On Writing, My Father, and Mortality
When I received my copy of what would become Iain M. Banks’s last novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, like most of his admirers — Banks was my favorite science fiction writer — I knew that he had been diagnosed with an untreatable form of gallbladder cancer, and that he had less than a year to live. Knowing I would get to read this novel — to experience it for the first time — only once, I put the book aside, so that it would still be there, unread, after Banks passed away.
Banks died on June 9, 2013, and it wasn’t until Summer of 2015, nearly two years later, that I was able to bring myself to read it. From the time in 2005, when a cousin who, like me, was a science fiction fan, handed me Consider Phlebas, the first novel in Banks’s “The Culture” series, I became a devoted reader of Banks, and, by the time he passed away eight years later, I had read all nine of the books in “The Culture” series, and many of his non science fiction novels.
That I wanted to put off experiencing Banks’s final work so that I could, in this way, extend what I thought of as my relationship with him — our connection — reminded me of my relationship with one other author about whom I feel this way: my father.
My father, Jay Neugeboren, has published nearly two dozen books, and about twenty years ago I went on a tear and read seven or eight of his books over the course of a year. Then I stopped. It is a curious thing for me to look at my father’s books (I think of them as “Poppa’s Books,” which is the title of a short story of his I read when I was in high school) and know that, after he’s gone, I’ll be able to read what I have never before read, and will therefore be able to hear his voice in my head, saying things I have never heard him say, and thereby keep him and our relationship, if only in my feelings and imagination, alive.
Tupac Shakur, Michael Jackson, and The Sex Pistols, among others, have released more albums posthumously than they did during their brief, mortal flights of fame, and just as I feel that I have somehow extended my relationship with Banks posthumously — and just as Banks continues to affect me emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually in what I think of as a real-yet-un-real relationship — so, I imagine, for fans to be able to hear studio sessions never released of their favorite musicians during the musician’s lifetimes must also, if briefly, allow their fans to hear again the breath and life of their favorite recording artists.
The past can, in this way, seem to fold into the present moment, and the person who is no longer alive can return to us. Thus, at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art [some time ago] I was looking at Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” when I saw a few brush bristles sticking out of the impastoed swirl of paint. I had the immediate and fleeting sensation of being there with Van Gogh while he was at work more than a century ago.
And so, two years after Banks’s death, approaching the end of Banks’s The Hydrogen Sonata, I was aware that as the characters in the book were wrapping things up in their lives. Iain Banks had been doing the same in his life.
I sometimes wonder if it’s selfish of me not to have read all of my father’s books, and to thereby be keeping the experience for myself, and not to be sharing it with him now. I see the wide shelf of his books nearly every day when I’m in my living room playing with my two young sons, and when I look at the books I am, by turns, happy and sad, because I know these books, whether read or unread, will always be there — will have a tangible existence — and this reminds me that my father is not nearly as permanent as his books… and that I will not always be around for my boys.
Were my father a painter, I would look at his paintings. Were he a recording artist, I would listen to his albums. I read his books, however, in the silence and privacy of my mind and heart, and, for now anyway, I intend to put off reading some of them for yet a while longer.