The Postmortal
Drew Magary, 2011
the twenty-fourth book in the visitor recommendation series

Two years ago this series assigned me a book called Immortal, about a guy who was eternally young.  Since the world of the story also had various monsters from folklore in it, I compared it to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and wrote:

Buffy was heavy on theme.  Sometimes overly so: the early episodes hit the "horror movie tropes as allegories for high school" conceit pretty hard.  But even those that didn't were about something other than their own plots: adolescence as a tug-of-war between the irresponsibility of childhood and the responsibility of adulthood, or the importance of letting go of comfortable self-reliance and daring to trust in others.  If there is any such substance behind Immortal, I can't tell what it is.  It really does seem to be nothing more than, "Hey, what if there were an immortal guy?"

The same is true of The Postmortal.  This time everyone in the world can get a shot that will halt the aging process.  And the book is little more than an exercise in, "Hey, what might happen if aging stopped?"  At first it explores some of the news magazine feature stories of this future: what happens to the divorce rate when "till death do us part" means fifty thousand years instead of fifty, or the inevitable case of the mother who gives her child the treatment at age eight months so she can have a baby forever.  Soon the world of the story turns into an overpopulated dystopia à la Soylent Green, complete with $20 water bottles and government programs to dispose of the elderly.  Eventually the nuclear missiles start flying.  If you're into dystopias and nuclear war stories you might find this kind of interesting.  I am, and kind of did.  I assume that's why this book was submitted to the visitor recommendation series in the first place — ten years ago I read a whole bunch of books about nuclear war, and here was a novel with nuclear bombs going off in it that had come out mere days before the call for submissions went up.  And as a book in that tradition, it certainly holds its own with the likes of Tomorrow! and Warday.

But I was struck when I reached the acknowledgments and happened across a thank-you to a literary agent who "challenged me to make this book into a real novel, instead of a masturbatory idea dump".  Which raises the question of what a "real novel" is.  Over twenty years ago now I had a literary agent advise me to write a "real novel", but that was in response to my "Angels and Other Monsters" manuscript — I had written five very different stories, then had been told that publishers don't buy collections from first-time authors, so I added a few incidental connections (e.g., an object from one story would turn up in another), and pitched it as a sort of "composite novel".  This was obviously a reach, to put it mildly, and so the agent said that while the collection was promising, I should write a "real" novel — i.e., one with a single overarching plotline and the same set of characters all the way through — and come back when I had done so, which I did.  Now, The Postmortal does include several chapters that are just lists of headlines or passages from fictional newspaper stories, so it's entirely possible that by "real novel", Magary's agent meant roughly the same thing: less of this ancillary material, more focus on the experience of the protagonist.  But there's another reading of that phrase — i.e., to make it a "real novel" as in literary fiction as opposed to pulp — and I wonder to what extent that was the goal and to what extent The Postmortal achieves it.  Pattern 15 suggests that one thing that makes fiction literary is treating characters as fully realized human beings with unique life stories, and The Postmortal basically fails on this count.  The protagonist is just a callow Everyman, and the supporting characters aren't developed even to that extent: the ultimate love interest of the book, for instance, is defined almost entirely in terms of her "impossible body, athletic and voluptuous all at once".  (The phrase "impossible body" is assigned to her no fewer than six times over the course of the novel.)  That said, even pulp can have good characterization, and there are plenty of TV shows that get by on characters that capture people's imaginations even if the storylines aren't thematically rich.  Which brings me to theme.  In that article two years ago, I complained that "on the level of theme, Immortal isn't about anything".  I can't say that exactly the same is true about The Postmortal; it is full of the aforementioned callow Everyman's musings on mortality and how it figures into the decisions we make.  But…

…prior to reading this, I re-read The City & The City, a novel about two city-states, one Slavic and one Near Eastern, coexisting in the same space, with residents carefully trained to ignore (to "unsee") everyone and everything that is not in "their" city.  And, on this read as on my first, my head was exploding with thoughts about how this scenario reflected how we too live in a palimpsest: how members of different social groups can attend the same school and see each other every day but not consciously register each other's existence; how some of those kids can hop in their friend's BMW and head down the street to the In-N-Out, while a bus full of migrant workers heading back from the strawberry fields passes them in the other direction — because, at least where I grew up, the rich and poor neighborhoods are not geographically separate but crosshatched with each other; even just the way that different family members have different mental maps of the house they all share.  None of that is in the book.  It's all subtext.  Similarly, right before that, I re-read The Great Gatsby, about a man in the Roaring Twenties who becomes a bootlegger specifically in order to get rich enough to court the now-married rich girl he couldn't afford to keep pursuing when they had a fling years earlier.  This is a very specific scenario that has little to do with the key moments of my life that didn't go as well as they could have and that I wish I could get a do-over on, but holy crap was that resonance powerful for me nevertheless, because getting those do-overs is what I wish for literally more than anything else in the world.  But again, these are thoughts that I'm bringing to my experience of the work.  And I think that's why resonance and subtext are such key features of a literary work: their power lies in their ability to elicit that kind of personal investment in the story.  And The Postmortal is very light on resonance and subtext.  To the extent that it concerns itself with the theme of mortality, its observations are all on the surface.  And even the pulp nuclear war books from the '50s had observations like that.

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