, an awkward office worker, imagines that the key to her friendless, fatherless existence has shown up at her door in the form of a weary encyclopedia salesman. When she bestows a volume of A/B to Lilly, a hip co-worker she’d like to befriendcontinuing purchases, Shannon reasons, will also allow her to figure out if the salesman is her dadthe scene throbs with discomfort, from the lies Shannon tells as the book changes hands to Lilly’s analysis of the situation soon after:
“Can you believe that? I mean, how weird. She just handed me the thing and then claims she has a cousin or something working at Vogue….
“She just kind of hovers over you, but then never says anything. And she’s always knocking into things….
“Christ, if I have to deal with this each month…” Lilly said, blotting her lips.
The book’s most compelling character, though, is introduced in its final narrative. Nina, who makes a brief appearance in “Versions of You” as the co-worker Lilly confides in, is here spotlighted as a woman who devotes her life to crashing funeralsspecifically, the ones mentioned in previous stories. Working for her father’s firm, Nina bemoans a dearth of office companions (“People are nice to you because they have to be. Conversations stop when you walk by. Lunch offers are few and after-work drink invites nonexistent”) and finds the social interaction she’s longing for in the gatherings of mourners.
Scouring the obituaries daily, Nina studies the lives of the deceased and adopts alternate personae that will allow her not only to blend in with their families and friends but also to be accepted with open arms. Playing a patient of Larry’s, the deceased doctor from the first story, for example, Nina ingratiates herself with Larry’s friends and is invited to Leslie’s house after the service:
“It was really sweet of you to offer to help. You sure you’re up to it?”
I nod and follow her into the kitchen. “Larry said,” I stop and look at the floor for a second, then back up at Betty-Ann, “he said as long as I take my medication I’m fine. Of course roller coasters are out.”
She laughs, introduces me to a neighbor and the housekeeper, then hands me a platter of cold cuts. “That can go on the main table.”
For the next hour I move around the house as if I’ve lived here my whole life.
“The Joy of Funerals” offers interesting shifts in perspective on the events from the earlier stories, whether via a quick overview as Nina describes past gatherings or a nerve-wracking narration of the success or failure of her ruses. Though she makes a named appearance in only “Versions of You,” you’ll be flipping back to find her anonymous role in a story called “Shrinking Away” after recognizing the scene later. And Strauss draws Nina as plausibly complex, poised enough to engage people in easy friendship but needy enough to be compared to “a cocker spaniel, always looking for someone to play with.” Nina talks her way into strangers’ homes but then thinks, “I wish it was winter and that we were in the middle of a blizzard or a rainstorm. Something to keep me here. ‘Snow. Snow,’ I keep saying to myself….One night is all I want. One night to know I’m not waking up alone.”
Nina’s story works to fulfill the promise of The Joy of Funerals’ subtitle, unifying the book into a seamless whole. Strauss invents people whose actions can be appalling but who are sympathetic in context. Above all, the characters demonstrate the resilience of the hope for connection. As the introductory quote, from Nietzsche, notes, “The Lonely One offers his hand too quickly to whomever he encounters.” CP