FUNERALS I HAVE BEEN TO | Allegra Frazier.
⇒This story is a real gem, but one of the understated variety, the sort that doesn’t need to blind its viewer with the fact of its brilliance. This piece is quiet and assured.
The narrative is at once cohesive and fragmented. Basically, this story is about the narrator’s relationship to death. It is a list, an account of each death–and each funeral–of a person whom she has known. The structure of the story is twofold: first we have a brief list, five items total, of each person who’s died, how old they were, what they died of, etc. The list serves as a sort of epigraph, while the real meat of the story is in footnotes explaining each death in further detail and elucidating the speaker’s experience of each person in life (and death).
Sure, this is a story of the footnotes-as-narrative variety. To be honest, this form is among the most familiar–dare I say conventional?–of the “experimental” prose forms out there. We’ve seen plenty of stories over the years that have included footnotes, whether we’re talking about Diagram‘s various prose poems w/ metanarrative footnotes or David Foster Wallace’s OCDish annotation sprees. So stories featuring or comprised of footnotes are nothing new, and that’s just fine; Allegra Frazier’s “Funerals I Have Been To” makes excellent use of this form without at anytime relying on the format’s novelty to carry the piece forward. This is a quasi-memoir centering around the subject of death. I think subtle is the word I want to drive home here. The piece takes on the biggest subject in literature and does so without lapsing into either sentimentality or its equally unfortunate opposite, frigidity.
And the use of footnotes, addenda to a brief list, is a very subtle strategy for this piece. What I appreciate about this story, and this form in general, is its deconstruction of the so-called “main” text by emphasizing the role of its marginalia, which one traditionally associates with triviality or minutiae. Consider details like this:
Dorothea: Her four daughters – my mother, three aunts – used colored Post-Its to mark which of Doro’s belongings they each wanted to keep. Once they took what they wanted, their children, including myself and my brothers, used colored pieces of string to mark anything we wanted…
So we have recollections about how the estates of the deceased were divvied up, how these people behaved in life, the nature of the speaker’s relationship to the deceased, what the funeral ceremony was like, etc. The story sort of reads like a multi-character obituary, but one composed not of major life events (married so-and-so, worked at such-and-such, etc.) so much as a series of tiny, easy-to-overlook details. The story is both a series of nuanced portraits (of the deceased, of the people they’ve left behind) and the narrative arc of the narrator (who experiences a gradual, not exactly resolved emotional journey from her first funeral to her most recent). In a lot of ways, it seems, this story is a portrait of grief.
Here’s the thing about obituaries: they so often miss what’s really important, which isn’t so much where the deceased worked or went to college or where they lived, but the nuances of their demeanor, their idiosyncrasies, their trinkets and imperfections and the many little impressions they left on the world around them.