I read two things over the weekend that got me thinking about artists who die young. One of them was Gillian Gaar's In Utero, from the "33 1/3" series of books about rock albums; it chronicles the recording of Nirvana's last (and, in my possibly minority opinion, best) album, in the year before Kurt Cobain's suicide. The other was Christopher Marlowe's Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, the famous story of the German doctor who sells his soul to Satan so that he can, um, get laid and play tricks at a dinner party.
Faustus is a good play--not a great one, I don't think, but there are plenty of rabid Marlovians (the ones who think he was Shakespeare) who would tar and feather me to hear my say it, were the internet, say, a Holiday Inn ballroom, rather than a bunch of fickle electrons. But the play's not the thing--it's the circumstances of Marlowe's death that interest me today. He was stabbed in the eye, in a roomful of state secret service dudes who said he started it. Cobain's suicide was quite straightforward by comparison, but even his death has been subjected to its own brace of conspiracy theories.
Judging from those two, if you're really sharp, and you kick it before the age of, say, thirty-five, you're golden. You may have left behind a terrific body of work, but posterity doesn't just listen to your three albums, or watch your four plays, and mutter "what a shame." Also factored into your permanent reputation is what might have been--the stuff you might possibly maybe definitely would have produced if you'd lived. If album C was better than album B was better than album A, then album M would have pitched the world into ecstatic chaos.
Then again...the other book I read this week was another in the 33 1/3 series, Ben Sisario's Doolittle, a chronicle of the Pixiess third album. (The book is both better written than the Nirvana one, and less engaging to read, due to Sisario's excessive erudition and worshipful tone--but I recommend it anyhow.) Charles Thompson, aka Black Francis, aka Frank Black, didn't die after the record was recorded. Indeed, he put out another bunch, both with and without the Pixies, and none of them are remotely as good as Doolittle. He lives today, somewhere in Oregon, with his girlfriend and their baby, and while he's pretty legendary, he's no Cobain, let alone Marlowe (apologies to his fans, but I'll take the Breeders over post-Doolittle Black any day).
When we read a writer we like, we don't just read what we're reading. We read what we could be reading--what we hope we might read someday. This is way we Obamites dig our candidate: you can count on him being a decent president, but there's just the tiniest chance that he might be great--legendary--world-altering. When a writer dies young, she is frozen in time, often at the height of her powers (which, it is often the case, are fueled by the same pressures that result in her death. Sylvia Plath, for instance). The graph of her awesomeness looks like a day trader's wet dream. You never imagine it changing direction (Hemingway). You never imagine it disappearing completely (Salinger).
This doesn't speak well for our older, healthier, more fortunate writers, one of which I hope someday to become. But those writers get to have something Breece D'J Pancake or John Kennedy Toole never got to have: a second act, and a third, and possibly a fourth. All I really can wish for, though, is that I don't have a fifth act like poor proud Faustus, with my various limbs scattered across a blood-smeared room.
Then again, what a way to go! I'd make the Norton Anthology for sure.