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A Newcomer's Guide to the Afterlife

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A Newcomer's Guide to the Afterlife is a unique collaboration of three authors - two living and one dead. The text has a strange provenance. It was received by Daniel Quinn in a dream - from the hands of a recently deceased acquaintance. Or maybe it wasn't. With the help of Tom Whalen, Quinn brings to living readers an unearthly gazetteer affectionately known among the dead as "The Little Book." The answers to life's great questions about the beyond lie within these pages. Or maybe they don't. A Newcomer's Guide ...
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Overview

A Newcomer's Guide to the Afterlife is a unique collaboration of three authors - two living and one dead. The text has a strange provenance. It was received by Daniel Quinn in a dream - from the hands of a recently deceased acquaintance. Or maybe it wasn't. With the help of Tom Whalen, Quinn brings to living readers an unearthly gazetteer affectionately known among the dead as "The Little Book." The answers to life's great questions about the beyond lie within these pages. Or maybe they don't. A Newcomer's Guide to the Afterlife can be read as a parable, an allegory, a work of fiction - or exactly what it claims to be: a helpful handbook for the recently deceased. However it's read, readers will find it filled with uncommon wisdom, bizarre imaginings, uncanny perceptions, and unexpected humor. They will discover that the departed have not given up on sex, controversy, speculation, or religion - far from it! They will learn how to get over the staggers, how to avoid becoming a deadhead, how to survive outbreaks of memory-loss hysteria, and how to deal with troublesome neighbors and disconcerting phantasms. They will find out how some famous people in history are passing their time in the hereafter, and how some completely unfamous people have become Afterlife celebrities.

The winner of the one-time-only Turner Award for upbeat visionary fiction, Daniel Quinn (Ishmael) teams up with Tom Whalen (The Camel's Back) to create the whimsical A Newcomer's Guide to the Afterlife: On the Other Side known commonly as "The Little Book". Some tips are predictable: people make their own heavens and hells. Others are arresting. While most of us become "Regulars" after we die, for example, infants become "Husks," doll-like outlines of the adults they might have become, devoid of all the lines and scars of true humanity. Illustrations.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In Quinn's best-selling, quasi-environmental novel Ishmael, a man and an ape engage in a Socratic dialog. Here, a voice from beyond tells of a legendary book that contains answers to life's most vexing questions.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780553096705
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/1/1997
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 5.26 (w) x 7.83 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel Quinn's first book, Ishmael, won the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship, a prize for fiction presenting creative and positive solutions to global problems.  He is also the author of Providence, The Story of B, and My Ishmael.
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Read an Excerpt

Q. What am I doing here? I feel totally disoriented and helpless.

A. This is normal for the newly dead and will pass. Your circumstances have changed as drastically as it is possible for circumstances to change. Every single one of us felt this way initially. Every single one of us eventually learned the ropes and regained our sense of balance and self-possession. The Little Book is designed to serve as a ready first aid to this objective.


Q. What's wrong with my legs? It's as though they were made of rubber.

A. You have what is popularly known as the staggers, which we all have when we arrive in the Afterlife. You'll be back to normal in a few days.


Q. Exactly where am I?

A. In life, it seemed to you that you inhabited a universe of stars, galaxies, and so on, and you located yourself as an individual on the planet Earth, on one of its continents or islands, perhaps in one of its cities. In your stay in that universe, this seemed "normal." A quick look round will convince you that you no longer inhabit that universe. It's said that we inhabit "another dimension" or "a parallel universe," but these phrases have no precise meaning. Basically, you're somewhere else, and this somewhere else will soon seem completely normal to you.


Q. But everything already looks completely normal.

A. Our environment is locally psycho-reactive, which is to say that it responds to our individual expectations in ways that are not explainable in ordinary causal terms. If you are, let us say, an American urbanite of the 1990s, your surroundings will almost certainly look and function like asort of idealized American city of that era. If, on the other hand, you are a Kayapo Indian of the 1990s, your surroundings will look and function like a rain forest in the interior of Brazil.


Q. Is this heaven then?

A. Some believe so. Some argue that it cannot be, since no divine presence makes itself felt. Some believe it to be a purgatory from which some or all of us will eventually be delivered. Even in the Afterlife, questions remain.


Q. Why do people call this place Detroit [Nepal, Havana, Beijing, Hong Kong, Sheffield, Nebraska]? It isn't at all the way I remember it.

