The Los Angeles Times: Sunday Book Review
Dying to Belong
Grief makes some people so desperate that they do things they wouldn't ordinarily do to get past their pain. Witness the characters in Alix Strauss' first book of darkly humorous short stories, The Joy of Funerals. Part "Six Feet Under," part "Sex and the City," its protagonists, all troubled New York women in their 30s, respond to loss by reaching out to strangers, usually sexually.
Strauss' inspiration was a 1998 essay she wrote for the Lives section of the New York Times Magazine in which she discussed her own obsession with funerals. As an only child plagued by an underlying sense of loneliness and an overwhelming need to belong to something larger, she felt the greatest connections to others at family funerals, which were the only occasions when she would see most of her relatives.
But here Strauss' fondness for funerals reinvents itself in the form of nine disturbed characters who take this bizarre fascination to even more outrageous new extremes.
In the opening vignette, "Remembering Larry," Strauss introduces us to Leslie, a lonely widow who grieves for her dead husband by burning old photos of him, sprinkling the ashes on her Rice Krispies and then having random sex with mourners she meets at the cemetery. "It was mid-October," Leslie says. "I was coatless and shivering. Samuel took off his jacket and draped it over my shoulders. As he did, I leaned and kissed him." Her next conquest is Jacob, a junior stockbroker whom she discovers as he is paying respects to a grandfather he claims never to have met. She then spots Roman, a heavyset Yugoslavian immigrant visiting the gravesite of his young daughter. Her last encounter — with George, a tall, dark man she comes across during a funeral in progress — is her favorite: She trails behind him to the men's room, waiting for him to come out. Almost every new tryst turns out more disastrously than the last.
"Remembering Larry" sets the morose but sardonic tone for the rest of the book, and each successive story builds momentum — from Helen, who steals the ashes of her psychiatrist-turned-lover, to the unnamed woman who goes on a date with the perfect man only to have him drop dead a few days later — leading up to the climactic title novella introducing Nina, who insinuates her way into the lives of the eight previous narrators by scouring the death notices of newspapers and using the funerals of strangers she pretends to have known as an impetus against her own isolation. At the end, we are told, Nina finds a sense of belonging as she signs the guestbook among the mourners and relishes the moment "as though I've unleashed a small piece of myself."
Yet belonging is exactly what these characters cannot find. It is this desperation, and the profound and extreme measures people take to fill the void created by death and despair, that Strauss delivers so well in cleverly interwoven plots in which sex and the sum of its parts become coping mechanisms for escaping the sadness and rekindling lost intimacy. Leslie, for instance, lives in a perpetual state of melancholy — "I stood looking in the bathroom mirror, counting my bones, resembling the bodies I visited" — but can also be neurotic as she folds and refolds her late husband's socks, arranges them in order of color and organizes them according to the seasons.
Then there's Gail in "The Way You Left," whose emotions range from contempt to lust. First she expresses her disgust with men, and then she lusts after her mugger. "Chills race up and down my spine as he bends down," she says. "His breath is hot on my hand, his hair smells of almond."
Reading The Joy of Funerals is almost like going through the five stages of grief. You start off in denial because you can't believe these characters are actually doing these things. You progress to horror but then begin to understand and empathize with what these people are going through. Finally, like Nina, you come to some kind of catharsis and acceptance and move on.
Not all of the dots connect immediately. The relationships among the characters aren't always apparent, and, even within individual stories, there's often not enough context to figure out what's going on from page to page. Strauss also sometimes has a tendency to leave out certain vital facts about these characters that would be useful to know. She hardly ever reveals their ages, for instance, even though it's clear that their current circumstances have made them older than their chronological years. In addition, she doesn't reveal much about their occupations, educational backgrounds or previous lives.
Although the book presents a number of incongruities among the relationships of its characters, the author nonetheless holds our attention from page to page. Though it's natural for readers to want to turn away from the pain of people who are grieving, Strauss, to her credit, manages to take us beyond this skittishness and into empathy for the characters. In and of itself, this is the biggest accomplishment of The Joy of Funerals and one that ultimately proves there is no one correct way to grieve.
