Carol LaHines’ debut novel, Someday Everything Will All Make Sense, opens with a grabber of a scene: Luther van der Loon describing the death of his mother, who choked to death on a wonton as he tried–and failed–to save her with a badly executed Heimlich maneuver.
We come to know Luther as a hapless fellow, even before he failed to save his mother’s life. He is nearing middle age never having lived on his own, with no other family but his mother. He has protruding ears, a limp, and a sinus condition. If that weren’t bad enough, he is a failed harpsichord virtuoso turned associate professor of Medieval and Renaissance musicology, whose department has been relegated to the reviled animal research wing of the university.
After the trauma of his mother’s death, Luther is subjected to the indignities of the funeral industry, with descriptions reminiscent of Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, (which he makes sure to read in an act of psychic self-flagellation):
. . . the shelves of coffins, from the visibly cheap to the garishly expensive, finishes of polished mahogany, gleaming steel, and eternal bronze; satin-lined, with pillows and blankets to conceal the hideous drainages that in time would mar the interior.
The rest of her, in reptilian fashion, had adjusted to the outside temperature (in this case, the chilly 60 degrees of the funerary chapel, the thermostat no doubt set to ensure optimal preservation in the days before burial).
The rest of the novel consists of Luther’s narrating his grief journey. (He would object very strongly to the phrase “grief journey.” He is having none of his therapist girlfriend’s forays into Cognitive Behavioral Therapy when she loses patience with his constant perseverating over the gelatinous agent of his mother’s death.)
In addition to Luther’s black humor directed toward the funeral industry, his depiction of the absurdity of Academia provides some of the funniest moments of the novel, such as the results of budget cuts to one’s beloved annual symposium for scholars of the arcane:
Rather than a breakfast buffet in the Tishman Building vestibule, participants would have to choke down croissants and mini-bagels in the halls of the vivisectionist wing, fearful that an escaped chimpanzee (those not immobilized in a vice somewhere) might make off with their sliced cantaloupe.
Most striking about my experience reading Someday Everything Will All Make Sense was Luther’s use of language as first-person narrator. He has just gone through a horrendous experience and he tells us how traumatized and grief-stricken he is. However, I felt distanced from him, which is unusual when reading a first-person narrative.
Upon reflection, I realized that Luther is using the elevated language of black humor and arcane scholarship to distance himself from his grief, all the while insisting that he is expressing it. Ultimately, isn’t this a very human response, reflecting the absurdity of our need to make sense of a senseless event, and, ultimately, the inability of language to express the depth of our grief at losing someone we love?
Luther was a character that came from a prior work. Though that work didn’t end up going anywhere, it allowed me to develop the idiosyncratic Luther — a professor of medieval music and momma’s boy — as a character. When I began this novel, I was in a period of mourning. I was going through the familiar phases of grief, denial, anger, etc., stumbling through them much as Luther does. I was reading a lot of the literature on bereavement, books like Kubler-Ross and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Jessica Mitford on the business of dying in America, and so this material was very much on my mind.
Most of my work tends to the comic or the tragic comic. I was grappling with how to deal with such a heavy subject in a serious way but still with a lighter, wry touch. I decided to use the Luther character as the narrator as he was a comic figure who would help me to maintain the tone I was going after as I mined my stages-of-grief material.
The manner of Luther’s mother’s death — choking while eating wonton soup — was deliberately ridiculous. It thrust Luther into a situation where he was instantly in shock and grappling with a death that had arrived entirely unexpectedly. He also feels guilty because he was unable to successfully perform the Heimlich maneuver to save her.
When I began writing the novel, I didn’t have much beyond that setup. I also knew that I wanted Luther to be a music professor, because that would enable me to tap into my musical knowledge. Luther’s early music colleagues furnish a lot of comic relief and are a counterpoint to the darker material. Luther is obsessed with the problem of temperament — something theorists grappled with for centuries before settling on the equal tempered system. The inexplicable imperfections in the circle of fifths — math that literally does not add up — vex Luther and serve as an extended metaphor, underscoring that there are losses that don’t make sense and are beyond our ability to fathom.
Luther’s Passion in Life
This is a version of the song quoted in Chapter 6 of the book.