Drew Magary: “The Postmortal”

06/04/2012 § Leave a comment

Here’s a pet peeve of mine: authors with really fascinating ideas, who know how to follow through on the (worst-case) scenarios that innocuous seeming inoculations might bring about, who ambitiously take on a variety of perspectives and yet ultimately end up dumbing their novel down by sticking a monotonous, plot-driven narrative voice. Though the worst offenders I’ve seen in this camp are the writers of The Unincorporated series, Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin, the subject of my ire this time around is Drew Magary, author of The Postmortal. In four parts, each roughly ten to twenty years apart (and beginning in 2019), Magary charts the introduction of “the cure,” a DNA-altering vector that prevents the body from aging. You can still die, mind you, but no longer of old age; the first sign that Magary has his wits about him is that the President makes the cure illegal (pending further studies and reviews of its effect on the world’s resources), leading to a prohibition-like world of pre-Roe v. Wade law in which people like diarist and central protagonist John Farrell find back-alley doctors who will keep them alive forever. The subsequent protests and terrorist actions — from both pro-life and pro-death camps — capture the inane policies and politics of activist America in a nutshell (literally), leading to a preemptive legalization that changes the world forever.

For these first two sections — prohibition and spread — Magary’s sense of wonder is firmly in control, from Farrell’s first-person account of the development of “cycle marriages” and new decades-down-the-line annulments (hes’ a divorce lawyer), to his introduction of New Age fashion statements: everybody’s got to buy a Grail, or celebrate at Vegas’s new Fountain of Youth casino/resort. (How wastefully American.) He nails the darker side of things, too: trolls evolve from plaguing the Internet to painting themselves green and maliciously scarring the living — carving their birthdays into their arms, or blinding them with lye. Worse, perhaps, is the rise of Peter Pan syndrome, in which mothers illegally inject their children with the cure, creating forever innocent and undeveloped babies. How might life-sentences be adjusted in this postmortal world? (Clearly, Texas would be the first to expand their rendering of the death sentence.) Likewise, what would religion look like? The pope comes out against the cure, realizing that the afterlife’s a tough sell to those who have an eternal now-life; instead, there’s the rise of the Church of Man, who believe in the sanctity of human life and goodness to all — and who don’t just talk a good game.

The latter sections, however, give over to awkward coincidences and gun-filled action sequences, and are the clear movie-pitch portions of the book. After watching the murder of his girlfriend and the suicide-by-cancer of his father, John takes up work with the government as an “end specialist.” These sanctioned Kevorkians go about thinning the population of its most unhappy citizens; instead of a last meal, these participants get to choose the manner of their death, be it an instantaneously lethal injection or, say, being fired out of a cannon. John’s partner, Ernie, is the short-on-words professional muscle, John’s the legal representation, ensuring that these citizens are willingly going to their grave (without being coerced) and that their assets are properly transferred to the heirs. Their work, unsurprisingly, is frowned upon and they’re constantly being set up or ambushed, and while Magary’s writing is clear, these sequences quickly cease to show us anything new. There’s only two real developments: the “soft” end specialization soon becomes “hard” (i.e., they kill unwilling citizens — those sentenced in absentia, or, in a logical extension, anybody above a certain birth age, the “new” old), and John runs into a blonde-haired “terrorist” from his past, Solara, for whom he abandons everything to be with. (True love never dies . . . unless you put a bullet in it.) The writing becomes more and more glossed, and although Magary’s “excerpts” from other news sources or blogs all sound suspiciously the same, at least he was trying to provide other perspectives: by the end, it might as well be a zombie apocalypse that Magary’s writing about, so non-specific has he become.

Hence my pet peeve: a true found-source account of a postmortal America, compiling blogs, interviews, articles, and perhaps some new form of communication, would be a terrific bit of speculative fiction, and, handled correctly, would turn the mirror back on America’s current reckless policies, the ones in which we ignore the future, consume the present, and live longer and longer lives. This so-called history of the future wouldn’t have to rely on common tropes or devices, or focus on a single character (who doesn’t really develop, for all his eighty years, unless you count his growing savior complex); it could just explore the pros and cons, assets and flaws of living forever. Instead, Magary’s novel is only peppered with details, glossing over the issues you’d like to know more about (the “senior management program,” or all of this end-life controversy, most recently written about in a stirring New York magazine article about an eighty-something mother with dementia and seizures) and skipping over some big ones (like class) almost entirely. Foreign countries get short shrift, too: Russia has apparently become a land of private armies who constantly loot and pillage, Thailand is a home to eternal child prostitutes, and China goes from tattooing its own children (with their real birth days) to nuking its own cities (the predominantly Muslim ones). Then again, that’s merely what want The Postmortal to be: the only true flaw of Magary’s, given his more cinematic goals, is in a rushed and hackneyed ending, one that hints at larger problems in his main character’s lack of development/growth. It’s easy to coast on a brilliant idea — you’re forgiven for so much! — so it’s no real insult to say that I wish Magary were a more ambitious novelist, instead of simply being a clever fabulist.


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