In his new book Sum, neuroscientist David Eagleman proposes forty visions of what an afterlife might be. Each of the tales is a short thought-experiment written in the second-person, a rhetorical device that literally engages the reader — the “you” — in the text. Eagleman’s background as a scientist is evident in many of these short tales. In “Giantess,” for example, he asks us to ponder the whole of the universe as a woman with whom we cannot communicate because of our infinitesimal scale in relation to her. In “Conservation,” Eagleman imagines all of time and space and what we know of it as the traces of a single little quark. Elsewhere, technology informs Eagleman’s depictions of the afterlife, as in “Impulse,” where the minutest of human interactions are compared to a massive computer program; in “Great Expectations” a company offers customers the experience of uploading their digitized souls to their own pre-programmed heavens–the customers are devastated when the upload fails and all that they get is regular old heaven. A bummed-out God wrings his hands, saying, “Your fantasies have cursed your realities…The Company offered you no evidence that it would work; why did you believe them?” Still, in this tale, God goes “to bed at night” knowing that “one of His best gifts — the ability to have faith in an unseen hereafter — has backfired.”
Many of Eagleman’s little stories evoke these moods of sad dissatisfaction and disappointment, repeatedly asking the reader to question their own values. And, as the god of “Great Expectations” shows, it’s not just the everyday folk who get their expectations crushed, but often the deities themselves. Take the god of “Mary,” for example. His favorite book is Frankenstein–he loves the end, where Victor Frankenstein flees his own creation. This is a god who can’t help his creation and chooses to run away from it. Particularly sad is “Descent of Species,” wherein the dead get to choose whatever they like to be. The “you” in this tale unfortunately chooses a horse, believing you’ll enjoy freedom–however, as “you” morph into a horse, so does your consciousness, and you realize that “you cannot revel in the simplicity unless you remember the alternatives.”
Not all of the stories in Sum are bummers (and even the downers are thought-provoking)–many play out like jokes or riddles. In the afterlife of “Quantum,” “everything exists in all possible states at once, even states that are mutually exclusive.” When simultaneously “bowling and not bowling” becomes too much for “you,” an angel helps you out by letting you spend some time “in a closed room, one-on-one with your lover.” You find yourself “simultaneously engaged in her conversation and thinking about something else; she both gives herself to you and does not giver herself to you; you find her objectionable and you deeply love her; she worships you and wonders what she might have missed with someone else.” Finally, you thank the angel, saying, “This I’m used to.”
As “Quantum” shows, most of the tales in Sum are ultimately not so much about a metaphysical afterlife as they are about what we value in this world–what are our expectations, desires, hopes, and dreams–and why do we expect, desire, hope, and dream these things? Eagleman is an astute observer of the human condition with a keen insight into our strange animal psychologies. I found his tales about identity to be the most affecting of the lot, like in “Mirrors,” where Eagleman points out that we are “much better at seeing the truth about others than” we are at “seeing ourselves,” and we therefore rely on others to hold up “mirrors” of our selves in order to know our selves. In “Prism,” Eagleman imagines an afterlife where you exist at every age in your life, only to find out that “you” at seventeen really is not “you” at seventy–your “compound identity” was hardly as unified as you’d imagined; rather, it “was like a bundle of sticks from different trees.” If these lines evoke a whiff of the postmodern philosopher, don’t be surprised. While Pantheon lists the book as “Fiction” it seems it would be just as at home in the Philosophy section.
I enjoyed Sum very much, blowing through its 110 pages in just two sittings, and then re-reading several of the tales again–they’re meant to be re-read, I believe. The cover boasts a glowing bit of praise from Philp Pullman, author of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy (a Biblioklept favorite). Fans of Pullman’s trilogy will find many of the same ideas played with in Sum, only handled in quite a different (but no less inventive) manner. This is the kind of science fiction we love. Highly recommended.
With her latest novel A Mercy, Toni Morrison offers up more evidence of why she is possibly America’s greatest living author. As in earlier works like Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved, in A Mercy Morrison examines the strange intersections of race and geography, family and culture, memory and storytelling. And like those great novels before it, at the center of A Mercy (a center, mind you that Morrison frequently works to decenter) is that great post-modern question: what is identity?
