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Thursday, March 1, 2012

the After

The After
by Briane Pagel
(5/5 stars)

It's often said in writing that the details are everything.  In this case I think the details were what drew me in.  The way the author portrays the family as they're getting ready for their trip to Florida is just like how my family used to be:  the mom (Saorise) is frantic while her husband Ansel is cooler about it and the kids--Stephanie, Austin, and Chuck--are squabbling and creating various nuisances, just like me and my three siblings.  And then after the plane crashes (or does it?) and Saorise is back home, I loved how she figures out she's in the afterlife by the fact her kids are all getting along at dinner for once.

I also love the primary idea of the book that an afterlife where everything is perfect would really suck.  A similar conceit was used in an old "Twilight Zone" episode where a criminal dies and goes to the afterlife, where he can have all the booze and babes he wants, plus always wins at poker and blackjack.  Then he realizes that getting everything you want and winning all the time is really boring.  (Then comes my favorite part where he tells the angel, "I want to go to the other place."  And the angel tells him, "This is the other place!" Bwahahahahahaha!)  If you haven't seen that then just think of the old Simpsons episode where Homer becomes head of the Stonecutters secret society and soon finds that getting what you want all the time is really boring.

So I love it when Saorise decides, "Screw this place, I want to go home!"  Because you know how they say you couldn't know what good was without evil, by the same token you can't really appreciate the wonderful stuff in life without some of the drudgery.  Since pretty much all of us here are writers, think of it this way:  what if everything you wrote was hailed as genius?  I mean not just a novel or poem, but even your shopping list?  It would get really boring.  What would be the point in trying to write anything if it would be praised no matter what you did?

By the same token, all the whining your kids do makes it more special when they make you a special gift for Mother's Day/Father's Day or snuggle up in your lap when you aren't feeling good.  The struggles are often what make life rewarding and worth living.  (Look what happens to people like Paris Hilton who've gotten whatever they've wanted their whole lives; they're just spoiled, worthless excuses for human beings.)

In my basic review of the After I compared it to The Lovely Bones, which was one of the last books I'd read (one of the only ones other than the Bible) dealing with the afterlife.  No question to me that the After kicks The Lovely Bones's ass in terms of contemplating the afterlife.  I mean the afterlife scenes in that book were so trite and saccharine.  Oooh, my heaven is high school and my face is on all the fashion magazines and here's my dead grandpa and dead puppy...puh-lease.  I got to the point where I just started flipping through those.  Whereas in the After it's a more thoughtful look at what makes us happy.  Maybe that is sitting around high school reading Teen People with your dead puppy.  Chances are that would get pretty boring after a while.  For a lot of us maybe that is just going through our daily lives, the good and bad of it.  Maybe you don't need to climb Mt. Everest so much as just to go about your normal routine and at the end of the day have someone waiting for you to watch TV with.

The good thing about the After is that all this philosophical stuff is woven into a good mystery story.  Saorise doesn't just sit there gazing at her navel; she goes out and explores the After (often unwittingly).  There are a lot of questions raised like what is the After? can you leave? and why the hell is William Howard Taft (a former president in the 1910s in case you come from America's dreadful public school system and never learned that) following Saorise around?

So to summarize, the After is a remarkable book because it takes on big philosophical issues without falling back on lame cliches of clouds and people playing harps and whatnot while the attention to detail to the characters and settings help keep the story humming along.  (And no one gets chopped into bits and shoved into a safe, which is always a bonus.)

That is all.

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