A Matter of Life and Death or Something is charmingly twee
A Matter of Life and Death or Something
By Ben Stephenson. Douglas & McIntyre, 264 pp, softcover
A Matter of Life and Death or Something is a novel with a very cute title, voiced by a 10-year-old, a 20-something, and trees. (Yep, trees.) If twee is not your thing, you should probably turn around right now. But if you’re the sort who reads McSweeney’s and appreciates a good list, 24-year-old Ben Stephenson’s debut might be right up your alley.
The story’s protagonist is Arthur Williams, a preternaturally intelligent little boy. His charming voice is the novel’s chief strength: he’s engagingly weird and exuberant, and says things like “I don’t care if she’s my girlfriend or not. Because I don’t think I’m old enough yet that I like girls much, and also because I have too much self-esteem.” (He’s wise!) He also makes lists with titles like “Some Obvious Places I Would Go in My Time Machine” and includes little illustrations throughout (actually Ben’s; he’s an artist, too).
Things kick off when Arthur finds a journal (in the woods where those trees are) written by a heartbroken guy named Phil. Arthur, being curious, reads the whole, tortured thing. But something happens on page 43 that really shakes Arthur up, and he decides it’s his mission to figure out why Phil did what he did.
It sort of feels like A Matter of Life and Death might play out like another The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (a gifted child in place of one with Asperger’s). But unlike in Mark Haddon’s novel, there’s not much mystery. In the prelude, Arthur lays out two important plot points: Phil committed suicide (of course), and Arthur himself is adopted. So, as Arthur goes from neighbour to neighbour asking about Phil, and Phil’s diary recounts walks in the snow and helpless wallowing, and the trees watch and comment, you might ask where we’re going here. Not toward a big reveal—but an emotional reckoning for Arthur, who achieves a kind of catharsis over his birth parents’ abandonment of him through grappling with Phil’s diary.
In the end, A Matter of Life and Death is subtle, imaginative, and touching, and even though we kind of know how it’s going to end right from the beginning, maybe that’s just life. Or something.