Monday, December 12, 2011

Where'd You Get That Afterlife?

For years I had an instinct I might write a novel about the afterlife. Before beginning The Land of Later On I felt, dutifully, that I ought to do a bit of research. You see the problem.

My favorite research involves identifying stuff I don’t have to read. I could immediately dismiss Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; I’d encountered them in college, and I figured those two masterpieces of the hereafter would now only get in my own pedestrian way.

More serious a threat were several superb cultural histories of Heaven or Eternity or whatever you feel comfortable calling the Great Perhaps. Yet the closer I got to my blank opening page, the more I realized I didn’t want to coagulate my novel with anybody else’s ideas of what happens after we die. My guess was surely just as good as theirs, wasn't it?

I also hoped to write a novel that might prove as funny as it was (with luck) poetic.

What clinched my aversion to homework was an accidental find at a flea market. For a quarter I splurged on a pamphlet from the 1930s, with a title like Is There Life After Death? Finally, I thought, we’re getting somewhere.

In fact, I’d just thrown away twenty-five cents. It took a while for the author to get to his point: there isn’t any afterlife, because there’ve been so many gazillion people since the dawn of time, there wouldn’t be room for them all. He did the math to prove it, too. This argument had so many holes I didn’t know where to start. Anyway, when it came to imagining the afterlife, I soon realized I was better off without somebody else’s site plan or map or ideology.

So I wrote The Land of Later On. Here’s how my narrator, Kip, first explains the setup:

“Infinite in space and time, its denizens are those who choose to stay. You can occupy any place and era you like, for as long as you like. You can set up headquarters in an idyllic Mediterranean port and stroll out across the cobblestones of 14th century Mecca, or 19th century San Francisco, or the airborne walkways of next century’s Singapore. You can have breakfast on one continent in one century and lunch on another in another. For some people this is heaven; others never go anywhere. Why risk an unpredictable journey? A lot can go wrong if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Kip (a New York jazz pianist whose career ended a while ago) isn’t in search of any of this. He’s on an improvised quest to find the love of his life, Lucy, who died four years before he committed suicide. And he doesn’t care how many centuries and continents it takes—if she’s still waiting for him, somewhere in the afterlife.

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes when writing fiction we encounter those moments when we realize how close we've come to guessing it right. Sometimes -- often, in fact -- scenes that I write replay in real life. In "The Land of Later On" we'll never know how close you were; or, perhaps we will know but we won't be able to share with those back on Earth. And you're right, research in this case would have been a waste of time.