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“This was the beginning of the fairy tale, he thought…”

Assassination Scene, Jason Atkinson

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Somewhere This Way
Cover of SumSum is a collection of forty vignettes describing possible afterlives, written by neuroscientist David Eagleman and collected in a compact and attractive edition by Canongate. The stories, an average of 2-3 pages each, are mostly presented in the second person, describing “your” death with irony, wit and occasional poignancy.

In the afterlife, you discover that your Creator is a species of small, dim-witted, obtuse creatures. They look vaguely human, but they are smaller and more brutish. They are singularly unitelligent. They knit their brows when they try to follow what you are saying. It will help if you speak slowly, and it sometimes helps to draw pictures. At some point their eyes will glaze over and they will nod as though they understand you, but they will have lost the thread of the conversation entirely.

from ‘Spirals’

John Self’s review of Sum over on The Asylum likened the model of the book to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Alan Lightman’s book Einstein’s Dreams. Another title that springs to mind is Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, which took a simple story and retold it in 99 different voices. This kind of book plays out a little like a one-handed parlour game, and the skill is in keeping the reader’s interest, using skill—failing that, sleight of hand—to hide the repetitiveness of the formulaic inventions.

It turns out that only the people you remember are here. So the woman with whom you shared a glance in the elevator may or may not be included. Your second-grade teacher is here, with most of the class. Your parents, your cousins, and your spectrum of friends through the years. All your old lovers. Your boss, your grandmothers, and the waitress who served your food each day at lunch. Those you dated, those you longed for. It is a blissful opportunity to spend some quality time with your one thousand connections, to renew fading ties, to catch up with those you let slip away.

It is only after several weeks of this that you begin to feel forlorn.

from ‘Circle of Friends’

David Eagleman does a decent job of playing the game, his ironic, detached tone remaining consistent, without showing fatigue or making any of the stories feel like knocked-off additions to the series. (There’s no sense of “Like the idea, Dave. Scribble down another twenty and we’ll make it a book”.) However, before the end of the book’s 110 pages, the repetitiveness of the ideas inevitably starts to show through. The stories can more or less be divided into groups: There’s the idea of the afterlife as life, rearranged, which forms the basis of the first story ‘Sum’ as well as ‘Prism’. The God isn’t aware concept is covered by a sentient universe that’s too big to be aware of us in ‘Giantess’ and by making God the size of a bacterium in ‘Microbe’. Stories like ‘Reins’ and ‘Blueprints’ present the afterlife as suffering from, or being the result of, bureaucratic errors, while ‘The Unnatural’, ‘Circle of Friends’, and ‘Descent of Species’ are drawn from the be careful what you wish for deck, and so on. There are outliers, like ‘Quantum’, which feels like a joke a writer might tell during a particularly long interview, and ‘Conservation’, which has all the impact of an actual short story.

“Happy 87th birthday. It’s been twenty-two years since my death. I hope your life is proceeding delightfully.”

from ‘Death Switch’

By its nature, that of taking a single idea and exhausting it, a book like Sum can only ever be a minor work, but thanks to his consistent tone and the variety of his ideas, David Eagleman makes the most of the genre. Canongate too have contributed by preparing an attractive, compact edition that treats the text well.

3 Comments on “Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Candy Schultz wrote about this too, over on her blog:

    It sounds well done, and interesting, and yet despite initial interest I find myself still not moved to buy it. Perhaps it sounds too slight, I’m not sure.

  2. Rob Says:

    Hi Max,

    Yes, it is a slight book, though an entertaining one. Train journey / toilet material. (But not train toilets: it is well written, after all, and deserves a little dignity.)

  3. Are book blogs and novellas made for each other? Says:

    […] the stack by the bed and pulling out something I have time for; other times, like my review of Sum, I’ll deliberately seek out a title I know won’t take me a week to get through. For my […]

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