blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Review | The Afterlives
Thomas Pierce
Riverhead Books, 2018

spacer The Afterlives (Riverhead Books, 2018)

Technology—the very thing that had chilled us to the mysteries of the universe—possibly was all that remained to unthaw us again.

Jim Byrd’s life has become a mire of indecision. After dying, technically, Jim finds himself outfitted with technology called the HeartNet, a futuristic version of a defibrillator that monitors his heart’s activity and, when needed, provides a shock to the vessel to keep him alive. This tenuous thread of fibers around his heart keeps the inevitability of death on Jim’s mindhe has trouble truly believing in the possibility of a future, agonizing over his every choice. Throughout Thomas Pierce’s The Afterlives, Jim skirts closer to nihilism, grappling with the meaning behind mortality and his own existence. Jim falls into existential panic as he constantly questions the importance of action in life and whether the memory of a person is truly capable of transcending time and space. Thomas Pierce’s quiet and reflective writing allows for complete honesty from Jim’s narration throughout the novel. It’s blunt, but without the harsh sting of cynicism. The Afterlives calls to those who wonder about the boundaries between life and death and how the exploration of that liminal space has an impact on a lived life. It’s a relatively quick read, as the characters in Jim’s life are fascinating, each with their own unique character traits that make the pages read more like an in-depth dive into the dynamic lives of seemingly ordinary people. Coupled with the science fiction touches of technology, The Afterlives offers a story that could reflect our own near future, one that alienates us from our bodies while driving us closer to our own humanity.

The Afterlives takes place in an undefined time, meshed between a static, unchanging southern landscape and a future where hearts are controlled by mobile phone apps, while holograms—called Grammers—roam the landscape. Thomas Pierce roots his tale in the fictional town of Shula, North Carolina, where Jim Byrd grew up. Jim returns after finishing college—but not without experiencing some latent anxiety as he comes home to a family and community that feel alien and strange after his time away.

Shula is a community battling with the technology of the future and the traditions that come with age, much like its inhabitants. Jim meets a group he calls the “White Hairs,” a community of older, retired transplants that have flooded Shula. Battling the White Hairs is the recent influx of hipster youth, who transform Shula’s landscape with niche restaurants and coffee shops. In The Afterlives, Shula acts as a battleground between these two forces, age and youth, and nestled within that landscape is the looming specter of technology, as the Grammers start to replace both the living and the dead.

Was this why the soul wrapped itself in flesh?

Jim’s cycle of spiritual quandary accelerates when he comes across a restaurant owner with a haunting on her hands. A mysterious staircase in the back of a Mexican restaurant in Shula piques Jim’s interest, as the restaurant owner claims the staircase is haunted and she has proof. In the crackle of a recording, Jim hears a repeating phrase: “The dog is on fire!” Intrigued, Jim does more research into the history behind the building, which was repurposed to house the restaurant. In the newspaper archives in Shula, Jim unearths the names of Clara Lennox and her husband Robert, and as Jim uncovers more about Clara, he gets closer to finding answers on existence after death and the instability of time. Coupled with Jim’s attendance at a New Age church called Church of the Search—involving TED Talk–esque lectures from a variety of notable figures like scientists and shamans—Jim’s attitudes toward faith and the perception of reality begin to shift from skepticism to intrigue.

The Afterlives also dwells on the theme of legacy, which, to Jim, manifests in the memories of those who remain after a loved one dies. Jim worries about his own legacy as he moves on to a new relationship with his former high school sweetheart, Annie, who has been forced to move back in with her parents in Shula after the untimely death of her husband. Annie and Jim reconnect romantically and philosophically as they dig into the mystery of Clara Lennox and the dog on fire. Throughout the novel, Annie and Jim’s relationship flows with the course of Jim’s grip on mortality—and his journey in questioning the bounds between existence and memory.

The ambiguous futuristic setting offers the possibility of Jim being able to come to more concrete conclusions about how the spirit persists after the body dies. However, Pierce shows through The Afterlives that these fundamental human questions will continue to go unanswered and that the process of understanding can sometimes be more fruitful than the satisfaction of an answer.

Everything that needed to be communicated would be through a Morse code of sighing.

Familial relationships drive much of The Afterlives, through messy, incongruent, and complex constellations of friends, family, and lovers. Jim’s family offers the familiar staples of southern narratives: a religious mother, a slightly detached but engaging father, and a sibling out in the world. Jim’s new family, consisting of Annie and her daughter, provides Jim with the opportunity to create a legacy full of memories all his own through his relationship with them. In each of his relationships throughout the novel, Jim finds elements of humanity that work to tether him back into his life, helping him come to grips with his near- and through-death experience.

Jim’s relationship with his father unites the spheres of Jim’s life centered on faith, curiosity, and the supernatural. Jim’s father experiences a moment on the haunted staircase where he is “touched” by the entity that manifests there. While Jim’s father seems to avoid engaging with the unknown directly, this moment in the narrative propels Jim further into his exploration of the roles of time and memory and how they can physically manifest in our lives.

The novel braids Jim Byrd’s perspective in with several key interludes from the life of Clara Lennox, the woman suspected of haunting a staircase, but even the characters we don’t hear from directly have an outsized impact on the world. The novel’s philosophical tone zeroes in on the interconnected nature of human beings, the magnified impact of one human life on another. Each relationship can be said to be a kind of “haunting,” affecting the characters even when they are not completely aware of it. The conflicts reflect the kind of subtle relationships that can happen in real life, people drifting apart yet remaining connected through the single tie that initially brought them together; Jim’s later-in-life reunion with Annie, his former high school sweetheart, acts as a physical tether to his hometown of Shula. Before his heart attack, Jim was almost like a Grammer himself—drifting through life in Shula without truly interacting. When he reconnects with Annie, Jim becomes more rooted in the physical world, which causes him to reflect on his passive past self. Though the novel is told mainly through Jim’s eyes, Annie is a shining, dynamic character who shakes up his world through humor and love and by being a partner in his journey to understand what happens after death.

Jim Byrd begins to unravel the further he goes along his journey to understand life and what comes after, and the question of what truly makes him human grows larger and larger. But Pierce’s writing keeps us tethered to an emotional center; while the story itself moves around the country, from a psychic’s high-rise in New York City to a curious science laboratory in New Mexico, the heart and home of The Afterlives is rooted in North Carolina at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The writing itself has the familiar tones of the Southern Gothic, with characters coming in contact with the ghosts of their pasts, but with a New Age, technological twist. What new kinds of communication can exist when even physical bodies are no longer required? The haunting of the human heart anchors The Afterlives—beyond family, body, or memory—and makes for a compelling reflection on what comes next.  

Thomas Pierce is the author of the novel The Afterlives (Riverhead Books, 2018) and the short story collection Hall of Small Mammals (Riverhead Books, 2014), winner of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Oxford American, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Zoetrope: All-Story, among others. Pierce holds an MFA from the University of Virginia, where he was a Poe/Faulkner Fellow. He has reported for NPR and National Geographic Magazine, and is a visiting assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Virginia.

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