When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT. I'm surprised I haven't been buried alive. (1.1)
These short sentences, the very first in the novel, introduce a number of competing aspects of Leo's personality—not just his fixation with death, but also his ambivalent relationship with material possessions, viewing them both as a marker of personal worth and also an all-too-weighty burden.
In the years that followed, the boy became a man who became invisible. In this way, he escaped death. (1.32)
How does this relate to Leo's obsession with not dying on a day when he's not seen by another person? If he escaped death through invisibility, then why is he so interested in his continued visibility?
Ach, listen! It hit me how good it is to be alive. Alive! And I wanted to tell you. Do you understand what I'm saying? I'm saying life is a thing of beauty, Bruno. A thing of beauty and a joy forever. (4.13)
It's only through an experience of human companionship that Leo has this profound realization. Naturally, he can't fully experience it without sharing it with someone he loves.
Suddenly I was filled with regret that I'd bought my own plot so prematurely. If I'd known, I could have joined him. Tomorrow. Or the next day. I'd been afraid of being left to the dogs. [...] My son's mother, the girl I fell in love with when I was ten, died five years ago. I expect to join her soon. Tomorrow. Or the next day. Of that I am convinced. (4.51-53)
It is ironic that Leo is so intent on being united with his son after death, since he has avoided all communication with him while alive. But the reunion with his wife he sees as his big reward for a lifetime of patience and fortitude.
He didn't leave the office until midnight, but as he walked home through the cold night he smiled to himself believing the obituary was one of his finest. So often the material he had to work with was thin and paltry, and he had to patch something together with a few superlatives, clichés, and false notes of glory in order to commemorate the life, and bolster a sense of loss over the death. (6.21)
In writing this obituary, and gracefully honoring the achievements of Isaac Babel's life, Litvinoff is effectively writing his own obituary, in which Babel's will be a highlight.
In the days after my heart attack and before I began to write again, all I could think about was dying. [...] I imagined all the ways I could go. Blood clot to the brain. Infarction. Thrombosis. Pneumonia. Grand mal obstruction to the vena cava. I saw myself foaming at the mouth, writhing on the floor. I'd wake up in the night, gripping my throat. And yet. No matter how often I imagined the possible failure of my organs, I found the consequence inconceivable. That it could happen to me. I forced myself to picture the last moments. The penultimate breath. A final sigh. And yet. It was always followed by another. (7.48)
Leo's obsession with dying almost becomes a meditation on death, as practiced by some ascetics and monastics—the idea being that, by constantly thinking about one's inevitable death, he or she will be able to fully experience every waking moment. But what does it say about Leo that he is unable to imagine anything on the other side of that "final sigh"?
I remember the first time I understood what it was to die. I was nine. [...] The faucet had a leak, and with every drip I felt my life ebbing away. One day it would be all gone. The joy of being alive became so concentrated in me I wanted to scream. (7.49-50)
Is this as unexpected as it may seem, that a growing sense of mortality would make someone overwhelmingly grateful to be alive?
That, in a nutshell, was the end of my preoccupation with death. Not that I stopped fearing it. I just stopped thinking about it. (7.60)
Is it possible to fear something without thinking about it? What would that look like, or feel like?
At the end, all that's left of you are your possessions. Perhaps that's why I've never been able to throw anything away. Perhaps that's why I hoarded the world: with the hope that, when I died, the sum total of my things would suggest a life larger than the one I lived. (10.29)
Compare this sentiment to how humiliated Litvinoff feels when he sees that Gursky's obituary is much better than his own, before realizing that "A person's death belongs to no one but the one who's died" (6.28). What's with his preoccupation with possessions? How can death itself be a possession too?
Why do people always get named after dead people? If they have to be named after anything at all, why can't it be things, which have more permanence, like the sky or the sea, or even ideas, which never really die, not even bad ones? (11.19)
Alma's experience with death is solely with the deaths of people she loves—her father, in particular—so she's pretty resentful toward impermanence.