Review

My Life With Corpses

by Wylene Dunbar



"You've heard the story of the boy who was raised by wolves,"
writes Wylene Dunbar in her second novel, MY LIFE WITH CORPSES. She
plays off the idea of the feral child in intriguing and surprising
ways: her protagonist and narrator, known only as Oz, is raised by
corpses. Oz's parents and older sister have all died, yet they
still reside on their Kansas farm and still commingle with the
living, who can see them but can't see that they're deceased. They
live, but without warmth or desires or any kind of distinctiveness.
Oz is the only person who can see them for what they truly are ---
the walking dead.

Coming seven years after Dunbar's celebrated debut, MARGARET CAPE,
MY LIFE WITH CORPSES begins with Oz declaring her intentions to
tell her strange life story as honestly as possible: "What I write
you now is not a fiction or even half-true but, instead, the whole
of what I know, if long concealed." While this limited point of
view can be a little bit disconcerting, especially early in the
novel, the technique works only because Dunbar so quickly and
effectively establishes Oz as a dynamic, unpredictable, and
tough-minded character, our Virgil through the land of the
dead.

Oz's life with corpses has surprising consequences. For instance,
since the dead cannot feel, Oz grows up more or less without
emotions: "My mother taught me how to live without feeling," she
writes, neither lamenting nor whining. "More than stoicism or the
courageous bearing of plain, I was taught not to feel at all."
Also, Oz's family raises her as a boy, so it's a shock both to her
and to the reader when she later realizes that she is in fact a
girl.

However, given Dunbar's wild imagining of the differences between
life and death, it's no surprise that Oz becomes a philosophy
professor, finally settling into a decidedly abnormal life in
Oxford, Mississippi. Here she sees corpses all over campus, in her
students (one of whom has decomposed so much that she is little
more than a skeleton) and in her colleagues. These corpses,
however, are not metaphorically dead, nor are they zombies or
ghosts. Their deathliness is somewhere between literal and
figurative, between real and unreal, and Dunbar has a lot of fun
developing her own personal mythology of death. She is intrigued by
the logistics of it, the philosophy of death as well as the
science. For her death seems to exist as a condition as much of the
soul as of the body. The corpses that stumble through the novel
seem to have lost their life-fires and so only maintain the
appearance of the fully human. Inside, however, they are
cold.

MY LIFE WITH CORPSES is most interesting when it takes its title as
its mission and describes the lives the dead lead. Corpses don't
have to eat, yet they must do so regularly for practical purposes:
"their ethereal nature gives them a tendency to float above the
earth unless they are weighted down." Also, they don't like to
touch, but experience intimacy through sheer proximity. As Oz
observes, "this accounts for the fact that we bury our dead
collectively in cemeteries and that couples and relatives express
the desire to be buried side by side."

Later in the novel, however, Oz describes an "unexplained
breathlessness" that results from the presence of too many corpses,
even recollecting that she would eat alone instead of with her dead
family. This detail, however intriguing, contradicts her earlier
memories of long road trips with her parents and sister, when
proximity was not just unavoidable but desired. While such
inconsistencies may seem inconsequential individually, they
accumulate into something a bit more damning by the novel's
conclusion, revealing the holes in Dunbar's imaginative
mythology.

Regardless of such flaws, underneath the surface whimsy of this
outlandish conceit lies a current of inevitable loss and pain. MY
LIFE WITH CORPSES is tragedy through comedy, or perhaps comedy
through tragedy. Either way it serves as a reminder that "living
must be learned, and it can only be learned in contact with those
who are living."

Reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner on January 12, 2011

My Life With Corpses
by Wylene Dunbar

  • Publication Date: June 7, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • ISBN-10: 0151010153
  • ISBN-13: 9780151010158