I am still not sure what to make of Evacuation Plan: A Novel from the Hospice. It is a curious work; resistant to pigeon-holing and suffused with paradox, but carrying plenty of interest and propelling the reader to a haunting and intelligent conclusion.
A screenwriter named Matt ventures to a hospice in the hope of gaining firsthand experience to write a film. He probes the lives of the dying and the grieving, the story alternating between brief narratives of the hospice and longer stories of the lives of the people he meets. For the bulk of the book, the present narrative is primarily a means of connecting the diverse life stories of those gathered around death. Soon Matt focuses on patient Charlie Wright and his two children, who are trying to resolve their issues with their father in the little time they have left. At the end, Matt comes to a powerful self-reckoning, achieving an understanding of what his work means to those dying and himself.
The character of Matt is a paradox all his own. His research is desperate: the film is his main project, and he’s having difficulty fitting death into art: “I need a plot point to pump up the action on page thirty. All I’m getting is more angry at death, the subject no one in the real world will talk about. Like the rest, I’ve spent most of my life avoiding the subject, feeling invincible.” Hence O’Connell has given us a portrait of an artist as a young man, a man who needs to do some growing up - and to no surprise, we witness it. Like George Willard, the protagonist of Winesburg, Ohio, a book from which O’Connell draws thematic and structural inspiration, Matt is a young character with whom sympathy comes difficult; as to whether he ever becomes likable, that will be the tastes of the reader to decide. Whatever personal opinions may be, he is a complex character, deftly drawn to escape stereotyping as either the entirely naïve youth who comes to learn great truths, or the disillusioned young intellectual confronting his greatest obstacle.
The story too is replete with paradox. In a book about the dying, there is surprisingly little about the actual passage, or even the mindset of those on the brink. The stories that make the meat of the text are, while somewhat too couched in a gritty, tough-life “I’ve got issues” style, are ultimately much more about life than death, an intention the author makes clear in interviews. More peculiarly, they lack an obvious connection with the larger context of the novel. They are very much self-contained stories about individuals; how they fit into the hospice world is hazy. However, this lack of clarity doesn’t really damage the flow of the book significantly.
Despite this disjointedness, the novel has several unifying themes, which are executed not just through similar topics in the stories but through the environment of the hospice as well. Perhaps most fundamental is Matt’s claim that “Death without a history is the cruelest joke of all.” One of the more haunting sides of the hospice is the urgency with which the dying wish to tell their stories to Matt in the hope that he carries them on. Charlie Wright believes Matt’s storytelling will make him immortal. To want to live on in memory is no great surprise, but to desperately wish to convey one’s life to someone one barely knows is at least somewhat peculiar. For all the residents of the hospice, it appears to be their greatest deathbed wish.
O’Connell also draws heavily on the theme of forgiveness, an appropriate choice given that after one dies, forgiving them is never quite the same. Many of the characters are struggling to forgive, and late in the novel we learn that Matt is having the same struggle. But this comes a little too late: Matt’s personal story adds a powerful string to the woven plot, and were it to begin earlier it could be developed further. That being said, keeping it to the end produces a commanding ending in which both grief and happiness are embedded. To place it earlier may detract too much focus from the hospice residents. When these themes are mixed with well-researched reports of day-to-day hospice life, it is clear that O’Connell has given us a considered portrait on the world of the dying.
Who benefits more from the process of death, the dying or the grieving? Who hurts more? These questions appear to be the main attraction of the book as it focuses on issues of the living and the dying, not all of which are about death. While the hospice world O’Connell presents is probably less full of the “joy…to be found” than he intended, he succeeds in showing how it is not a wholly depressing place. By the time one has finished reading the final story, a list of steps on how to die in a hospice which gives the book its title, one can genuinely smile, a smile caused by insight and a sense of peace.