Hall of Small Mammals, Thomas Pierce’s 2014 debut story collection, was roundly acclaimed as heralding the arrival of that not-quite unicorn, the “extraordinary new talent.” His first novel now makes Pierce an actual rarity: the author who fulfills an improbably frequent forecast with room to spare. The Afterlives is a nearly perfect embodiment of the ways paradox constitutes the most compelling art. The novel sparks with matchstrikes of humor and stares down sober questions. It is a romance and a speculative fiction and a philosophical inquiry. It’s also a delight to inhabit, a literary structure so cleverly wrought you search in vain for signs of the epic labor that had to have gone into its sills and stairs.
Once having entered, one is loath to leave its fascinating space. The book’s longueurs are few and, well, short. The immediacy of first-person narration draws the reader into the initially normal life of one Jim Byrd, a commercial loan officer who at the biblically meaningful age of thirty-three suffers cardiac arrest. That he saw nothing during his visit to death, not even the apocryphal long hallway ending in dazzling white light, causes him to variously ponder if he’s missing a soul or if there is in fact no afterlife. (He ends up wrong on one count, if not both.) The novel is constructed as a postulation, winding its way along a double helix of narratives stretching from past lives to future society. Each step brings the reader to a turn affording double views. We look both forward and back on the lives of Jim and his wife, Annie, who — appropriate to Pierce’s intricate rubric of uncanniness — was his girlfriend in an earlier period. Jim could never have foreseen meeting her again, much less marrying. There’s a lot in these pages that can’t be foreseen. And as much that can.
Which is the point of The Afterlives. Life is very much like the experience of reading this novel. Or is it the other way around? Jim muses, “I was here and then I wasn’t” in the type of line that is easily passed over — the author’s easy style propels us ever on to the next event — but that on second read often bears heavy freight: a wide stare into the vertiginous abyss. On one level Jim is referring to his medical mishap. On another he is describing the doleful mystery of life itself. He will come to find himself wandering in that half-dark land Shakespeare wrote into being with Hamlet.
“Fear and wonder just about sums it up for me these days,” he remarks to Annie, echoing Horatio upon seeing the king’s ghost. Things always do get strange after one glimpses the other side. He goes on:
Everything feels inverted, turned around. At this very moment, a thousand satellites are circling the earth, and the government can use them to zoom all the way down to our arm hairs if they’re in the mood, and yet an entire airplane drops from the sky, and we can’t ever locate it again. People pay hundreds of dollars for a blanket that tells you the temperatures under the covers and above. Viral eye-dyes. Condoms that glow green when they detect STDs. Pills that cure baldness but make you limp. Pills that make you stiff but make you lose your hair. So why not ghosts? is my question. Why not the voice of a dead woman on a CD that sounds like a broken vacuum cleaner?
And this is just the beginning of the fearful wonders encountered by our hero. Try subatomic “daisy” particles that continually move between the realms of being and not-being. (These previously appeared in a story in Hall of Small Mammals, so as a returning literary device they manifest their own essential nature.) The plot itself is built expressly for the purpose of carrying a doubled load: the story is also about the nature of stories; the book is about reading this book. A doctor tells Jim, “I wouldn’t read too much into it,” an otherwise throwaway comment that here suggests the only logical approach to the half-constructed stories of our lives. It also comprises the sole instruction for what to do with the object we hold in our hand at that moment.
Jim and Annie’s tales — along with those of physicist Sally Zinker, in Jim Byrd’s terse appraisal “a conspiracy website given skin and bones,” and parishioners at the creepy Church of Search — are intercut with a more haunting history. Pierce’s book is meticulously structured as the proof of its own supposition: the past runs concurrently with the present, and in the pauses between frames we might see some of the unnumbered movies playing beneath this one.
Pierce’s novel maintains an exquisite gyroscopic balance between sentiment and idea, postmodern self-referentiality and science fiction’s nostalgia, gee-whiz plot points and elemental human cares. Its overarching subject is that classic of the contemporary age, towering anxiety. Worries large and small are the threads that comprise its complex tapestry. Who is real and who is not? Is “fake” just as good as “real”? (Truth has become a mutable concept — who knew?) In the future, will death itself disappear? Are we truly as replaceable as humans have seemed increasingly to be? Am I replaceable in the affections of my beloved? In this story holograms loom large, of course.
Jim Byrd may wonder, “If I’m only a character in a story, then will I still exist after the story ends?” but Thomas Pierce offers at least one certainty. If you’re a character in a book called The Afterlives, the answer is yes. Very much yes.