The great American funerary novel? An initial suspicion is that we have been here before in The Loved One. But Evelyn Waugh's little jape, though finely written, did rather succumb to the obvious with its relentless efforts to exaggerate the more or less unexaggeratable peaks of Californian Death Culture: Forest Lawn was already such a bizarre thing of megalomania and glitz that Whispering Glades couldn't possibly over-top it. Better for unAmerican outsiders to stick to non-fiction, as in The American Way of Death by the splendid Jessica Mitford. We have the letter, we mere Brits, but not in this case the spirit.
David Prill of Minnesota clearly has the spirit (though the letter is with him too – The American Way of Death is surely his most-thumbed bedside book, with its author now immortalized as a verb: leaders of the funeral industry are here grimly resigned to the fact that even their most visionary plans are doomed to be 'mitforded'). With deadpan charm he presents an only slightly skewed alternative America where embalming takes its proper place next to football and baseball in teenage dreams.
To suceed in this vein of humour, one must not be seen overtly cracking jokes or digging the reader in the ribs to force a laugh. Prill is insidious and bland, and any excessive broadness of grin is rectified as he gravely sews the mouth shut. In no time at all it seems entirely reasonable that our precocious young hero Andy Archway should be longing to emulate the great embalming record of Janus P.Mordecai in 1942 (1,769 corpses in a single season) and that, to the surprise of an ever-alert talent scout, he's already doing amazingly creative jobs of 'funeral diorama' for the back-yard embalming service run as a sideline on his parents' farm. And the impressed talent scout is a top man too, hard to please, who's already rejected a nearby aspirant for poor body placement in the casket: 'The corpse must have a welcoming posture, a position that is neither threatening nor reserved. The corpse must try to be a good host.'
Andy's college days follow, with new freshmen welcomed to their rooms by an attractive floral tribute on the desk, with courses like Consolation Literature 101 condescending to mention even such pulp genre mags as Undisturbed and Respectful Casket Tales (the scout has remarked sadly, 'My mother threw out all my old embalming magazines'), with bull sessions in which sophomore embalmers set the world to rights – 'We've got the talent. All we need is a colossal catastrophe' – and with the too-high-flying hero coming temporarily to grief when his overly creative casketing tableau design goes above the heads of unimaginative classmates. But now there inevitably follows the lure of sport, and a happy accident gives Andy his big chance as pinch-hitter (actually, left needleman) in the university team, wielding the trocar against time as the audience roars and cheerleaders chant 'Blood out, fluid in! Go team, win!'
Of course there is more. In the background counterplot we have an epic struggle between the Whispering-Glades-like operation owned by starry-eyed magnate P.T.Sunnyside (Mitford fans will remember that a leading US morticians' journal is, or was, Casket and Sunnyside) and the still vaster rival schemes of the sinister midget Drabford brothers – whose devilish plan to push 'post-need' as a complement to existing 'pre-need' sales builds all too logically on a throwaway anecdote in that Mitford exposé.
Perhaps this compressed account gives a falsely manic effect. Prill deftly keeps his narrative understated, leavened with wholesome all-American banality: he could evidently contrive a much funnier t-shirt slogan than COMPETITIVE EMBALMERS ARE SLAB HAPPY, but it would be hard to imagine one carrying more dreary conviction.
Naturally or unnaturally, our hero's simple aspiration for the all-time record makes him easily manipulable; and once he falls, the story undergoes a jarring shift of tone. Geniality vanishes as the setting for Andy's big chance at the magic figure of 1,770 embalmings proves to be Soma, a grimly generic third-world state in the throes of famine ... corpses who died of starvation being usefully easy to manhandle. His long stint in a deserted modern tower-block (to which his raw material is trucked daily) goes beyond black humour into a kind of appalling surrealism. After the glowing mortuary fantasia of the American scenes, we're disconcertingly confronted by – as Marianne Moore failed to phrase it – imaginary coffins with real corpses in them. It is a jolt.
Back in the USA, it's initially difficult to re-suspend one's disbelief for the semi-farcical death struggle between Sunnyside and the Drabfords. Eventually Andy escapes from all his big-business entanglements and returns to the grass roots, to wander America as an itinerant freelance with a trailer full of embalming gear. Pausing only to create a masterfully tacky funeral tableau starring his old friend the talent scout, he disappears into those great open spaces. Words like 'heart-warming' spring alarmingly to mind.
The Unnatural is a remarkable debut novel that tends to slither aside from the usual advances of the critical trocar: clichéd-seeming gestures like that finale are protected by a shimmering film of parody. Clever fellow, this Prill. I must be sure of making my own exit while Britain still permits the closed-coffin ceremony....