Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives (a review)

Death as an act of creation seems to underlie everything in this beautiful little book, forty very short stories exploring humanity in the afterlife. Eagleman, neuroscientist by day, fictive maestro by night, uses language efficiently and with great power to explore what meaning may be found after death. He conveys with no small amount of beauty a panoply of imaginings. As an act of creation it is a truly impressive work, conjuring angles and perspectives that will keep the reader’s mind dancing with possibilities; which is the strength of the book – the possibilities.
Thematic short story collections run the risk of defining themselves too tightly, not allowing the meaning of the work to transcend the control required to produce the body of words. There’s the danger of wrapping each story up with an implicit message, attempting to construct an explicit argument with the books totality. A fair enough conceit perhaps but, due to the strictures and control required, not to mention the writing talent required, it can oh so easily die an ugly death in the mind of the reader, asphyxiated by it’s own binding. Eagleman, in Sum, flirts with this approach, as a thematic collection must, but flirting is all it is, sashaying within reach of the rules and then defying them with quick footwork and a sly wink. He ignores the implicit and explicit, seeking instead the reader’s inference, each story carving out possibilities that will bounce around the brain long after the last word is read. Eagleman does that thing most authors find so hard to do: he trusts his readers’ ability to read.
Running alongside the profound and the mysterious Sum captures the wild potential of the afterlife using a multitude of metaphors, be it the solitary quark, driven by a crazed love of it’s creations, that weaves the universe and all life it contains, being everything at once, yet fears it’s own quantum limits, or the tale of sentient atoms comprising a single being then, at death, expanding into the greater world before once more being drawn back to sentience, like the stuff of the world breathing through our lives and deaths. On your death discovering that reincarnation is ironic Darwinism, or entering heaven to find Mary Wollstonecraft on the throne because of God’s profound empathy for Dr. Frankenstein. The third death of memory or the search for meaning and how it’s absence defines us. A city full of homeless, passionate and vengeful old gods or humanity as the biology of the divine. After every page I turned I marvelled at a further notion or concept, the invigoration of life through the ideas of death. It seems a book without limits; creating questions you’ll ponder, delightedly, long after you’ve consigned the book to it’s own afterlife on your bookshelf.

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