Reviewed by: Tripp Whetsell
Wall Street Journal: Weekend Section: Bookmarks
Death is the obsession that drives the characters in The Joy of Funerals, an evocative novel in stories.
The title is a sly reference to the famous lovemaking manual The Joy of Sex, as well as an ironic admission of defeat, since those characters, all women, can find no joy. They're at odds with the world, with themselves and with their relationships. Each of the nine stories here shows lonely, desperate people using death as an impetus for companionship, a relief from suffering or a reason for bitter isolation.
In one, a recent young widow seeks to relieve the pain of her loss by picking up strangers at gravesites. In another, a woman who feels trapped in a marriage ends her life rather than face a future of bourgeois motherhood. In the title story, a woman scours the newspaper death notices, attending the funerals of stranger whom she pretends to have known, with comic or disastrous results.
As Ms. Strauss brings characters into more than one story, she creates an interconnected world of sometimes wry, sometimes do outlandish things, but they are recognizably human. And despite the book's fascination with that final leap into the great beyond, The Joy of Funerals is decidedly about the here and now.
Reviewed by: Robert J. Hughes
Washington City Paper
The Joy of Funerals: A Novel in Stories is rife with desperation: the desperation of people who have lost loved ones, but also of those who know not death but absence. The women in these nine tales yearn for connection, whether with friends, lovers, or absent fathers. The debut work of fiction of Alix Strauss, the book was inspired by a 1998 essay Strauss wrote for the Lives column of The New York Times Magazine, about how as a child she relished funerals as rare opportunities to spend time with extended family. The book's eight short stories feature unrelated characters, with the longer, titular tale at book's end tying all of the previous together. If funerals don't figure into every episode, death is at least a presence in most of them.
The collection begins with "Recovering Larry," a startling story of sexual healing. Leslie, a young, recent widow, is introduced setting fire to a picture of her husband, Larry, and sprinkling the ashes over her cereal. Even after she ingests the concoction and feels sick, she defends her unusual action: "I sit on the cold tile in my bathroom, my head against the ceramic bowl, refusing to spit him back out. I will not lose him twice." Leslie's mourning rituals soon involve others, as she hunts the cemetery that Larry is buried in for other mourners and attempts to find solace in their arms. Among her prey are Jacob, a young man visiting his grandfather ("Sex with Jacob was hurried and sloppy and I wondered if I was his first... Afterward, Jacob thanked me profusely"), George ("I followed him to the men's room and waited for him to come out, knowing he was perfect. From the back he looked just like my husband"), and Harold ("Harold was old. I wasn't sure how old, but he had an odor that elderly people carry with them, known only to passersby, a silent understanding that soon his time will be up").
"Recovering Larry" is the most heart-wrenching tale of the book, filled with not only details of Leslie's loss but also the circumstances of the men she beds: "[Harold] told me about his wife, Elsa. About their sixty-year marriage, how he was supposed to die first, how he wasn't there when she tripped and fell and that he came home just in time to see the body being carried away." Despite the risk of heavy-handedness inherent in recounting so many deaths, Strauss' graceful writing allows them to feel tragic rather than merely melodramatic. Leslie's own grief, for example, is related in almost casual-sounding details: As she's comforting Harold, Leslie thinks, "I was afraid to tell him that it was Larry's voice that woke me in the morning rather than the deafening sound of my alarm."
Strauss then gives the reader a bit of a reprieve from the constant sorrow with tales about women to whom death isn't an immediate concern. There's Gail in "The Way You Left," whose subconscious pining for her long-deceased, adventure-seeking father causes her to be attracted to grocery-store robbers. Daddy issues also come into play in "Versions of You," one of the stories in which the loneliness of the central character is most palpable: Shannon, an awkward office worker, imagines that the key to her friendless, fatherless existence has shown up at her door in the form of a weary encyclopedia salesman. When she bestows a volume of A/B to Lilly, a hip co-worker she'd like to befriend—continuing purchases, Shannon reasons, will also allow her to figure out if the salesman is her dad—the scene throbs with discomfort, from the lies Shannon tells as the book changes hands to Lilly's analysis of the situation soon after:
"Can you believe that? I mean, how weird. She just handed me the thing and then claims she has a cousin or something working at Vogue..."
