Monday, August 17, 2009


Sum: Forty Tales From The Afterlives
By David Eagleman
Pantheon Books; $20.00, cloth
ISBN 978-0-307-37734-0

According to A Handbook To Literature, by William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman, a “novel is used in its broadest sense to designate any extended fictional narrative almost always in prose.”

The definition is vague and open-ended. With experimental fiction, novels can be word pictographs, written in verse, contain different typefaces, offer a single word on a page, be composed in computer language, email, tweets, and be filled with intentional misspellings and grammatical errors. Novels can look nothing like what Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote.

Novels do not even have to tell a linear story. In fact, the story can disappear altogether. We are left with scenes, sometimes variations on a single scene, repeated over and over again, revealing a hidden truth about human existence. Examples of novels structured this way include Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, where Marco Polo recounts the many cities he has visited to the Tartan emperor Kublai Khan, and Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, a collection of meditations on the nature of time.

We can add to that kind of novel David Eagleman’s volume, Sum: Forty Tales From The Afterlives. In his writing, Eagleman echoes Lightman’s work. The language and style offer a number of similarities, but Lightman manages to reveal truths and insights about human existence whereas Eagleman falls short of this mark.

We all want to know where we go when we die. Shakespeare called it the “undiscovered country” from which no one returns. Religion codifies it for us, if one is a believer: heaven, hell, purgatory, Hades, the fields of Elysium, Avalon, Paradise, and the idea of no afterlife at all but reincarnation.

Eagleman focuses each of his chapters on a specific scene in the afterlife, like set pieces in play. They contain details that are clever, but reveal little of the truth of human life.

The chapter “Circle of Friends,” describes an afterlife where everything looks the same as it did in life and one is surrounded only by what he knows. As a result of this, there are no strangers here, no chance encounters with interesting people. There is just the pedestrian world of the familiar.

In another section, “Perpetuity,” God is just like us. And heaven is a suburban community where all saints and good people are strangely absent. Only the sinners are here. This is a subject for speculation among the inhabitants. It turns out that God and the sinners are alike—God “spends most of His time in pursuit of happiness. He reads books, strives for self-improvement, seeks activities to stave off boredom, tries to keep in touch with fading friendships, wonders if there’s something else He should be doing with His time.”

This view of the afterlife simply goes nowhere. It is not deep, profound, or even amusing. God purposely imprisons man in the afterlife with him because he envies our brief moment of existence.

Books that are clever, profess to be deep without much depth, and offer cuteness over thoughtful inquiry are irritating, not enlightening. Writers like David Sedaris, the late Frank McCourt, and Mark Twain, make us laugh out loud while also pointing out the foibles and follies of human beings. Alan Lightman, Isaac Asimov, and Annie Dillard can use science and nature to tell us profound things, intrigue us enough to wrap our brains around ideas about what it means to be alive. Unfortunately, David Eagleman misses the mark in his book, and therefore does not belong in the same league as the others. In the end, Sum is the totality of very little.

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