The late-seventeenth-century America of A Mercy is at once paradoxically both alien and familiar. This America is seemingly wild and free and unconstrained, yet the land–purchased with the blood of the native Indians–is worked by slaves and indentured servants. The freedom to be viciously intolerant of anyone else’s religion abounds. A lazy eye might get you burned for a witch. Life is cheap and difficult, but there is also much beauty here, and for a time, the makeshift family of characters who populate A Mercy seems happy enough. Morrison’s genius in this novel, however, is to only present these moments of contentment and happiness in fragments, interspersed between each of her character’ desires for freedom, future, family, and ultimately, self. We see glimpses of one character’s joys or sufferings through the eyes of another character, a technique that builds and layers and enriches a narrative where, honestly, very little happens. A farmer-turned-trader gets sick and dies, never finishing the house he was building. Then his wife gets sick, and sends her young slave to get the blacksmith, a free black man, who she believes can heal her. By the time he arrives, she’s better, but her ersatz family is forever sundered. Summarized, the linear plot sounds thin, but the depth of storytelling around Morrison’s deceptively simple story is marvelous. Morrison achieves this depth via the different voices and perspectives that propel her novel.
The voice of the young enslaved girl Florens initiates the novel with the enigmatic opening line, “Don’t be afraid.” Her opening command both engages and disorients (and, sign of a great novel, begs to be read again after completing the book). “Stranger things happen all the time everywhere,” she recognizes, before asking “One question is who is responsible? Another is can you read?” Right away, Morrison tells us this a novel about how to read, where to find cause, and possibly, how to create one’s own agency in a world that makes slaves and servants–or food–out of almost everybody.
This question of agency runs throughout each of the chapters that alternate with Florens’s first person narrative. There’s Jacob Vaark, who takes Florens as part of a debt owed him by a fading aristocrat. Vaark is disgusted at the aristocrat’s lavish lifestyle, and although the slave trade repels him – “God help me if this is not the most wretched business” – he agrees to take Florens at the pleading of her mother (Florens will be haunted forever by what she interprets as abandonment). Vaark is, however, smitten by the slaver’s elaborate house and vows to build one just as grand. His attempt to build a castle from his own labor in the New World, a castle free from any title or rank or order is his own claim to agency. There’s also the voice of his wife Rebekkah, who spends her chapter in a pox-ridden fever dream that dips and floats and weaves through time and space. Her father essentially sells her mail-order to Jacob. She leaves the dirty, crowded Old World on a dirty, crowded ship. Stuck in dark steerage, she makes a community with a group of whores, “Women of and for men,” who, in transit, exist in a strange uncomfortable comfort, a “blank where a past did not haunt nor a future beckon.” Rebekkah will attempt to forge another strange, transitory family when she arrives in America. She grows quickly to love Jacob; soon, she even loves Lina, the enslaved Indian girl Jacob buys for both pity and service. Lina and Rebekkah forge an alliance, weathering the death of the Vaark’s children, as well as Jacob’s extended absences as he expands his trade. They are less ready to accept another foundling, Sorrow, who Jacob brings home (solely for pity); a little bit crazy (“daft”), she spends much of the novel mysteriously pregnant. However, Lina quickly warms to Florens, treating her as her own daughter, even if Rebekkah will not. Also there are Scully and Willard, two indentured servants who may never gain their freedom. Willard imagines the family they all comprise: “A good-hearted couple (parents), and three female servants (sisters, say) and them helpful sons.” But it’s not family, or community, or the idea of a country that A Mercy will validate. Instead, the novel suggests these concepts are ultimately transitory–like a passage over the Atlantic–and that there can only be a claiming of self.
Throughout the book, some characters gain agency, others die trying, and several lose themselves to grief and loss. But it’s Florens’s narrative that binds the text. She grows from a lovesick kid, desperate to please everyone, to a realized person with a conscious sense of her self. “The beginning begins with the shoes,” she says. “When a child I am never able to abide being barefoot and always beg for shoes, anybody’s shoes.” By the end of the novel she can go barefoot, free, in a sense, the soles of her feet “hard as cypress” – and this New World requires hard soles. And even if Morrison suggests that we need to learn to walk, hard-soled on our own feet, there is a great pleasure–a sad, sometimes sour, shocking pleasure–to be gained in walking for just a little while in these characters’ shoes. Very highly recommended.