A. Place names in the Afterlife are not subject to any objective standard. Several large French cities are named Paris, and they are not all in the same general area (not, in other words, all in "France"). Shades in your area (or at least some of them) have adopted the habit of calling it Detroit (or whatever). It doesn't mean much of anything. Humor them--or call it whatever you please (maybe you'll start a new trend).


Q. Are maps available?

A. Yes, and they are delightful to look upon. Maps as small as your thumb, maps as large as the landscape. Minutely detailed maps with names of places you've never been. Glorious maps, filigreed, flagged, annotated, and totally impractical.


Q. Why is it always overcast? Doesn't the sun ever shine?

A. It isn't "overcast," and there is no sun to shine. The light (and the alternation of "day" and "night") is assumed to be our environment's response to our expectations of it. Finicky speakers say that we experience light (and the rest of the Afterlife), not that light (or anything else in the Afterlife) exists. If you would prefer to pass your time entirely in the "day," you will want to search out one of the so-called Northern Cities, where "the sun shines twenty-four hours a day."


Q. What is my body made of?

A. The nature of matter in this continuum (including the matter in your body) is as mysterious as the nature of matter in the continuum we knew when alive. Clearly our bodies are not as "substantial" as in life--not as heavy or impermeable.


Q. I thought memory was a brain function, pure and simple. How can I have memories if I don't have a brain?

A. You clearly do have a brain, just as you clearly have arms, legs, eyes, nose, hair, and so on. All the organs are there, though their function may or may not be.


Q. I don't have any feeling of hunger, but I've seen people eating. Will I get hungry later?

A. Food is not a necessity in the Afterlife. "Eating" (it has to be enclosed in quotation marks) is an experience quite unlike the one you knew in life. Try it, and spare me the necessity of describing something you will inevitably experience for yourself.


Q. What about sleep? Do people sleep here?

A. People rest, doze, tune out, power down, and, yes, sleep (though neurologists insist that none of these states actually correspond to what the living call sleep). Some find they have no need of it, some spend as much time at it as they can. It continues to provide a handy means of ending a tiresome visit: "I have to go home and sleep now, thank you. Auf Wiedersehen!"


Q. What's the proper way to talk about things here? Do you call people ghosts or spirits or what?

A. You may call people people. People are called ghosts or shades only in a semi-jocular or casual way, except when referring to their former status, as in, "Today I met the shade of my second cousin Alf." (Most people, however, would simply say, "Today I met my second cousin Alf.") You will seldom hear people refer to us as spirits. Most people think of spirits as bodiless beings (which we are clearly not).


Q. Do people refer to themselves as dead?

A. We often refer to ourselves collectively as "the dead" but as individuals seldom think of ourselves as such, since we are manifestly alive (though in a somewhat attenuated form). We say, "I live two streets over," "This is not a bad life we have here," "I live for my work," "I prefer to live alone," and so on.


Q. I worry that, being a newcomer, I may inadvertently violate some custom or give offense to someone. Are there guides to etiquette and good manners?

A. Such guides exist, though they were more in evidence in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. In general, the good manners you practiced in life will serve perfectly well here. Special customs do not seem to arise among the dead; if you think about it, you'll see that the conditions and occasions that fostered the development of customs in life are largely absent here.


Q. I heard someone talk about "losing his head." What does this mean?

A. Losing your head is a sort of jocular euphemism for dying; the reference is of course to decapitation. When in a few days or weeks you have recovered from the shock of "losing your head," it will be said that you "have your head on"--in other words, are once again whole.


Q. An awful lot of people I see in the street look and act like lunatics. Many of them tell me they don't know who they are. What's the story here?

A. To answer briefly: Standards of normalcy are somewhat different in the Afterlife. For more on this, see Chapter Three, "Neighbors in the Afterlife."


Q. But I've heard people talk about a Bedlam here in the Afterlife as if it were a real lunatic asylum. Is there such a place, or is this just a rumor?

A. People who in life inhabited Bucharest or Baltimore "wake up" in the Afterlife in a place that seems to them very like Bucharest or Baltimore. The same is true of people who in life inhabited London's Bethlem Hospital, the madhouse known popularly as Bedlam. Thus Bedlam is as "real" as any other place in the Afterlife; its inhabitants tend to be lunatics, just as the inhabitants of "Dublin" tend to be Irish. Since their environment is psycho-reactive in exactly the same way ours is, Bedlam is veritably a bedlam, operating under its own chaotic and delusional laws.


