Thursday, December 4, 2008
You Say It’s Your Birthday
It’s my birthday too, Yeah!
by Sarah R. Shaber
Today is my birthday. I am in my late youth. To be more specific, the four crooners you see singing were my contemporaries. I didn’t have my driver’s license when they first visited the States, but in all other aspects I was a fully developed human being.
What is it about birthdays, anyway? Why is a birthday so fraught with symbolism, celebration, and sometimes anxiety?
It’s just another day of the year. You’re pretty much the same person on your birthday as you were the day before.
Except on that first birthday, the day before you were born you were nothing and nobody. You were zero. On your birthday you became one day old. Ever listen to little kids talk about their birthdays? “I’m four years and three months.” “My birthday is in 17 days.” “I was born in the morning, but my party’s going to be in the afternoon.” Your birthday is an absolute. It was the day you became someone. Rather than no one. Somebody instead of nobody.
Non-existing is an ancient, primitive human fear. Being here is vastly preferable to not being here. This is why we cling to life so tenaciously, no matter how ugly life gets. It’s why mortality sucks. We want to stay right here with our loved ones, go to all the new George Clooney movies, see our children and grandchildren grow up, eat at our favorite restaurants, live long enough to find out if there is alien life on other planets. We don’t want to miss anything cool. Even if we have to suffer through root canals, colonoscopies, Sarah Palin, or recession on our journey. Life is still better than not-life. Even people who are deeply religious want to take the last train out. So we celebrate each and every birthday. Thank goodness I’m still here!
What, you might ask, does this have to do with writing, in my case, crime fiction. Everything. Murder is the most heinous of criminal offenses. It has no statute of limitations. Murder case files are never closed. Even anonymous murder victims, some found years after the crime, are investigated with the same zeal as if they were discovered yesterday. It’s said that detectives never forget the cases they couldn’t solve.
Enter the novelist and the reader. The murder victim in a crime novel represents any person who dies before his or her time. We are all anxious about the premature death, the car out of control, the suspicious dark spot on our body, arteries filling up with gunk. Some of us will fall to the wayside before our threescore and ten.
The crime writer exploits this anxiety by allowing us to deal with the unfairness of early death and its aftermath in an entertaining way—reading a mystery novel. We’re permitted to experience the whole horror of death—the violence, the grieving, the questions, the ramifications of someone becoming nobody again. Never having another birthday. Using fictional characters, of course. No one we know personally.
Then there’s the detective. Our hero. He or she tracks down the killer, justice is done, and the reader breathes a sigh of relief. The world continues to rotate. Without the victim, of course, but the reader still feels comforted by the predictability of the form. The writer is happy if she has communicated something she feels is important about life, or if she has exorcised her own demons. And justice somehow lessons the sting of death.
Enough heavy philosophizing. A large piece of double chocolate cake awaits me!