Fusing social commentary and memoir, the latest instalment in Coach House’s Exploded Views series is a critical exploration of grief culture conducted by an author with a vested interest in the topic. Julia Cooper was only 19 when her mother died, and while The Last Word brims with intelligent observation concerning the myriad ways in which meaningful words fail us when we’re reeling from loss, Cooper is never so incisive as when she lays bare the nature of her own mourning. This dissection of the eulogy as a genre is itself something of a eulogy, albeit one published a dozen years after the death of its subject.
Cooper positions the eulogy somewhere between the fact-focused obituary and the more lyrical elegy. Her chief complaints regarding the state of this “amateur’s art” concern the velocity at which eulogizers are expected to do their work and the reliance on cliché that inevitably emerges from such rush jobs.
Beloved famous people provide useful case studies: the 1997 death of Diana, Princess of Wales, prompted a whitewash of a eulogy from her brother and an astonishingly indolent rewrite of an extant memoriam ballad from Elton John; the deaths of music icons David Bowie and Prince within mere months of each other in 2016 formed a grim double whammy that unleashed tidal bores of sometimes queasily competitive eulogizing on social media. Cooper’s evaluation of our increasingly public displays of mourning graciously prizes curiosity over facile cynicism, and her seemingly voracious appetite for art, analysis, and anecdote allows for a pleasingly broad sampling of culture: Roland Barthes gets as much ink as Princess Di, and, at one point, Cher, Derrida, and The Big Lebowski mingle within the same paragraph.
As a polemic, however, The Last Word has its limits. Speed and cliché may seem to be the enemies of any literary sensibility, but if a eulogy is to serve a fundamental need in a time of emotional tumult, are cornball greeting-card sentiments necessarily invalid for every mourner on every occasion? What’s more, urgency is not always a bad thing for good writing: Paul Auster and Peter Handke both wrote eloquently on the death of a parent and did so as quickly as possible after their respective losses.
Cooper expresses skepticism toward the use of humour in the eulogy, but in my experience of mourning in Mexico – where the culture is ostensibly more comfortable with death – humour appears as an essential element in forging a well-rounded tribute. Cooper claims that a flaw in The Year of Magical Thinking is Joan Didion’s preoccupation with her realization that privilege will not insulate her from the lashings of devastating loss, yet it seems to me that Didion’s struggle with the false protection of privilege imbues her book with an undeniable particularity.
To be sure, these limits do not constitute insurmountable flaws in The Last Word. Though it is framed as an essay – one meant to yield a thesis – Cooper is too interesting a thinker and too elegant a writer to allow her book to be reduced to a vessel for contention or be judged solely by its persuasiveness. The Last Word’s merits lie elsewhere: it is smart yet accessible, meditative yet pithy, personal yet never indulgent. And, at certain moments, quite moving.