Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

The afterlife is, of course, a literary conceit. Many religions, if not most, incorporate in their tales one or another afterlife narrative. In his book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, David Eagleman restores such narratives to their proper place, the realm of a certain Borgesian flavor of short fiction. These tales are forty possible versions of the afterlife, few of them soothing, most full of anguish.

A conceit within the conceit, furthermore, is the idea that in the afterlife we might be made privy to some cosmogonic knowledge that is not given to us while we are alive: even while, logically, there is no reason why a hypothetical state called afterlife should reveal more information about our world than life itself does. It is merely a literary requirement, and many of these stories are interesting by virtue of following that convention.

Eagleman’s tales are intelligent, original, and all very different from the standard Christian version (especially the one ridiculed by Stephen King in the words of his Under the Dome villain: eating roast beef and peach cobbler at the Lord’s table for all eternity.) The tales I found myself enjoying the most are those where the fictional cosmology we glimpse is on an entirely alien scale: our Makers are shown to be smaller and more rudimentary than we are (“Spirals”), immeasurably bigger and indifferent (“Giantess”), vastly smaller (“Microbe”), or entirely unaware of our conscious life (“Impulse”). Two tales that don’t feel fresh are the Benjamin Button-esque “Reversal” and the mythologic “Graveyard of the Gods”, which reads like a condensed version of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Yet, this is a very small flaw in a small book full of big fictional ideas. It is a delight to read, so, my dear readers, this is my final recommendation for 2009!

Big City Blues (Porteño Mix)

I was riding a rickety taxi down a leafy boulevard, and I was in Buenos Aires, but — Porteño friends, please do not take offense — I could just as well have been in Shanghai. All big cities have rickety taxis and leafy boulevards. They have monumental plazas and upscale shopping malls. Fine arts museums and sporting arenas. Boutique hotels and gentrified lofts. Concept stores and literary cafes. Fusion restaurants and multiplex theaters. Skyscrapers in various stages of construction and old quarters where the height of buildings is restricted to preserve traditional character. Parks and gardens. A lead-gray or muddy yellow river, a waterway or a shoreline.  Transportation, sewer and waste management systems. Millions of people, their crushed hopes and their broken dreams.

All big cities are essentially the same. It is just by minor details — the particulars of street foods, the alphabets on street signs — that we are able to tell ourselves: I am in Bangkok. I am in Paris. I am in Tel Aviv. The essence of the big city as a human artifact is identical; the essence of an anthill is the same, regardless of the particular colony of ants that built it.