The Afterlives review: inventive journey into the unknown
Life after death makes for an engaging topic in an imaginative and funny debut
Thomas Pierce: the book’s beating heart is in its exploration of faith
There are moments in Thomas Pierce’s debut The Afterlives that recall the English author Kate Atkinson’s award-winning novel Life After Life. Characters flash forward and backwards in time as they attempt to find meaning in the world. Histories are repeated from multiple perspectives, delivered in short sections styled to give a cumulative effect of lives passing before our eyes.
But while Atkinson’s book concerns itself with the living and the various lives we might have had, Pierce is interested in life after death. Heaven, paradise, the hereafter, that undiscovered country from whose borne no traveller returns. In The Afterlives everyman Jim Byrd gets to experience a life beyond this world.
It is a hugely inventive and enjoyable journey into the unknown. What makes the novel so successful is a believable near-future whose advances seem only a few steps away from where we are today. Pierce achieves this incrementally, starting his story with a cardiac arrest that leaves the congenial Jim, in his early thirties, clinically dead. His faulty heart is fitted with a HeartNet App that alerts him to potential failures with “three delicate chimes, like a call to meditation in a Buddhist temple”.
Jim’s affable tone, which reads like memoir in parts, involves the reader in his story and gets us questioning how his experiences might play out in our own lives. Do we really want to know when our hearts have stopped? What are the risks when a piece of hackable software controls our most important organ? The main narrative bounces along as it seeks to answer these questions.
Adopting a carpe diem attitude to life after his near miss, Jim marries Annie, his highschool sweetheart, following a chance reunion at a restaurant. His job as a financial adviser leads him to investigate the same restaurant, where a stairs has left a number of people with strange experiences that may or may not revolve around ghosts. Jim’s father is equally interested in the afterlife and the pair team up in an endearing buddy narrative to find out more about a couple who used to live in the restaurant’s grounds.
The doomed history of Clara and Robert Lennox is spliced with Jim’s story in a third-person narrative whose sections, although vibrantly written, at times feel intrusive, such is the captivating nature of the main narrative. Listening to Jim expound his theories on everything from the intricacies of second marriages to overactive parietal lobes is akin to chatting with an old, smart friend with a PhD in everything interesting.
There are overtones of another recent American debut, The Minor Outsider by Ted McDermott. Both narrators are young men with ticking timebombs inside their bodies. Both have sharp observational powers, related with similarly strident humour. From South Carolina, Pierce has an acclaimed story collection, Hall of Small Mammals, to his name. A recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award, his stories have appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic and Oxford American.
His sense of humour works well with the existential topics of his debut. Jim and Annie live in Shula, North Carolina, home to a horde of pensioners known as “White Hairs”. His mother’s friend, the maligned Wanda Trudeau, has long served as a cautionary tale for excess: “Too wild, too strange, too promiscuous, too adventurous, too drunk, too too … She wound up in a nuthouse eating pudding three meals a day!”
A scene where Jim meets the parents of Annie’s first husband, who died in a tragic boating accident, is hilariously cringeworthy, with double meanings in most of the dialogue adding to Jim’s paranoia about his welcome. As he tries out a new church in his quest to discover more about the afterlife, an organiser tells him they’re developing their own Jesus intelligence: “ReJesus, they’re calling it. He’ll walk among us again. As a hologram.”
The Church of Search is typical of the Afterlives, a religion for people “who liked Christianity generally but were ashamed of its history, for people who thought religion should make room for science and discovery”. As with his other futuristic elements, Pierce makes their technological sermons sound eminently reasonable: “We ditched the flatscreens last year and upgraded to holograms.” These “laser beam cousins of ours” later appear all over Shula, somehow managing to fit in with everyday life as we know it.
For all its inventiveness, however, the book’s beating heart is in its exploration of faith. If we could connect with the people we’ve lost, or travel to alternative realties, what would it mean for progress and life on this planet? After taking the plunge into the unknown, Jim learns that knowledge is not necessarily always power: “Now that I was more aware, everything felt less alive, less meaningful. Flat, two-dimensional. It was a reflection of my life, not the thing itself. An echo.”