Ray Robertson’s Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live, you’ll be happy to know, is not a misery memoir. Nor is it an uplifting, syrupy self-help book. Still, these thoughtful meditations on the big questions of life (and death) emerge from mental pain and a writer’s need for whatever helps you make it through the night. Readers will not doubt their authenticity.
Robertson, a Toronto-based novelist in his mid-40s, describes himself as a mostly happy man who periodically, over more than two decades, has suffered from “debilitating spells” of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which often are accompanied by depression. OCD ranges from slight effects, like worrying about whether you turned the stove off before you left the house, to an incapacitating condition in which you’re “afraid of going for a walk because of the mental exhaustion that will inevitably result from having to count every crack in the sidewalk along the way.”
Upon finishing a draft of his most recent novel, David (2009), Robertson fell into the severest bout of the affliction he’d ever experienced. There were months of terrified helplessness and, one night, the thought “that if I didn’t wake up in the morning I wouldn’t be happy to be dead, but the idea of not being alive was a relief. Why not? I couldn’t help asking myself. Why not die?”
Fortunately, Robertson weathered the storm. Instead of dwelling on the details – he dispenses with the personal misery in a brief introduction – he decided to see the episode as an “uncommon opportunity. Not to write a memoir of my illness and recovery – this has been done, and done, and done, and usually from a retrospectively falsely sagacious point of view – but instead to write a book that explores two of life’s central and enduring questions: What makes human beings happy? What makes life worth living? In short, rather than the question of why not die, Robertson asks: Why not live?
I have mixed feelings about the resultant essays. Several are poignant and wise, others meander or, more rarely, border on the banal. Overall, I’m sympathetic to the effort. In addition to appreciating that Robertson hasn’t turned his affliction into an occupation, I like the underlying idea of his project. At least once in your life, it seems like an interesting notion to pause long enough to figure out what you think about the capitalizable Big Topics: Love, Work, Art, Friendship, Death and the rest. That’s the “uncommon opportunity” Robertson has taken in Why Not?, which has been short-listed for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction.
I also like Robertson’s recognition that these “reasons to live” are often double-edged. He’s sharply aware of the pleasures of Work, especially for a writer absorbed in the time-and-space travel of composition. Nonetheless, given his working-class upbringing, “no one had to tell me that what my parents did for a living was difficult, dirty, and degrading. I saw it at the end of the day in their exhausted faces, their dazed eyes, their limp limbs.”
Similarly, Robertson’s essay on Intoxication enthuses over what the poet Rimbaud called “a reasoned derangement of all the senses.” But it also offers an extended passage on the up-and-down trip of Grateful Dead band member Jerry Garcia, whose early stoned explorations in music descended into heroin-induced disintegration.
Robertson likes Art that’s “dangerous,” but he’s also alert to originality that fades to self-parody, as evidenced in his 2007 novel, What Happened Later, about the post- On The Road dead-end of writer Jack Kerouac.
There are lesser essays. For instance, Robertson goes on so long about relationships with dogs that you think he’ll never get around to mere human pals in an essay about Friendship. In another on Individuality, there are long riffs occupying half the piece about two minor pop musical geniuses who come to grief. I think I missed the point.
His publisher likes to bill Robertson as a “Rock and Roll Montaigne.” I could probably do with a bit less rock ‘n’ roll. Nonetheless, I like Robertson’s well-read mind, from which he draws on an array of thinkers from Seneca to Nietzsche as he extends the tradition of Montaigne’s investigation into what we know about ourselves.
Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano University in North Vancouver. His new book is Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009.