Q. Where should I go? Should I "check in" someplace?

A. No, there is no special procedure or induction for newcomers.


Q. But where am I supposed to stay?

A. You will eventually want to find a space of your own, of course, but your present-felt need for shelter is more psychological than physical. I mean that you're not in any danger (as you might well be in the same circumstances in life). You don't in fact need protection from either the elements or the people around you.


Q. Can I just go where I please then?

A. For the most part, yes. No one "owns" the Afterlife or any part of it. On the other hand, people tend to make the space around them their own, and this is something you will want to respect. For more on this subject, see Chapter Three.


Q. How do I get around? Is there mass transit? Cabs? Bicycles?

A. Mostly by means of bipedal locomotion. Look around you and you'll see few if any vehicles. A bicycle, perhaps, yes, but no cars, or if cars, then doubtless Phantasms, invariably blue in color, which vanish when approached. Carts, wheelbarrows, and rickshaws are seen, but their function is probably ornamental since one seldom sees them in use. For the most part, we walk. And walk and walk. "Where are you going?" "Down the road." No one says "up" the road. We walk, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, occasionally we run. In the streets, in the so-called malls, on the road. We walk and walk. But as often, simply stand. Stand and stare, or not stare.


Q. Will the clothes I have on eventually wear out?

A. Yes, but that's not a cause for worry. Stores (in the sense of "accumulations of goods") are found everywhere in the Afterlife, and you are at liberty to take what you want from them. To be honest, you may never find the clothes you like when you're looking for them. For example, you may want to wear dungarees but can only find, in your size, an evening gown, albeit a quite lovely one. In the end, what you wear simply doesn't matter; soon enough you'll lose your self-consciousness about such things.


Q. If I had an addiction to, say, coffee, sweets, cigarettes, illegal substances of a variety of sorts, will my addiction still be with me, and if so, how will I satisfy my need?

A. Desires come and go. Desires fade. One hypothesis, avidly promoted by Professors Burroughs, Bradley, and Lee, is that the Afterlife is in itself a kind of addiction, a hallucinatory high with no side effects. Appealing as this hypothesis is to some (and you're welcome to it if you wish), it bears little relationship to the facts.


Q. You mentioned "professors." Are there universities in the Afterlife?

A. No degree-offering institutions exist. Titles such as Professor or Doctor are usually carried over from one's previous existence, though you may of course call yourself whatever you please.


Q. What is the smoke I see on the horizon?1 Are those whales? Is that an ocean?

A. If you see the "whales," you're rare. Few people do, but enough "sightings" have occurred to warrant extensive study of the subject. No, what you see are not whales or smoke or even an ocean, though that withdrawing roar does resemble the sound of waves receding from a shore. Pozler theorizes, in a manner reminiscent of Hoyle's Steady State theory of the universe, that this is the primordial matter from which the Afterlife takes its sustenance. The most advanced hypothesis put forth to date is that what you are seeing are tachyons, particles that travel faster than light. Physicists are proposing that if they are tachyons and tachyons form the base matter of the Afterlife, then we are traveling faster than light, thus accounting for the fact that no one grows old here. Husks decay, yes, and skin falls off the bodies of some; but in general nothing truly ages.

1There is no true horizon anywhere in the Afterlife. The horizon we perceived in life as a line dividing earth from sky was a perceptual construct forced upon us by the curvature of the earth. The Afterlife gives every appearance of being a plane surface extending indefinitely in all directions. At a distance of about a hundred kilometers from any viewer, dust, moisture, and other particles in the atmosphere combine to create a more or less impenetrable haze, and objects within this haze are said to be (and are experienced as being) "on the horizon."

Q. Can death occur in the Afterlife, and if so, is there a life after Afterlife?

A. Many of the deceased would like to believe so. See Chapter Five, "Religions of the Afterlife."


Q. Does everyone who dies come to this place?

A. If infants and small children arrive here as Husks, then presumably yes. The fact that you may not be able to find your great-great-grandmother doesn't prove she isn't here, somewhere; on the other hand, there is no way to prove that she is here, unless you find her.


Q. My apparent age is about x. Why didn't I arrive in the Afterlife younger or older? Will I stay this age?

A. Most people seem to feel that they arrived in the Afterlife at their peak (though many will admit that this may be a rationalization). It's true, for example, that the shades of athletes tend to be "younger" than those whose achievements depended on maturity and experience. No answer is forthcoming for those who ask why they couldn't have been translated to the Afterlife younger or older; a few years ago I was informed that this was "just the way the cookie crumbles." You will not age or grow younger.


