A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.
You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex. You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes. For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet.
You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it’s agony-free for the rest of your afterlife.
Death is one of those subjects that doesn’t make for the most comfortable conversation, and yet if there’s one thing that unites us all, it’s that at some stage we are all going to die. Every one of the four people reading this with me is sadly included; at some stage: all dead. Dead as a dodo. Gone. Horrible thought, but true (if you believe conventional science and wisdom, that is). In Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, death is not a dark, joy-sapping concept; it’s occasion for an imaginative free-for-all.
As a non-religious kind of reader, books about the afterlife are not at the top of my wish list, and yet Sum, an intriguing little paperback of short stories with a come-hither cover, demanded attention. I’ll just try the first story, I thought, and two pages later I was determined to read the whole thing, because that first story, “Sum”, was like a jolt of electricity. It posited the afterlife as a place where we live out all of our experiences back to back, so that all of the time we spend sleeping is rolled into one and experienced in a big splurge, the same for waiting in queues, clipping toenails, zipping zippers, and enduring heartbreak. It was the perfect heady mix of funny and poignant.
Each story in Sum presents a different version of the afterlife, and some readers have pointed out that the versions are mutually exclusive, because for one to be true, the others must not be true. But it doesn’t feel as if Sum is offering solid theories on what will really happen to us after death, rather it seems to be showing us the scope of the possibilities, because if the concept of Heaven and Hell is believable, then why not go the whole hog and open our minds up to everything that we can possibly imagine?
The stories are between two and four pages in length, and range from the absurd to the profound, from the hopeful to the unnerving. My favourite stories were: “Microbe,” where God is the size of a bacterium; “Death Switch,” a wry commentary on the computer age; “Spirals”, in which the Creator is a species of small, dim-witted creatures, utterly confused by their creations, and finally “Mary,” in which Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley sits on a throne, as God is a big fan of her novel, Frankenstein.
Sum is the weirdest and most imaginative piece of fiction that I have encountered. There is a meticulous, forensic quality to the telling of these tales that makes even the most outrageous afterlife yarn seem somehow feasible. More than this, I found that after reading these stories some of the taboo of death was diminished for me. I allowed myself to think about death for a while and managed to do so without feeling terror or depression. The author has presumably done the same and let his mind roam free over the possibilities of what might occur after we’ve taken our last breath. David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and one has the impression that to him, death, that great unknown, is not a petrifying concept, but appears rather to be a fascinating subject worthy of deep contemplation and imagination.
This quirky little book of short stories is perhaps not for the recently bereaved or the ultra-religious, but it might well tickle your fancy if you’re drawn to philosophy, happen to be of a sci-fi-entific bent or if you’d simply enjoy opening your mind to a different kind of reality.
Canongate Books, ISBN-13: 978-1847674272, 128 pages, £9.99.