An author of award-winning short stories (Hall of Small Mammals, 2015) considers life, death, and what comes after in his debut novel.
Jim Byrd is dead at the age of 33. And then, a few minutes later, he’s alive again. This experience has some disturbing repercussions. The first is a surgical implant that reminds his heart to keep beating—which comes with a phone app to let him know every time his heart forgets. The second is that Jim has to go on living with the knowledge that his death wasn’t accompanied by a bright light or an angel chorus. With a constant reminder of his own mortality in his pocket and evidence that the great beyond is an eternity of nothingness, Jim goes on a quest for hope and meaning that involves a paranormal investigator, experimental physics, and church services led by holograms. While this novel is set in the not-too-distant future, none of the issues that it addresses are new. Living with the knowledge of death is a universal predicament. Science fiction has been investigating the ways in which new technologies challenge our humanity since Frankenstein, and horror novels from Dracula to Jennifer Egan’s The Keep have made use of the eerie qualities of phenomena like long-distance communication. Thomas Edison sincerely believed he could invent a “spirit phone,” an idea that gets a 21st-century spin here. What Pierce does with all these tropes is make them boring. One of the experts Jim consults insists that nothing in the universe exists more than 93 percent of the time. This would be a more chilling observation if Jim, himself, was ever fully real. Nothing about him—his job, his friendships, his marriage—seems worthy of sustained attention. The narrative is all just a lot of plodding exposition as Jim fumbles along. He has almost no inner life, which is especially unfortunate since he is not just the protagonist, but also the narrator. There’s a second, related tale woven into Jim’s story. It is, at some moments, slightly more compelling than the main text, but it mostly just makes a slow novel slower.
Timeless questions. Tedious answers.