Q. Why am I cold?

A. Because you are dead, and the prana (rosy light) that cascades through your remains, though beautiful, offers no real warmth.


Q. Who's "in charge" here?

A. No one is in charge. There is no civil, moral, religious, or other authority. None is needed or would serve any purpose. This is a source of disappointment to those who arrive ready to demand special treatment, lodge a complaint, or petition for "another chance" at life.


Q. Who is this Enemy I hear people talking about?

A. The Enemy is the bugbear, bogey, and bugaboo of simple souls in the Afterlife. The Enemy is the ogre under the bed and the monster in the closet--in short, the product of superstition and fearful imagination.


Q. Who is the Dark Brother?

A. The Dark Brother is an archetypal figure of fantasy, mythology, or religion, depending on your point of view. He is dark because "the light does not shine upon him"--that is, he is hidden. He is hidden (so goes the belief) in each one of us at some time or other--without our knowledge--perhaps for a moment, perhaps for a day, perhaps for a year. He is "the one we lost and that which we lost." If he were ever to be assuredly "found" and revealed, he would lead us into a new era or state of existence. The Guild of the Dark Brother is one of the oldest and largest in the Afterlife.


Q. What does one do here?

A. As in life, one exists. No occupation as such is necessary. Even though your body is unchanged in appearance, it no longer functions as a biological organism. You will never grow hungry or thirsty, never fall sick, never grow older, and (of course) never die.


Q. But what do people do to pass the time?

A. Guilds, clubs, and religions (discussed in detail in later chapters) absorb much time and energy. Basically, people do the same things they did in life, with the obvious exceptions.


Q. You mean, if I always wanted to be a filmmaker, I could make a new version of Ben-Hur?

A. It would be difficult--as it was in life--to make a new version of Ben-Hur. Since no one needs to work in order to live, you would be unable to hire laborers to build sets, for example. You might have difficulty locating or constructing suitable optical equipment. People would work on the project only if you could make it seem worth doing in and of itself. Other difficulties would arise when it came to distributing and exhibiting your film.


Q. You mean there is no film industry.

A. There is no industry of any type or description.


Q. Suppose I want a hundred-room mansion with indoor and outdoor swimming pools?

A. Build one, by all means. Build a dozen, if you like. After all, you have eternity in which to work.


Q. Can I hire people to do things for me?

A. Using what currency? People have no need for money in the Afterlife, but, seeing someone at work, they will often pitch in simply to pass the time or to make an acquaintance. And people often exchange work for work; the bartering of services in the Afterlife is a lively and complex activity.


Q. On the subject of construction, isn't there a shortage of space, considering all the people who have died?

A. The physical arrangement of this "parallel universe" is somewhat different from the one you knew in life. Earlier peoples do not share our space. Rather, they share our time, which is unlimited.


Q. Could you expand on that a bit?

A. If you'd like to have a conversation with Christopher Columbus, you won't find him a few thousand miles away. You will find him five hundred years away. Traveling in time is easily learned but does not lend itself to explanation by way of the written word. It's like riding a bicycle, you learn it by doing it.


Q. Can I travel into the future?

A. Alas, no. Travel into the past is like diving. To travel back a few years is very easy, like dipping your head below the surface of the water. To travel back a few decades is like swimming a few feet below the surface. The farther back you go in time, the deeper (and more strenuous) the dive. But after each dive, you can only return to the surface, which is to say to your present. The time traveler can no more leap up out of the present into the future than a swimmer can leap up out of the water into the air.


Q. What special powers do the dead have?

A. The dead have no powers that would seem special to the living. They are relatively feeble, much as the classical writers of Greece and Rome imagined them to be.


Q. Isn't the ability to travel into the past a special power?

A. To describe it as travel into the past is to speak somewhat loosely. We merely travel into regions inhabited by those who have died before us. We can have a chat with William the Conqueror, but that doesn't enable us to watch the Battle of Hastings (much less influence its outcome). Since there is nothing we can "do" with this power, it hardly seems to qualify as one.


