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From the March, 2008 issue of Touchstone

 

Everyman’s Finale by Graeme Hunter

Everyman’s Finale

October
by Richard B. Wright
HarperCollins, 2007
(256 pages, $32.95, hardcover)

reviewed by Graeme Hunter

Gabriel is a longtime polio victim, now 75 years old. Not that his life has been hard in other respects. He is the wealthy son of a privileged family, with a paid companion. The narrator of the story, James Hillyer, is a childhood acquaintance he has met again by chance just days ago and persuaded to travel with him to Switzerland. They have come so that Gabriel can kill himself legally with a doctor’s assistance.

That is half the plot of Richard Wright’s fine new novel, October, a story crafted with the same skill that has already won its author two major Canadian awards, the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, for his novel Clara Callan. The other half of this new novel concerns the narrator’s daughter, a woman in her forties with an aggressive form of cancer likely to carry her off within the year. She also has something to say about assisted suicide:

“If those people [legal suicide assistants] were down the street, I’d go in a minute. But Europe? The plane ride? All that hassle?” She allowed herself a small, mirthless laugh. “I guess I’m just too tired to die.”

The book is about more than euthanasia. It tells a larger story of aging, and how the enthusiasms of our youth glow again in the mellow light of years. But the core of the story is about facing death and choosing it.

There are many old and handicapped people for whom physician-assisted suicide is going to be the next big question, not just because many of them will long to end their artificially extended lives, but because the high cost of keeping sick people going will create an incentive for having them dead.

Least Prepared Christians

October brings home that the dying will not have to face the issue alone. Their families and all their friends are going to have their say. The institutions that shape our lives will be in on it. Our entire society will be dragged before this question. We will all have to decide what to do.

Among the people least prepared for this discussion, it seems, are Christians. Which is strange because we are the ones who made the pro-life movement famous.

But that movement began when the baby-boomers were having families. Or not having them through contraception and abortion. The issue then was babies whose beauty and human potential were being extinguished by adults. Our experience with babies will not take us very far when we apply it to old, sick people with their good years behind them, who long to be gone.

That is where a novel like October can help. The narrator is not a Christian, but he is not hostile to Christianity. Like many people over 50, he looks back with nostalgic pleasure to a childhood touched by Christian faith, but also like many of them, religion is for him a fading memory, offering little insight into adult life and therefore unhelpful about death.

If serious Christians are going to contribute significantly to the coming debate on euthanasia, it will help to understand how someone like the narrator of October sees it, for he represents the educated, secular, ordinary middle class. We ought to be interested in what James Hillyer does with the rest of the day, after watching his childhood acquaintance die peacefully in the morning.

What did I do with the rest of that Monday? I wandered about the city, going into bookshops and austere old Protestant churches. I walked by the river and returned to the hotel for lunch. I had two glasses of wine with the meal and afterwards a nap in my room. I had watched a man I once knew as a boy take his own life and die peacefully as he had wished, and I was glad that I had come along to Zurich to be with him.

No Consolation

This paragraph, I think, shows much of what Christians must consider in crafting our response to the big question of assisted dying. Churches will figure from time to time in people’s thinking about euthanasia, but no more than that other fading institution—bookstores. Death will be taken in stride on solitary walks. There will be a little extra wine with lunch, a nap, and the thought that it was all for the best.

There will be mute solidarity with the dying. Mute, because no words of consolation are known.

Christians must learn to recognize the integrity of the reaction of James Hillyer, who in this case is Everyman. His lack of religious insight blinds him to how the peace of the departed is won by violence done against them, even if they desire it, even if it is kindly meant. He will not see how regrettable it is to say goodbye without hope, or how unlikely that death can be the real solution to any of the problems of life.

At the time of writing, October was only available in Canada, but it can be ordered online.


Graeme Hunter teaches philosophy at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate). He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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