Anxiously (and self-indulgently) picked up the New York Times book review section to see my name on the list. A thrill, I’ll admit, but sorta lost beyond the front page of the section.
â€œI donâ€™t believe in God, but I miss Him,â€ the book begins. Julian Barnes, an atheist turned agnostic, has decided at the age of 62 to address his fear of death â€” why should an agnostic fear death who has no faith in an afterlife? How can you be frightened of Nothing? On this simple question Barnes has hung an elegant memoir and meditation, a deep seismic tremor of a book that keeps rumbling and grumbling in the mind for weeks thereafter.
Thanatophobia is a fact in his life â€” he thinks about death daily and sometimes at night is â€œroared awakeâ€ and â€œpitched from sleep into darkness, panic and a vicious awareness that this is a rented world . . . awake, alone, utterly alone, beating pillow with fist and shouting â€˜Oh no Oh No OH NOâ€™ in an endless wail.â€ He dreams about being buried and â€œof being chased, surrounded, outnumbered, outgunned, of finding myself bulletless, held hostage, wrongly condemned to the firing squad, informed that there is even less time than I imagined. The usual stuff.â€ He imagines being trapped in an overturned ferry. Or locked by kidnappers in the trunk of a car that is then driven into a river. He imagines being taken underwater in the jaws of a crocodile.
Beyond the big knock-down stuff, he dreads the diminution of energy, the drying-up of the wellspring, the fading of the light. â€œI look around at my many friendships, and can recognize that some of them are not so much friendships any more as memories of friendships.â€ He has seen his parents through their decline and deaths â€” â€œhowever much you escape your parents in life, they are likely to reclaim you in deathâ€ â€” his father, a teacher of French, felled by strokes, reading the â€œMÃ©moiresâ€ of Saint-Simon at the end still tyrannized by his wife â€œalways present, nattering, organizing, fussing, controllingâ€ â€” a few years later, his mother in a green dress, in a wheelchair paralyzed on one side, â€œadmirably unflinching, and dismissive of what she saw as false Âmorale-boosting,â€ and what he sees there is hardly comforting.
As soon as I started reading, I knew I had to get this book. The above expresses my exact take on deathâ€”my fear, my beliefs, my convictions. I, too, wake up in the middle of the night, the lights off, everyone else asleep, and scream, “No … no … no … no.” It’s actually more mutter than scream, but it’s absolutely terrifyingâ€”the realization that I am destined for nothingness, and there’s zero I can do about it.
I think about death several times per dayâ€”a disease I have and often wish I could rid myself of.