"She just kind of hovers over you, but then never says anything. And she's always knocking into things..."
"Christ, if I have to deal with this each month..." Lilly said, blotting her lips.
The book's most compelling character, though, is introduced in its final narrative. Nina, who makes a brief appearance in "Versions of You" as the co-worker Lilly confides in, is here spotlighted as a woman who devotes her life to crashing funerals—specifically, the ones mentioned in previous stories. Working for her father's firm, Nina bemoans a dearth of office companions ("People are nice to you because they have to be. Conversations stop when you walk by. Lunch offers are few and after-work drink invites nonexistent") and finds the social interaction she's longing for in the gatherings of mourners.
Scouring the obituaries daily, Nina studies the lives of the deceased and adopts alternate personae that will allow her not only to blend in with their families and friends but also to be accepted with open arms. Playing a patient of Larry's, the deceased doctor from the first story, for example, Nina ingratiates herself with Larry's friends and is invited to Leslie's house after the service:
"It was really sweet of you to offer to help. You sure you're up to it?"
I nod and follow her into the kitchen. "Larry said," I stop and look at the floor for a second, then back up at Betty-Ann, "he said as long as I take my medication I'm fine. Of course roller coasters are out."
She laughs, introduces me to a neighbor and the housekeeper, then hands me a platter of cold cuts. "That can go on the main table."
For the next hour I move around the house as if I've lived here my whole life.
The Joy of Funerals offers interesting shifts in perspective on the events from the earlier stories, whether via a quick overview as Nina describes past gatherings or a nerve-wracking narration of the success or failure of her ruses. Though she makes a named appearance in only "Versions of You," you'll be flipping back to find her anonymous role in a story called "Shrinking Away" after recognizing the scene later. And Strauss draws Nina as plausibly complex, poised enough to engage people in easy friendship but needy enough to be compared to "a cocker spaniel, always looking for someone to play with." Nina talks her way into strangers' homes but then thinks, "I wish it was winter and that we were in the middle of a blizzard or a rainstorm. Something to keep me here. 'Snow. Snow,' I keep saying to myself... One night is all I want. One night to know I'm not waking up alone."
Nina's story works to fulfill the promise of The Joy of Funerals' subtitle, unifying the book into a seamless whole. Strauss invents people whose actions can be appalling but who are sympathetic in context. Above all, the characters demonstrate the resilience of the hope for connection. As the introductory quote, from Nietzsche, notes, "The Lonely One offers his hand too quickly to whomever he encounters."
Reviewed by: Tricia Olszewski
Beverly Hills Outlook
Death took a front-line stance some forty years ago. The work of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Raymond Moody and others created an awareness of such ideas as hospice, out-of-body experiences, and the tunnel. Death became a topic of conversation throughout the land. Works such as Harold and Maude, The End, Death Be Not Proud, Brian's Song and The Shadow Box gave further indication that a philosophy of life was worth a second look. Your reviewer began his class called Death and Living at Grant High School, the first 20-week, social studies elective in the Los Angeles Unified School System dedicated to understanding loss in our lives. And Dr. Edwin Schneidman's course on Death and Dying at UCLA was packed every semester he taught the class.
Today we see that Six Feet Under, the HBO series about a dysfunctional family that runs a mortuary, has garnered more Emmy nominations than any other television program. And the books of Thomas Lynch, a funeral director and writer par excellence, are being scooped up as they come off the presses. It's time to add one more book to the collection that lends depth, insight and psychological understanding of the topic of death with Alix Strauss' novel, The Joy of Funerals.
Though the stories are fiction, the emotional state of each of Strauss' heroines is real and poignant. The spirit of the rescuer resides in one of them, the obsessiveness in another; the controlling parent as well as the passive victim can be found in Strauss' heroines. Strauss' keen eye for detail shading and language is accurate and remarkable. Her phraseology and blend of words – crisp in some parts, very delicate in others – keeps the reader glued to the page.
