The delineation between the clichéd and the truly illuminating “death essay” is a fairly easy line to draw. More often than not, narratives of loss meander into the trite, growing further and further away from any original or discerning insight. William Giraldi’s “The Physics of Speed,” featured in the Fall 2010 issue of The Antioch Review, finds itself on the less populous, and more rewarding, side of the line.
After his 47-year-old father is killed during a high-speed motorcycle accident, Giraldi is gripped by a terror so profound it feels as physically pervasive as a highly infectious disease. Giraldi writes after attending his father’s funeral:
In the following days I learned that absence takes up space, has mass, moves from room to room. Grief is much heavier than fear. Fear hung before me in anticipation, whereas grief was planted like a sequoia in my stomach, its roots reaching far down into my legs for water, its branches reaching up through my arms and torso and neck, the poison from its fruit spilling into my cells.
What seems to seize Giraldi’s consciousness more so than grief is a fervent need to know how this catastrophe transpired. So, Giraldi digs into the details of his father’s demise: visiting the location of the accident, speaking with witnesses of the crash, and even phoning the coroner’s office to obtain a meticulous report on the fatal injuries his father sustained when he was hurled from his motorcycle and subsequently crushed between the machine and the guardrail. The coroner, a man named Steven Grim (seriously), was unavailable at the time of Giraldi’s call, so instead the grieving yet relentlessly curious son spoke with the coroner’s assistant:
Grim’s assistant—that soldier of truth, he who had literally seen inside my father, that place in his head where his thoughts came from, and that place in his chest where his love was—left me with these stories: the dying who refuse to die even when they want to, the bereaved who refuse to bury their dead. And he left me with those cold nouns, larynx and cranial vault. They split like thin, sun-baked shale. Human evolution had no way of anticipating steel and speed, and so we are like graham crackers in the grip of an angry child. Our bodies, so perfectly adapted to the African savanna of one million years ago, are simply waiting to be shredded in civilization.
If only there existed more narratives of loss like Giraldi’s, maybe finding the shared experience of true despair, confusion, and grief in literature would be less difficult to come by.
Source: The Antioch Review (excerpt only available online)