Get Out!

H.L. Hix, The Death of H.L. Hix (Serving House Books, 2021)

Death is everywhere, always, and dying is an everyday thing. But to meet with it in books, unflinchingly and sympathetically rendered, is a rarity.

The Death of H.L. Hix is a masterclass in sympathetic dying. Presented, on its surface, as a metafictional, self-reflective, metaphysical rumination on the death of the author, the book is actually a straightforward depiction of a death in disguise.

H.L. Hix, we are told on the interior title page, is the name of both translator and editor of this book, the author of it and the main character. All four, in a Calvino-esque trope, are different people.

We might even go further, and separate the “implied author” of the book (the one described in the book) from the actual author, the man of flesh who wrote it, whose name, we are to believe, is also H.L. Hix.

We are then presented with a heavily-footnoted introduction (by H.L. Hix about H.L. Hix). A page of classical quotations and dictionary definitions, playfully reworded. And an opening scene wherein academics are fighting over funding at a faculty staff meeting:

With our strength in the eighteenth century […] we’d make waves in the MLA…”

The department has been without a Miltonist for years…”

I know, I know. I rolled my eyes as well.

But then, just as the meeting is getting going, there’s an announcement: H.L. Hix, the faculty’s continental philosophy specialist, has died.

As the faculty immediately launch into plans as how best to carve up the teaching hours and salary he had left behind, we pull back to an overview of Hix’s life – lived effortlessly, as if by default, entirely normal – and the fateful stone that leapt up from his lawnmower, bounced off the garage wall and ruptured his kidney.

From here onwards, the clunky postmodernist scaffolding slowly falls away. We are left with an aging, but not old man, who, after first denying he was hurt, realises his injury is serious, then goes to doctor and receives the bad news.

For the remaining novel we watch him slip away. We hear about his wife. Their normal marriage; not ideal, not terrible. She cares for him until he is bedbound, at which point the nurse, Gary Simm, takes over.

Gary Simm is the anti-Hix. He is warm and caring, and seems totally unbothered by the sick man’s bodily functions. Hix grows increasingly frustrated, disgusted by his own body, and eventually struggles to hang on to his own thoughts at all.

The most powerful scenes come towards the end, as Gary Simm “dignifies” H.L. Hix’s aimless imaginings by calling them “thoughts”; a title he refuses to accept for them. Hix prefers stories from Simm’s life. Slices of down-home Americana. Uncle Tito’s truck. The pet owl that grew too big.

The details are never too saccharine, but neither are they overly stoic. Never prurient, but biological facts are not flinched from.

We are left with an entirely convincing and deeply moving portrait of a normal death after a normal life. It is told with sympathy and grace, and, by the end, no contrivance whatsoever.

Being an experimental work, we aren’t privy to the actual author’s intention. Perhaps their inability to keep up all the Roland Barthes, death of the author, metafictional stuff was a failing? Perhaps we’re meant to be looking out for it all along? I admit, I was surprised that it made no return after the ending.

Or, as I would like to think, perhaps the author’s over-elaborate framing of the novel as metafiction was all a ruse; part of its slow and necessary shedding of contrivance.

The academic superstructures surrounding fiction, the critical and institutional flummery, fall by the wayside; both in the narrative (none of them visit the dying Hix), and in our own relationship with the novel.

Get all that crap out of the way. “Get out!” as Hix says. Who let you in here in the first place? Liars, cheats, con-artists… the Demons of Inauthentica. The Death of H.L. Hix casts them off. He gives us the truth, unmediated.

Or, at least, he honestly attempts to; which is all that matters.

This novel is an absolute must-read. An essential work. A book to read before you die. A deathless classic.

Joe Darlington

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