Death in American Texts and Performances: Corpses, Ghosts, and the Reanimated Dead (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Death in American Texts and Performances: Corpses, Ghosts, and the Reanimated Dead. Edited by Lisa K. Perdigao and Mark Pizzato. Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2010; pp. 228.

Lisa Perdigao and Mark Pizzato aim at no small feat in compiling essays on the broad topic of representations of death in their edited collection Death in American Texts and Performances: Corpses, Ghosts, and the Reanimated Dead. Rather than attempting a cultural history of death in the American twentieth century, the editors investigate representations of death, situating their study at the intersection of literary, performance, and media studies. In bringing together essays that look across novels, plays, films, and television shows, Perdigao and Pizzato use the topic of death as a locus for understanding how different media engage with the limits of representability, "the crisis of representation that is always involved in re-presenting death" (1). To consider depictions of death here is to consider the process of depiction itself.

The best of the essays in the collection fulfill this promise. Jon Rossini offers an inventive consideration of Don DeLillo's theatrical work as a means of understanding the author's evolving relationship to death as reflected in his prose. In Rossini's view, by coming to know the representational processes of the theatre, where meaning is composed in live bodies, DeLillo also comes to understand the idea of bodily death at work in his fiction. Ian Wilson offers a similarly strong reading of ghosting as a representational and narrative strategy in John Edgar Wideman's novel The Cattle Killing. A notoriously fragmentary work, The Cattle Killing is, in Wilson's analysis, dependent on the figure of the literary ghost for its cohesion: "With the ghost the text acquires justification for its techniques, a motivating spirit, and a guiding metaphor" (126). Although Wilson does not fully pursue the implications of his argument, he suggests that the novel's tentative unity relies on a specifically literary manifestation of the ghost: the live body of a performer or the recorded image of a ghost onscreen could never afford the same ephemeral quality. In another look at representational strategies, Pizzato, in one of his two contributions to the collection, presents a fascinating neuro-Lacanian reading of the ways in which theatre and cinema structurally reproduce the brain's internal representational mechanisms—differences that Pizzato traces in differing theatrical and cinematic depictions of the figure of the ghost, read here through the father-ghost figure in the stage and film versions of David Auburn's Proof. Although much of the Proof section builds only tangentially on the essay's neurological concerns, the piece overall does service to the collection's organizing focus on death as a representational limit by which we might best compare different media.

Many of the other essays in the collection seem disengaged from Perdigao and Pizzato's wider frame, focused on local instances of death in literary or theatrical works without specifically engaging in questions of representation or comparison: a bleeding coffin in Luis Valdez's anti-Vietnam play Dark Root of a Scream (Jorge Huerta), performances among the living and the dead in the third act of Our Town (Anne Fletcher), the Chinese ghost in an American environment in Lan Samantha Chang's novel Hunger (Belinda Kong), memorialization in Robert Lowell's poem "For the Union Dead" (William Waddell), and issues of death and narrative structure in DeLillo's White Noise (Andrew Price). In a few cases, death functions merely as a lens on a different central concern. Pizzato's essay on the stage and film versions of Amiri Baraka's Dutchman, for example, treats death as "traces of ancestral dead bodies within the living" (31) in order to investigate the intersection of social and biological notions of race. Kathryn Nicol's essay on Toni Morrison's Sula and Song of Solomon is focused mostly on questions of political violence, with the ghostly memory of Emmett Till as a reminder of the extremes that it can reach. Among the contributors, only Alasdair Spark and Elizabeth Stuart seek to establish a deep literary-historical frame for their analyses, linking the metaphysical assumptions of the HBO Series Six Feet Under...


pdf