Since I finished reading and festooning with notes Peter Coviello’s new book, “Is There God After Prince? Dispatches from an Age of Last Things,” I’ve been thinking about how best to summarize this omnibus of brainy, exuberant essays that explore with insight and nuance an extraordinary range of subjects.
To borrow the title of one of two introductory essays, populating this book are “praisesongs” and “descants“ to the work of Sam Lipsyte, Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” Joni Mitchell’s “Cactus Tree,” the 2016 presidential election, “The Sopranos” and Chicago, along with reflections on step-parenting in the aftermath of divorce, remarriage, and the emotionally fraught calculus of whether or not to bring a child into the world when the smog of the future occludes everything.
Regarding a summary, what first came to mind was a phrase that could serve as an alternate title: “On Being Who You Are.” Coviello, a literature professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago and author of five previous works of nonfiction, has asked a question in several of these essays that struck me as among the most poignant of any we might ask ourselves: “What if I were someone different?” The author acknowledges with a cellular-level sorrow that no one can be anyone other than who they are.
As he states in “Exit Wounds,” the book’s final essay—one in which he eloquently articulates rage at the billionaires who have captured so much of the planet and consequently are hastening its destruction, “…if only I’d been, oh, a different person—more accomplished, more gracious, more persuasive in care, better capable of securing life against calamity… Is it all maybe just another reminder of the ways I have made of myself something faltering, obscurely wrong?”
It is, however, Coviello’s prodigious love of the very world he sees deliquescing before him that has saved him from paralyzing despair. This book is both valediction, a Proustian examination of the passage of time and all that inevitably vanishes during any one person’s life, and a celebration of the songs, books and people that have populated Coviello’s days and offered a balm as well as an escape from the tyranny of his thoughts and the most unsettling of his outward-looking observations.
His credo perhaps, as declared in the second introductory essay, “Talk Talk,” is: “[W]hat is up for grabs when we fight about what we love, and why we love it, is value: the terms through which we appraise the world, and do our best to render it habitable.”
In “Is There God After Prince?,” there is so much clear seeing and close listening and expansive thinking. If I have one complaint, it’s that I wanted even more Prince. As a fellow Gen-Xer and ardent Prince fan, I hope Peter Coviello will train his expert ear and eye at greater length on this mysterious, fearless genius. Maybe a whole book? I suspect he’s up to the task.
“Is There God after Prince? Dispatches from an Age of Last Things”
By Peter Coviello
The University of Chicago Press, 304 pages
Christine Sneed is the author of two novels and two story collections, most recently, The Virginity of Famous Men (stories). She’s the editor of the forthcoming short fiction anthology Love in the Time of Time’s Up, which will be published in fall 2022. Her work has been included in publications such as The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, New Stories from the Midwest, New England Review, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and the New York Times. She lives in Pasadena, CA and teaches for the MFA programs at Northwestern University and Regis University.