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Excerpt from Instructions for a Funeral by David Means, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Instructions for a Funeral


by David Means

Instructions for a Funeral by David Means X
Instructions for a Funeral by David Means
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2019, 208 pages
    Mar 2020, 208 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Jamie Chornoby
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About this Book

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I've been writing stories for thirty years now, many published, others not published but trashed, put to bed, dead in the water, so to speak; lost to me, to eternity, or whatever. There's simply no way to distill or describe what's in the stories, except to say I attempt, to say the least, to respect whatever each story seems to want—not only to want to be, but to say in its own way—each one, as far as I can see, an expression of a particular ax I must grind, particular souls in particular situations, and in some cases a voice that needs to say what it says or else (and I feel this, really, I do) it'll be lost forever to the void, the same place where most stories go, forever; the real stories of men and women who lived lives—quiet desperation!—and then died, gone forever into eternity, so to speak. It's a gut feeling, a need to reveal something and to pin it down forever, and it involves a lot of revision, fixing mistakes and covering tracks and making amends with the material itself, so that what comes out in the vision is clarified, sharpened, and made clear—to me at least, if not to the reader, who might or might not get what I want, and most certainly will get something I didn't know they'd get. That's the best part, knowing that you'll be betrayed by the reader, so to speak, no matter what you do, no matter what kind of care you take with the work: you go into the senseless vision of the vision and then you revise it into something as clear as possible and leave it at that, striking out by letting it go out, and if it's taken into the arms of print, so much the better, you say to yourself, while also feeling, at the same time, a sense that it might not be for the better: in other words it might fail you, and the reader, and pin your name in the air overhead, above the story for a few days, or years, or a hundred or more, only to find its way into the void of eternity, so to speak, lost and gone. You're aware—at least I am—that eternity will devour everything in its own time, and that whatever mark is left will be gone, because that awareness is essential to the work: a sense of catching some slice of time itself, making it stand at attention, and still. If not for the sake of a reader—somewhere in the future—then for your own sake, for a moment, at the desk on a hot summer afternoon, or wintry cold day (it does matter) while also knowing it doesn't matter one iota, really, because the persistent nature of time in relation to life is one of consumption, of time consuming life to bone, ash, dust to dust and all of that, so to speak, but for one eternal moment, the work might, or might not, live in the fire of neurons, brain to brain, in the soft silence again of time, and then fade, or, rather, fall, into nothing.


You'd better know what it is, really know, inside your flesh, before you venture in there, and if you're making a story around some violent act just because that's the central concern, or the thing your imagination latches on to, or you want to find a bridge between your inner life and the culture—which of course is most certainly violent—then you're doomed, because you're trivializing the violence by turning it into a useful tool, and no matter what, the violence you create will supersede the situation, the human situation; and though the human situation might be irredeemably bleak in the story, in life it is always surrounded by landscape, or people, who, seemingly against their will, provide symbolic grace, something beyond the horror of the violence itself, I think, at least right now, considering my father, who taught me to see the way I see, for good or bad, and who, even when facing violence himself, in one form or another, trusted in reality. In other words you'd better know what you're doing, I tell myself. You'd better have a wider worldview and a sense of cosmic justice at hand. Who am I to say? Just writing about it I feel myself taking a grand stance, but the fact that I'm writing in the confessional mode, here, isn't because of shame, not anymore, but out of a sense of humility and a respect for the truth, not wanting to betray the truth. It isn't a matter, really, of being afraid to expose my family—my sisters, my mother, my now-dead father—but because to find a way into the truth in fiction I can do so only by protecting them, working around them, giving respect to the complexity of a reality that served up to them a certain kind of violence, vague as that might sound—and it does, it really does, as if I'm skirting the intensity of seeing my sister devoured by her illness, living in squalor, in agony, walking alone on a wintry day, through the windblown snow up Westnedge Hill, wearing my trilby hat, the one I had been madly searching for back at the house, one day, years ago.

Excerpted from Instructions for a Funeral by David Means. Copyright © 2019 by David Means. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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