Change begins with small acts. The title of my blog is taken from Paul Gilroy's powerful slim volume packing a resounding counter-cultural critical punch.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Book Review: Six Feet Under - Better Living Through Death
by Carmen Nge

Encased in its red plastic protective cover like a cadaver in a fiery casket, this handsome companion to the acclaimed HBO American television drama, Six Feet Under, reeks of life. With its carefully sutured spine and its sombre funereal cover, this weighty tome is not only a beautiful souvenir for die-hard fans of the series, it is most certainly a volume deserving appreciation and attention in its own right. Combining philosophical musings about death with vivid photographs culled from the TV series, Six Feet Under: Better Living Through Death is an absorbing read even for those (like myself) who have not seen the Emmy-winning show.

The brief introduction, printed against a blood red page, intimately acquaints us with a man whose relationship to death is characterized by mystery and nostalgia. Penned by Alan Ball, the introduction clues us to the mindset of the very same screenwriter who wrote the Oscar-winning film, American Beauty, and received both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Original Screenplay in 1999. Ball recounts his numerous encounters with death and concludes that “Death is life: an epic, primal force that terrifies and fascinates us, gives our experience meaning, and ultimately consumes us” (5)

The all-consuming theme of death is the foundation for the critically acclaimed TV series, which centres on a family—the Fishers—who own and operate a funeral home in Los Angeles. With a stellar ensemble cast that includes Rachel Griffiths, Patricia Clarkson, Peter Krause and Lauren Ambrose, Six Feet Under has been gifted with the writing expertise of Alan Ball and the directorial talents of Kathy Bates, Lisa Cholodenko and Miguel Arteta, among others. Part of the show’s appeal and fanatically loyal following has to do with its darkly comic and uncompromising treatment of issues as diverse and complex as manic depression, abortion, homosexuality, single fatherhood and family conflict—all of which exist within the day-to-day framework of the grief management industry.

Like the TV series, which anchors each episode in the rituals and routines of the funeral service business, the book is peppered with inserts, photographs and references to the respectable job of caring for the dead. A few hand-drawn, vintage newspaper advertisements for embalming fluids are reproduced in the book, together with letters exchanged between Nate Fisher Jr. and some of his clients. These correspondences give us a glimpse into the kind of delicate sensitivity involved in the career of a funeral director and they underscore the painful realities of the grieving. At the same time, an essay by David Fisher championing the existence of independent, family-run funeral homes gives us an altogether different perspective of death as a business: the monopolistic tendencies of multi-national conglomerates will stop at nothing to garner a profit—not even death!

The book is filled to the brim with vivid colour photographs of the pristine and austere Fisher funeral home; macabre yet aesthetically arresting images of the dead as they undergo facial reconstruction; as well as individual portraits of members of the Fisher family—baby Nate fast asleep with a pout on his chubby face; patriarch Nathaniel Fisher as a young man having just returned from his tour of duty in Vietnam; and a 6-year old, sweet-smiling David with adorable, twinkling brown eyes. The photographs and hand-written letters that fill the first half of the book lend the volume a nostalgic quality; they also flesh out the early history of the Fisher family with loving detail and documentary fidelity—something the TV series does not do.

The character of Claire Fisher for example—the youngest and by far the most precocious and creative offspring of Ruth and Nathaniel Fisher—is brought alive by way of the short story she submits to her school paper and the instant messages she exchanges with her friend Billy Chenowith while online. From these two written sources, which are reproduced in the book, we come to see Claire as an intelligent, angry and much-misunderstood young woman. Viewers who are already aware of her personality will nonetheless appreciate reading some of the manifestations of her teenage angst and creativity.

In addition to the book’s ability to round out the characters from the TV series by including personal artefacts from their past, it also remains faithful to the wry humour of the TV series. The suburban conservatism reflected in the desperate letters from Nate’s high school guidance counsellor requesting that he stop “not only french-kissing but GRINDING in the halls” (66) is as comical as Ruth’s friend Bettina, writing to her about the “religious fanatics with guns” out in Montana. The sarcastic tone adopted by Claire in her writing is also well contrasted with the ribald, risqué email banter between David and his fellow singers from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles.

Rather than modelling itself as a gimmick for the TV series, Six Feet Under: Better Living Through Death presents itself as a high-quality scrapbook of the Fisher family and their network of friends and loved ones. The book eschews providing its readers with comprehensive information about the show and its cast in favour of constructing a story of a unique family told through words and still images. Rather than weave a linear narrative of the Fisher clan, the book simulates the format of television—the insertion of random ponderous quotes (from philosopher Carlos Castaneda and the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying), among the assortment of Fisher family archival materials (such as a school report card, Christmas cards and photographs) simulates the parallel storylines that cut back and forth in most television shows.

Due to its lack of chapters and the absence of clearly defined sections, the book also resists the conventional mode of reading. We are invited, instead, to flip through the photographs, return to dwell on the lengthier written pieces (such as the excerpt from Brenda Chenowith’s novel) and then skim through the emails and medical reports. Six Feet Under: Better Living Through Death is essentially a compilation of discontinuous fragments, each one revealing a story of some kind and each one capturing some aspect of our interest. Yet, none of these fragments fit together in a unified whole; the story of Fisher & Sons remains necessarily intricate and disjointed because like death, it is charged with the unfathomable mystery that is humanity.

This review was published in the May 2004 issue of Options2, The Edge