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The Fictional Afterlife

May 5, 2010 by Reader's Connection

The Lovely Bones

I recently got around to reading Alice Sebold´s novel The Lovely Bones, and I´m avoiding the DVD. Grandma Lynn and Mr. Harvey are leading vibrant lives in the chambers of my soul, and I don’t want them to be cinemanically possessed by Susan Sarandon and Stanley Tucci, fond as I am of those two actors.

The movie trailer, though (you can run it below if you haven’t already seen it), has me wondering about the afterlife. I mean the afterlife in the book. Susie Salmon, the murdered girl who narrates the story, does so from an odd sort of heaven, and the special effects in the movie trailer don’t give me much hope that that weird hereafter has made it convincingly onto film.

Murther and Walking Spirits

. . . which got me to thinking about other fictional afterlives. In our library catalog, our term for the afterlife is Future life, so if you want to look at some novels where people go on living after the long goodbye, enter fiction future life as your Subject Keywords and see what you get.

Murther and Walking Spirits was the next-to-the-last novel written by Robertson Davies before he departed for whatever sort of after-situation he departed for. “Gil” Gilmartin, a Toronto newspaperman, is clubbed to death by a colleague under scandalous circumstances, and then (speaking of movies) accompanies his murderer to a film festival. It soons become clear that the films Gil is watching aren’t those being viewed by the incarnate festival-goers. His ancestors, in the American colonies at the time of the Revolution and in Wales sometime in the same century, play major roles in the first two films. I don’t know where this book is headed, but Gil is a funny narrator and the film scenarios are absorbing. New fact: After you die, you can understand other languages. Dirty songs in decrepit Welsh taverns can be easily comprehended.

Polly's Ghost

I have a problem with Polly’s Ghost, a novel by Abby Frucht. When narrator Polly dies, she goes into a limbo from which she emerges at times and places that are not of her choosing. She spends time, for example, with a drunken truck driver, whose wife has died tragically, and their five-year-old son. Then for a while she tracks her son Tip, to whom she was giving birth when she died. My problem is that I want to get back to the truck driver and his kid. I’m not usually the sort of reader who feels more virtuous if he’s reading about working class people or poor people, but I’m having a hard time caring about Tip. Let me step aside and make room for another reviewer: In this wholly original if slightly frustrating novel, Polly Baymiller is a ghost. She died giving birth to Tip, her youngest son. Haunted by this child whom she never held, she directs his life from above, giving him the strength and curiosity to survive. The result is a discursive, ethereal novel, as Polly swoops in and out of the lives of her children, her husband, their friends, and several strangers, watching them grow and learn and love. The novel is made up of long, descriptive riffs, each section bright and interesting like a bead on a string, but it takes a while for the long threads of the plot to connect. Sometimes you wish for a tighter focus and a more sprightly plot, but then you are again seduced by the beauty of the language and the well-drawn characters. Truly, madly, deeply, this is a novel about the transcendent power of love. — Library Journal

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

David Eagleman´s Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives is a whole different séance. We don’t have a dead narrator, here,  telling her story, but forty different descriptions of alternative hereafters. In one of them, God has decided to be limitlessly merciful and allow everyone into Heaven: The Communists are baffled and irritated, because they have finally achieved their perfect society, but only by the help of a God in whom they don’t want to believe. The meritocrats are abashed that they’re stuck for eternity in an incentiveless system with a bunch of pinkos. The conservatives have no penniless to disparage; the liberals have no downtrodden to promote.
So God sits on the edge of her bed and weeps at night, because the only thing anyone can agree upon is that they’re all in Hell.

Some of Eagleman’s speculations don’t really deal with afterlives, but they still make me smile. Despite the best guesses of erstwhile civilizations, the gods do not hold dominion over categories of war,  love, and wisdom. Instead, the divisions are much finer-grained. One god has control over objects that are made of chrome. Another over flags. Another over bacteria . . .
Just as the Greeks surmised, there is bitter competition among the gods. Jealous rivalries abound because the stakes are so low: the gods are not large and powerful and they know it . . .

I will close with a word for the library patron who felt free to scribble comments in one of our copies of this book. At first I was going to assign you to a nasty afterlife in an Indiana with property tax caps so severe that the trees stop showing up for work–but some of your comments have filled me with compassion for you. I wish you all the best in this life and any of the others that turn out to be available.

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