The Guardian JUNE 13, 2009 - by Nicholas Lezard


According to Shalom Auslander's story God Is a Big Happy Chicken, when you die, you discover that God is, as the title might have led you to expect, a big happy chicken. In Will Self's The North London Book Of The Dead, when you die, you move to a different part of London. In Yasutaka Tsutsui's Hell, the afterlife is a grim, violent mirror image of Earth. We can have an awful lot of fun imagining that this is not the only life. It's an eschatological free-for-all out there.

David Eagleman, who is also a neuroscientist, which may be relevant, has gone further than most: in this short book (short enough to be slipped into a fairly generous trouser pocket) he imagines forty different versions of our post-life existence. These are by no means all pleasant. Eagleman's mission is to unnerve.

There is the afterlife where "you discover that your creator is a species of small, dim-witted, obtuse creatures" who keep asking you "do you have answer?" Or there is the afterlife in which we discover our true essences: that we are, in fact, enormous, nine-dimensional beings charged with the maintenance of the cosmos; when we are exhausted by the work, we are reincarnated as humans, and abandon our huge responsibilities. "We care only about a meeting of the eyes, a glimpse of bare flesh, the caressing tones of a loved voice, joy, love, light, the orientation of a house plant, the shade of a paint stroke, the arrangement of hair." There is the afterlife where you get to choose to be whatever you want to be in the next life. Eagleman proposes an individual who, in search of a simpler life, decides to become a horse, but, during his metamorphosis, realises that "the slide down the intelligence ladder is irreversible... you forget what it was like to be a human wondering what it was like to be a horse".

Among the most poignant is the afterlife populated only by people you remember. After a while you begin to notice that there is no opportunity of meeting strangers, and the world is actually empty. "You begin to complain about all the people you could be meeting. But no one listens or sympathises with you, because this is precisely what you chose when you were alive." They are skits on the conundrums of creation itself; God, variously imagined as male, female, non-existent or concerned only with microbes (we are an accidental and irrelevant by-product), is as often as not in despair at how imperfect everything is, how the best intentions can go awry.

You get the picture: these are stories that tell us how to live our lives now, to appreciate, indeed treasure, our sublunar existence. At first you may be reminded of Borges, with each brief story offering a kind of diverting mind-game, something to make us applaud the playful fertility of the author's imagination. But Eagleman's purpose is rather more simple than that; he is telling us a simple morality tale, over and over again. We may have lost, largely, the idea of the traditional heaven (although such a heaven does, naturally enough, feature as one of the possibilities in Sum), freeing us to make up anything we choose, but we have not lost the idea that there is a way to live one's life well, and that a failure to do so will, in the end, bring extraordinary remorse. ("This is precisely what you chose when you were alive.")

Sum is perhaps best not read straight through; the experience of reading more than three stories on the trot can be a little disorienting. Savour them individually. (There is a nice cross-linguistic pun in the title, incidentally: we are also invited to recall the Latin for "I am". This is, I gather, deliberate.) Then again, Brian Eno is enough of a fan of the book to have turned it into what for want of a better word I shall call an opera, but how he manages that I cannot begin to imagine.

I have not had the book around me for long enough to be able to tell how resonant and haunting it will be; but anything that tells us, convincingly, that this really may be the best of all possible worlds has something big going for it.