Q. Does the arrow of time in the Afterlife travel at the same pace and in the same direction as in life?

A. It gives every appearance of doing so. In fact, we "set our clocks" by the arrival of newcomers. Except for our own awareness of the passage of time, the Afterlife provides no objective basis for time-keeping--no rising and setting sun, no seasonal cycles, no radioactive decay. If a newcomer reports that he died on Christmas Eve, we can confidently expect a newcomer will soon arrive reporting that he died on Christmas day. And, by the way, in casual conversation, it is considered rather stuffy to continually make a point of the fact that our units of time are based only on perception. We say, "I'll meet you in an hour," "I'm leaving next week," and "I may be gone for a year," and everyone understands that these statements are approximations. A few obsessive people own watches or clocks, but most consider it utterly superfluous to keep careful track of time in eternity.


Q. What about communication with the living?

A. As in life, this is a disputed matter. Some claim to have achieved it; most believe that what is achieved is merely self-delusion. See also "Mediums" in the section "Greeters and Other Dubious Friends," in Chapter Three.


Q. How can I get in touch with friends and relatives who have passed on ahead of me?

A. Check with Central Registry, a service that has been operant since the middle of the eighteenth century.2 There is no guarantee that any given person can be located by this means, since no one is required to register. In the Afterlife, no one is required to do anything whatever.

2It should be noted that any Central Registry is central only in a local sense. There is no Central Registry for the whole of the Afterlife, nor is such a thing thinkably possible. Every Central Registry collaborates with hundreds of others to pool names and locations of the dead; the work, for the most part carried on by people looking for their own friends and relatives, is ever-increasing and obviously never-ending. Volunteers are always welcome.


Q. You mean, no one knows I'm here?

A. That's right. There is no Celestial Record Book with your name in it. As far as is known, no angelic scribe was on hand at your death to expunge your name from the Book of Life.


Q. Suppose the person I want to find isn't registered? What do I do in that case?

A. In that case you start looking. The Afterlife is infinite in extent, but "small-world" coincidences happen all the time, just as in life. If you'd rather not undertake the search personally, you can always ask round for a reliable "Finder" (see Chapter Three).


Q. Speaking of angelic scribes, is there anything like that going on? Choirs of angels? Heavenly voices?

A. No, nothing. Nonetheless, many earthly religious practices still flourish, as do many Afterlife religions as well.


Q. What do you mean by "Afterlife" religions?

A. I mean religions that have no counterpart or antecedent among the living: religions that developed entirely among the deceased. They are discussed at length in Chapter Five.


Q. Are there animals here?

A. Yes, there are animals in the Afterlife. You will encounter dogs, cats, mice, rats, birds, snakes, frogs, and insects on roads, in houses, alleys, forests, fields; and turtles, fish, snakes, and frogs in ponds, lakes, rivers, and seas.


Q. Are they more abundant than they were on earth?

A. No.


Q. Are they real?

A. Studies of animal physiology indicate that they are as "real" as you or I. The question of whether or not something is "real" will frequently arise during your first hours in the Afterlife, but soon you will realize that it yields little to doubt what you see. The world is what it is: elusive and illusive, deceptive and complex. Quain, in The Metaphysics of Physics, says that whatever can be imagined as not existing exists. Some newcomers find solace in this notion.


Q. Pets?

A. No. Sorry. No bonding occurs between human and animal forms in the Afterlife. Should you encounter a former pet (a highly unlikely occurrence), your pet will not rush up to you and joyfully leap about your legs. And should you excitedly rush to your former pet, the latter will turn quickly away as if embarrassed by the spectacle.


Q. Are there zoos?

A. Yes, and they are excellent.


Q. What is the difference between the soul of a human being and that of an animal, if they have one?

A. If by "soul" you mean a spiritual entity that exists past the body's so-called natural life, an entity that is imbued with a "divine grace" granted by an anthropomorphic deity for reasons only "He" can know, then we would suggest you rethink your terms. If on the other hand by "soul" you mean the "trace" that has crossed over, then we can refer you to Thrale's studies of animal and human "traces" in which, to take one example, he found no difference between the subatomic etheric doubles of capybaras and their human predators along the Amazon.


Q. Are the animals here happy?

A. They do not appear sad.


Q. What about friendships, relationships, and so on?

A. As in life, have them or not, as you please.


Q. Romance?

A. Certainly, why not?


Q. Marriage?

A. Pointless.


Q. Sex?

A. Believe it or not, opinions vary. Some say, "Absolutely yes, it's better than ever," others "Absolutely no, it's just a phantom activity, like "eating.'" On the whole, it's safe to say that sex is not remotely a "drive" amongst the dead.
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