Thomas Mira y Lopez, The Book of Resting Places: A Personal History of Where We Lay the Dead
2017, 208, hardback, $26
In this beautiful debut essay collection, Thomas Mira y Lopez uses his grief over his father’s death to ponder the various approaches humans have taken when burying or otherwise memorializing the dead. What do these practices offer us? Why do we do the things we do when we’re lost and mourning? Lopez suggests that perhaps it is not for the reasons we wish to believe. Lopez approaches the subject from vastly different directions: the Catacombs in Rome, the endowed trees of Poet’s Walk in Central Park, the tombs of Egyptian royalty—after his mother says that she wants to be buried with all her belongings, like a pharaoh—and the site of an exhumed cemetery in downtown Tucson.
In the most entertaining essay of the book, he describes touring the largest cryonics compound in the world, located in Arizona, to figure out what exactly about the idea of artificial, eternal life bothers him, and why anyone would gamble on something so unlikely to succeed. In addition to describing the facility and the practices inside, Lopez also profiles a few of its members, including a mother who sends letters to the institute for her preserved son every year with the expectation that he will wake up and read them one day long after she’s gone. In this way, Lopez realizes, cryogenic preservation allows us to believe we can right cosmic wrongs. “Maybe the tenant behind cryonics,” Lopez concludes, “isn’t that life is so grand one would never want to give it up. Maybe, just maybe, it’s that life hasn’t been grand enough.”
Most people that appear in the book are (if not cryogenically-unusual) still pretty fascinating. At a rock shop outside of Tucson, Lopez discovers an eccentric man named Roger who collects every kind of artifact you can think of, from the skull of a Roman gladiator to a wolf’s penis bone. At some point Lopez discovers that Roger isn’t what he seems to be. This experience, and Roger’s entire collection, raise important questions for Lopez that implicate his own project of writing about his father. “How should we treat our subject matter—what we study and collect and try to piece together—whether we believe its truth or not?”
This question is explored even more deeply in the stunning essay “Capricci,” in which Lopez juxtaposes the experiences of a modern tourist in Venice with the perspective of the 18th-century Italian painter Canaletto, who was known for painting capriccios, architectural fantasies that look realistic but in fact manipulate the very environment they intend to evoke. The essay’s experimental form reflects the complicated terrain of its subject matter. At play, in addition to the relationship between the tourist and the painter, are the relationships between the painter and his capriccios, the painter and Lopez, and finally, laid over all of this, the fact that the essay exists within the larger project of a son memorializing his father. “What if we thought of Canaletto as trained not so much to insert fantasy into reality, but reality into fantasy?” Lopez asks, adding “If the capriccio substitutes for the real thing, then does that captured city somehow become more representative of Venice than Venice itself?” It’s not a stretch to imagine his father as Venice and Lopez as Canaletto, struggling to come to peace with the gap between art and reality.
In the end, Lopez arrives at a conclusion that is both beautiful and heartbreaking: that books themselves are resting places for the dead, filled with words that never quite succeed in bringing a person you love back to life, but come as close as anything can.
Thomas Mira y Lopez’s first book, The Book of Resting Places, was published and distributed by Counterpoint Press in November 2017.
His work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review Online, and The Normal School among others. He holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has received grants or scholarships from The MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and Colgate University’s Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship.
He is an editor of Territory, a literary project about maps and other strange objects, and an assistant fiction editor at DIAGRAM. Originally from New York, Mira y Lopez lives and teaches in North Carolina, where he is the 2017-2018 Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC-Chapel Hill.