Key ingredients in all her stories include loneliness, vanity, the search for a man, both our outer face and our inner thoughts, the importance of sex in our lives, the place mother and father play in shaping our physical, emotional and psychological lives, and the various ways each of us gets pushed to the edge.
In a recent telephone interview with Ms. Strauss, I asked her how she got so smart. She replied, "I'm fascinated with human behavior. For me, good conversation is like good sex: it's exciting, stimulating. Perhaps because I was an only child, I've always been an observer. And, although there are many people in this world, so many are quite lonely."
Ms. Strauss has taken this loneliness and invented very believable scenarios and characters who will fascinate you. Her final story – the book's title – is ingenious, personified both by its content and how it puts a blanket around all that came before.
In her excellent Los Angeles Times review of this book, Trip Whetsell opens with: "Grief makes some people so desperate that they do things they wouldn't ordinarily do to get past their pain!"
In whatever way Alix Strauss has come to know this pain, her pen may just help you recognize some of your own with an eye toward making things better. The book's subtitle is "A Novel in Stories." Notice the word "love" in novel, for that's what you may feel after reading this very fine book.
Reviewed by: Joseph N. Feinstein
The Joy of Funerals (St. Martin's Press) Alix Strauss provides an intense (and sometimes bizarre) look at how women cope with grief and loss. A collection of short stories that will both captivate and disturb you.
Edited by: Ty Wenger
(four out of four stars)
I've been to 33 services at Whalen and Ball Funeral Home, and some of my best memories are from there. Laughing with my sister in the back; my cousin doing Eddie Murphy impressions; once, we convinced a friend that the electric meter really measured embalming fluid. This is a story collection by someone who "gets" the ritual of funerals - they are comforting while being sad. It's the perfect book for those of use who live for the stick of funeral lilies.
Reviewed by: Kristin McSpedon
Hot Type column
The desire for human connection runs throughout Alix Strauss's dark and spirited novel, The Joy of Funerals.
Reviewed by: Elissa Schappell
Die-hard fans of Six Feet Under will go crazy for this kooky collection of short stories about nine women dealing with love and death. From the chick who picks up mourning men at a cemetery to the girl who goes on a date with the perfect man only to have him drop dead a few days later, each tale is so strange and twisted, you can't help but keep turning the pages.
Reviewed by: John Searls
Funerals. A touchy topic. Especially if you are the dope who burst into a fit of giggles during Uncle Hank's memorial service. Next time try not to think about how awful his toupee was.
Can anyone blame you? Death isn't necessarily funny, but it can be, in a dark, sad, curious sort of way. Alix Strauss's debut collection of short stories, The Joy of Funerals, is proof that there really is no one appropriate way to grieve.
The first (and best) story, "Recovering Larry," tells of a widow who misses her husband so much she burns old photos of him, then sprinkles the ashes on her Rice Krispies. The title story, which ties the book together, is about a lonely woman who finds comfort in the funerals of strangers. If ever there were a "Six Feet Under" of books, this is it.
So life's a bitch and then you die?
Nah. Life's not so bad after all.
Strauss' collection of darkly humorous stories explores the behavior of nine women as they face death, loss and grief in various forms. Leslie dulls the pain of her husband's death by having one-night stands with cemetery mourners. Karen is obsessed with finding her dead lover's killer. Another young woman wonders if her last blind date, recently deceased, was really the "the one." Connecting the characters is Nina, who crosses paths with the others when she attends the funerals of strangers, hoping to connect with the ones left behind.
A sort of literary "Six Feet Under," this collection of dark and sometimes surprisingly buoyant stories examines the fascination some people have with death as a way to find love and connection.
In Alix Strauss's The Joy of Funerals, nine women look the grim reaper in the eye – and like what they see. If it doesn't turn them on, it at least diverts them, as one says, "from a life of anguish and woe." In the opening tale of this linked story collection, a young window acquires the most the most disquieting habit of loitering in her husband's cemetery to score anonymous, anesthetic sex. In another, a woman, somewhat like John Cheever's swimmer, crashes strangers' services to make the kinds of emotional connections that elude her in ordinary life... Strauss is a sharp-eyed accountant of the fleeting moments that wound us – and these single girls would make for great company at a wake.