While everyone else is busy making lists of Best Books of 2006, I thought I’d respond a little differently and make a literary mix tape of selections from a few of my favorites, all united around the theme of death. Why death? Because I’m morbid.
When I was five years old I tried to kill my sister. All day long I tried to kill her. In the morning I put mothballs in her cereal, but our mother woke up and threw them away, not because she smelled the naphthalene, but because she thought cereal was for trailer park kids, and on the days when she couldn’t get out of bed in time – a century’s weight of ghosts kept her sleeping or staring at the ceiling in her darkened room until noon many days – she would make us fancy omelets.
I took my sister for a walk and tried to sacrifice her on a stone picnic table in the Severna Forest Coliseum. I knew the story of Isaac. I knew the whole of the Old Testament by then. I raised a smooth stone as big as my fist and prepared to knock a hole in her skull. I waited too long, imagining the blood on the stone and the clump of her hair matted to it. A troop of Brownies came rustling through the tall grass – the coliseum was built by a wealthy Baptist with a passion for Greek tragedy and outdoor theater, but once he moved away it was let to fall into disrepair – and Jemma leaped off the table and ran to dance with them around one of the decaying plaster statues.
I tried to drown her in the tub. Our mother was throwing a party for the elites of our neighborhood, which is to say for everybody, since everyone who lived there was odiously rich, the cat-food magnate having established a tradition of exclusivity in this heavily wooded peninsula on the Severn. She sent us together to the tub, and I washed my sister’s hair, just as I had been taught to do, and then when she ducked under the water to rinse I held her there. I had never been taught to drown a person, but I knew just what to do. My hands felt old and wise as she struggled under them. I am sending you to Jesus, I told her. But I remember the moment perfectly, and I knew I was not trying to kill her because I thought it would make her happy.
Chris Adrian, The Children’s Hospital
They began to come upon from time to time small cairns of rock by the roadside. They were signs in gypsy language, lost patterans. The first he’d seen in some while, common in the north, leading out of the looted and exhausted cities, hopeless messages to loved ones lost and dead. By then all stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the land. The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell. The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes. Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.
Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Because last week when I’d called my old friend Juliette and said I was coming to the city to see Nana, she said sure I could stay at her place and naturally I assumed I’d be hanging out there a bit when I got in from the airport and we’d catch up and so on. But when I arrived, some guy, Juliette’s newish boyfriend, evidently – Wendell, I think his name might be – whom she’d sort of mentioned on the phone, turned out to be there, too. Sure, let’s just kill them, why not just kill them all, he was shouting. Juliette was peeling an orange. I’m not saying kill extra people, she said. I’m just frightened; there are a lot of crazy angry maniacs out there who want to kill us, and I’m frightened. You’re frightened, he yelled. No one else in the world is frightened? Juliette raised her eyebrows at me and shrugged. The orange smelled fantastic. I was completely dehydrated from the flight because they hardly even bring you water anymore, thought when I was little it was all so fun and special, with the pretty stewardesses and trays of little wrapped things, and I was just dying to tear open Juliette’s fridge and see if there was another orange in there, but Wendell, if that’s what his name is, was standing right in front of it shouting, What are you saying? Are you saying we should kill everyone in the world to make sure there are no angry people left who want to hurt anyone? So I waited a few minutes for him to finish up with what he wanted to get across and he didn’t (and no one had ever gotten anything across to Juliette) and I just dropped that idea about the orange and said see you later and tossed my stuff under the kitchen table and plunged into the subway. When Juliette and I were at art school together, all her boyfriends had been a lot of fun, but that was five or six years ago.
Deborah Eisenberg, Revenge of the Dinosaurs, Twilight of the Superheroes