The Artist of the Obituary
Margalit Fox is one of those writers—I’m reluctant to demote her to the rank of mere journalist—whose every paragraph carries an undercurrent of humor. I don’t mean one-liners or stand-up jokes, I mean humor, broadly understood. Reading her stuff, you’re never more than a few sentences away from an ironic aside or wry observation or the sudden appearance of some cockeyed fact. Rare enough, this happy trait of hers is all the more unlikely because the place where Fox’s writing appears is the New York Times, a newspaper that grows more woebegone with each edition, owing to all the racism, sexism, homophobia, income inequality, and Republicans that weigh upon the world. Stranger still, Fox maintains her writerly bounce despite her regular subject, which is death and the people who encounter it one last time.
Margalit Fox is an obituary writer, and the best writer all around, at the New York Times. She is astonishingly productive. In the last half of July alone, she reported the demise of the inventor of Twister, New York’s first professional dog walker, a well-known illustrator of children’s books, a Mississippi bluesman, one of Andy Warhol’s numberless assistants, a Broadway producer, a singer who popularized the Chock Full o’ Nuts jingle, a successful welterweight, a witness at the trial of Emmett Till, the distaff side of the Masters and Johnson sex duo, and an agitator on behalf of world government. Not bad for two weeks’ work. No reason you should care, but over the same span, I completed two thank-you notes and a grocery list.
An obituary is foremost a news story. It brings news that stays news, carrying a finality seldom found elsewhere in the newspaper. Revolutions can be undone, careers may rise and fall, and the weather will change without ceasing, but a man who is dead stays dead. It is also much more than a news story, of course. It is a bird’s-eye summary of family history and a potted biography all in one, and, if the subject is right and the obituarist sufficiently skilled, a kind of primer in an arcane field in which the deceased was immersed but which the reader won’t be familiar with. In a week when the Reaper has ranged widely, we might learn the history of shipping routes, let’s say, or the intricacies of pre-digital animation techniques, or the evolution of botanical knowledge in the Victorian era. As in many other fields of journalism, the writer must sometimes acquire his expertise through a crash course on a moment’s notice, then convey it with an air of offhand authority, before forgetting it altogether and moving onto the archaeological digs of ancient Sumatra and the principles behind the various revisions of Roget’s Thesaurus.
And if she’s very, very good, the writer of a death notice will always allow room for wit. This is the lonely and exalted class of obituarist into which Margalit Fox falls. Download a stack of her obituaries and they will make for unexpectedly pleasant reading, even if you’re not a big fan of death. Each has a shape of its own and, unlike other newspaper articles, must be read from beginning to end. I’ve occasionally happened on Fox’s obituaries when they appear in other papers—they go out on the Times wire and run in the provinces—and see sometimes to my horror what happens to them when they’re cut (not condensed) to three brief paragraphs. Fox nearly always puts the death in the first sentence, which for your benefit I will refuse to call “the death sentence,” but beyond that, her obits have no use for the hard-news convention of the inverted pyramid, according to which the poor hack must pile up facts in order of importance. Her best pieces have the feel of an Addisonian ramble. In the death sentence (d’oh!), a subordinate clause lets the reader know why the deceased deserved an obituary. Fox’s subordinate clauses are not just informative but arresting: “Arthur J. Haggerty, perhaps the most famous dog trainer in the United States, who was familiar to legions of dog owners as Captain Haggerty and to legions of dogs as He Who Must Be Obeyed, died on….”
Her kickers are invariably satisfying. She ended the obit for an activist who died this summer as his new hero Edward Snowden was still languishing in a Moscow airport, like so: “Mr. Snowden could not be reached for comment.”
Sometimes the dead do the obituarist a favor by living a life that, as Fox once put it in an interview, “writes itself.” One of her most celebrated obituaries appeared last year at the death of an adventurer, professional gambler, practicing pirate, and boulevardier named John Fairfax. News of his death reached the Times newsroom a few weeks late, so Fox felt no need to announce it in the obit’s opening paragraphs, which read: “He crossed the Atlantic because it was there, and the Pacific because it was also there. He made both crossings in a rowboat because it, too, was there, and because the lure of the sea, spray and sinew, and the history-making chance to traverse two oceans without steam or sail, proved irresistible.” These sentences are worthy of Hemingway when he was sober, though the events of Fairfax’s life—which Fox reports with a sense of mounting and infectious incredulity—are much more exciting than The Old Man and the Sea.
She can be even more impressive announcing the end of a less eventful life. She turned the obituary of a retired paper-company executive into a kind of hymn to the company’s most recognizable product, the disposable blue-and-white Anthora coffee cup with its strange Greek motif that is indispensable to New York take-outs. In the hands of the average Timesman, the piece would have been yet another insufferable exercise in Manhattan provincialism. Fox made it a parable of enterprise and immigrant grit, with allusions—only three paragraphs apart—to Bach’s Coffee Cantata and TV cop shows. “Without the Anthora,” she wrote, “Law and Order could scarcely exist.” It’s a considerable writerly feat to let a reader turn from the news of death refreshed and uplifted.
But uplift isn’t the right word. It’s more complicated than that. As much as I admire and envy Margalit Fox, I will continue to read the Times obituary page even if I survive the unhappy day when she retires. I suppose I like the obits in the Times because they stand as a rebuke to the utopianism on view in so much of the rest of the paper, and in our culture at large—the conviction, so dear to progressives, that with just this policy, just that tax increase, with one more appropriation or this precise set of comprehensive regulations, the election of a different candidate or the invention of this cure or the distribution of a revolutionary serum or the revision of one more curriculum, the world will at last reach the cusp of a glorious consummation and the unending downward drag of entropy will be reversed. It is not possible, or should not be so for a reasonable man, to sustain such fancies in the face of an obituary. Here on the obituary page, in the hands of a writer like Margalit Fox, utopianism turns to ashes. “Come,” says the utopian dream, “follow me to a world of everlasting justice and peace.” “Oh no,” says the obituary, “not possible, for the claw of the snagglepuss will get us all in the end.”