A sensitive and clever novel about the afterlife that’s maybe a tad too long.

opening remarks

After finishing a book that involves the sickening death of two children The Afterlives by Thomas Pierce has a dog on the cover so was a shoo-in to be read next.

knee-jerk observations

With the introduction of the HeartNet three pages in this already feels like the opening of an episode of Black Mirror.  Yes, I intend to compare every story or novel I read that has a ‘future so close you can almost touch it’ vibe to Black Mirror.

The Afterlives is set in Shula, North Carolina.  Our first-person narrator is Jim Byrd who, when the novel opens, finds himself in a hospital having survived a cardiac arrest (although, and this might end up being quite important, he was dead for five minutes).  As noted there’s a near future vibe to the setting, including condoms that tell you if your partner has an STD (handy) and lots and lots of holograms, including, if the Church gets its way, hologram Jesus:

I love the name of the virus:

Aside from being set in the near feature the novel also features a possible haunting of the local Tex-Mex restaurant.  Jim’s father, who’s an atheist and sceptic but also think the moon might be an ancient alien space-ship built from titanium, has this theory about ghosts:

I’m enjoying The Afterlives.  There’s something almost cosy about it, a laid back attitude to story and plot.  This might be a reflection of its small-town North Carolina setting or a deliberate decision on the part of Pierce to establish his characters before getting down to the nitty gritty of explanations and revelations (particularly involving the local haunted house and its treacherous staircase).

This is a conversation between Jim and his religious Mum…

… The Deuteronomy line is clearly a gag but not to be a pedant (I’m going to be pedant) the passages Jim’s Mum references from Deuteronomy originally appears in Leviticus because Deuteronomy is, essentially, a repetition of the previous books of the Bible (well, the Laws anyway and with critical omissions and additions which I won’t go into here because this isn’t a Bible study class).  So the joke is redundant because even if you did get rid of Deuteronomy that law would still be in the Bible. Unless, Jim is making a deeper comment on the cut and paste nature of Deuteronomy arguing it’s surplus to requirements.  Or maybe I’m reading far too much into a throwaway joke.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a novel that’s used the preponderance of holograms to underscore the protagonist’s existential angst.  Well, maybe aside from Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers:

Pierce really does get his teeth into the idea.  This is quite a lovely passage:
Pierce cleverly joins the dots between Jim’s epistemic doubts about existence with an atemporal view of history as expressed by physicist Sally Zinker.  As she explains there’s no such thing as past, present or future.  Linear time is an illusion:
But for all the holograms, theories about the nature of time and subatomic particles (daisies) that flicker in and out of reality, The Afterlives is a gentle novel (maybe too gentle) about dealing and coming to terms with loss.  What I find refreshing is that Jim and Annie are able to speak about the death of those they loved – she her first husband, he his father – with maturity and intimacy.  The excerpt below is part of a longer scene where they discuss the complicated emotions of losing someone:

The Gist Of It

I initially compared The Afterlives to Black Mirror because of its near future setting but it’s nothing like that.  For one, the novel isn’t as plot-driven as your regular Black Mirror episode and for two, it’s certainly no-where near as miserable or dark. Yes, The Afterlives deals intimately with death but only by focusing on the mundane activity of life.  Jim begins the novel having been dead for five minutes, a shocking, awful experience, but rather than angst about it, he gets on with living.  That’s what I enjoyed about this book, it’s a novel about the daily grind and the daily joys of being alive as evidenced by Jim’s relationship with Annie.

I’m not sure I’ve read a more mature, more adult take on two people in love without one of them suddenly dropping dead or turning out to have a deep, dark secret.  It says something about the current state of literature (and TV) that I spent most of the novel waiting for Annie to die (the story is Jim’s first-person account so I doubted he was going to kick the bucket).  But that’s not what happens.  I mean clearly Annie, and Jim, will die and a significant chunk of the novel is devoted to that very subject, i.e. what happens when someone does shuck the mortal coil, but thankfully this isn’t a book where Jim spends half the plot mourning his wife’s abrupt demise.  Rather Pierce kills off Jim’s father instead (Annie’s first husband also dies but that happens years before she and Jim meet) and while the death of a father is no small thing, I appreciated that Pierce made this narrative choice rather than kill Annie.

The relationship between Jim and Annie is the highlight of the novel but the book does have its issues.  The story constantly feels like it lives in a halfway house between satire and profundity.  The introduction of hologram technology does play into the novel’s ontological themes about what’s real and what’s not, but with talk of dead celebrities (and Jesus) being reincarnated into holograms and with them existing at the periphery of the story (a hologram works at Jim’s bank but she’s only referred to once or twice) they often feel like a disposable gag than a part of the  world-building.

I could also quibble that the book is too long, that the interludes involving Robert Lennox, his wife Clara Hopstead and Robert’s brother Wendell (a sort of love triangle set in Shula in the 30s which ends tragically) felt redundant.  I get the interludes are (a) meant to explain the haunted staircase that features earlier in the novel and (b) also highlight Pierce’s theories about time but, frankly, I was a little bored.  Even if there’s not enough information in the main narrative to figure out what precisely happened between Clara, Robert and Wendell, I can’t say I was desperate to know more.  That’s not to say these sections aren’t well written, in fact, the one from the perspective of Clara’s younger sister, May, is beautiful, but I’d argue the novel would have worked without these interludes. 

Pierce is far more successful with the more profound aspects of the novel, especially around what happens after death.  All the theorising in regard to daisy holes – subatomic particles that flicker in and out of existence – and this notion, that Aquinas would have been proud of, that past, present and future exist in one eternal moment is handled with a great deal of intelligence and sensitivity.  The last third of The Afterlives – which I won’t spoil – is very emotional and effective in bringing home these concepts, in providing a brief glimpse at what may exist after death.

In the end, for me, this was all about Jim and Annie and in that sense, this story tells the most simple, gentle and authentic of love stories, one wrapped up in the metaphysics of life, death and the afterlife, but one that’s also endearing, optimistic and life-affirming.