About a month ago I attended a 5th birthday party for Tor.com, mostly just to see some friends I expected to be there. At some point they handed out Stubby the Rocket canvas bags, and I grabbed one quickly before they were gone. The bag contained a copy of John Scalzi's "The Human Division," a Stubby the Rocket pin, and an ARC of a translation from Hebrew of a bestselling Isreali speculative fiction book. This excited me for several reasons, not least because I'm not the sort of person who gets ARCs.
Ofir Gafla's The World of the End is an archetypal story: a man travels into the land of the dead in search of his love. The classical version of this story is that of Orpheus traveling to Hades in search of Eurydice. Orpheus travels to the land of the dead magically, and is preceded by his music. Ben, the protagonist of The World, has no magic. A year after the death of his wife Marian he goes the old-fashioned way: he blows his brains out. His suicide is as dramatic as he could make it, occurring at the end of a posthumous birthday party for Marian to which he'd invited all of their mutual friends.
A better precedent for TWOTE might be Richard Matheson's What Dreams May Come. But unlike Matheson's work, there is no divide between Heaven and Hell: everyone goes to the same place. Whether that place is more like the latter or the former is open to question. The newly dead are presented with an orientation in which the eternity they have to look forward to is presented as a perfect paradise: You don't need to eat or sleep unless you want to; everyone has a free place to live and public transportation; there is unlimited free entertainment of every type, including a "Vie-deo" of every moment of your lifetime, and you have a special "Godget" that allows you to set your own personal weather.
But in Gafla's novel nothing is what it looks like, and the cracks appear pretty quickly. Ben's first day in Heaven is ruined particularly when the wife he killed himself for doesn't show up to greet him. In fact, she's nowhere to be found; she might not even be dead at all. What happened to Marian is a central mystery of the rest of the book.
I say a mystery, but far from the only one. Ben's story is interwoven with that of many other people, living and dead. All of them are connected to Ben's story, though how they're connected isn't always immediately obvious. Many of them are more entertaining than Ben is. There is the cranky old artist Kolanski, who hates to draw portraits. There is the nurse Ann, known behind her back as AnnPlugged because she gets off on disconnecting people from their life support. There's the Mad Hop, an afterlife private dick of questionable talent that Ben takes on to help him find Marian. There's the twins Shahar and Adam, an asexual method actor and a pedophile video game designer. There's Yonatan, a man who lives a lifestyle that keeps him on the edge of death not because he thinks it can't happen to him but because he knows it will, and who is drawn into an online romance with a mysterious woman over a shared obsession with Salman Rushdie.
Gafla comes back to Rushdie frequently, and it's clear that he's a model. Like Rushdie Gafla writes in a distant third person with a lot of authorial interjections, in a style that John Gardner called the "essayist narrator." Like Rushdie Gafla's not afraid to go off on long tangents. And like Rushdie Gafla favors a tumbling manic storyline with a million dominoes all tumbling towards a mysterious end.
I have twice called the book a mystery, but that doesn't fully describe it. Neither Ben nor the Mad Hop seem to be making any particular progress on figuring out what happened to Marian, and Ben's story is more of a posthumous picaresque. He stumbles across all kinds of strange people's afterlives, not least of which is Marilyn Monroe because she shares his dead wife's initials.
Nevertheless a mystery is being uncovered, one that goes beyond what happened to Marian. It turns out whole branches of family trees (literal trees, in this case), are being prematurely lopped off. The agents uncovering it are among those known as an "alias" (what is the plural of that?), which is the closest thing this version of heaven has to an angel. What exactly an alias is is not revealed to us until much later.
The World of the End is rollicking and playful, hilarious in some places, painfully sad in others, and frustrating and boring in more than a few places as well. It should be no surprise that a novel about life after death is a novel of loss. But the loss of this novel is much more than the loss of the dead to the living, or the loss of life to the dead. As Ben uncovers more and more about Marian he learns that there is no greater loss than that of the way things were for us just yesterday, or at least the way we thought they were. Again and again characters in this book cling desperately to the past, only to cause it to drift further and further away. For other characters the loss is getting what you think you want, only to discover that it's not what you thought it was at all.
Though no one really gets what they want in this book, it's not hopeless. But the hope in it is a painful kind, the kind that comes after you accept you've lost everything you cared about. Then again, if there is an afterlife, that's exactly what it would have to be.