The late medical student-turned-author Michael Crichton captured the attention of millions with blockbuster novels and movie adaptations that fused science and science fiction to raise some jarring, yet thought provoking issues. Now comes David Eagleman, a young neuroscientist, to do the same, but in a more spiritually lofty and truly innovative way.
It would be easy to describe “Sum” as a breezy work, as it is comprised of 40 two-to-three page flights of fancy on what we might expect in the Afterlife. This slim volume can be read hurriedly, with a minimum of effort and several chuckles or knowing smiles, then placed on the bookshelf. To do so would be an injustice to Eagleman’s superior imagination and to the underlying questions that he poses for us.
By examining what a Higher Power may have waiting for us, “Sum” does much more than amuse and entertain. By having us ponder the fate that may await us, we are given the opportunity to take just a moment or two to consider what we have done with our lives and what we can yet do with them. That point is immediately driven home in the first of Eagleman’s 40 tales, in which the Afterlife consists of 18 days staring into the refrigerator, 51 days deciding what to wear, three months doing laundry – and 14 minutes experiencing pure joy.
If God is within us physically, the author asks, is he also in us spiritually? If we evolve and mature in our lives, what is the progression? Would we really, truly like to understand our stages of growth, or would we be repelled? Would we genuinely want to know what others thought of us on earth, or would we be content with the surface flattery and half-truths that pass so many times for constructive criticism or helpful friendship? If we want to leave a positive legacy on earth after we pass, does it matter what form that might take? Would we be happy struggling and growing as we did in human form, but doing so by literally becoming part of the earth? Would our threshold for boredom be pushed to the limit if we had the opportunity to be surrounded by a tried-and-true circle of friends and loved ones? Or might we find that confining, longing for the additional relationships that we never took the time to cultivate in our waking lives, terra firma?
“Sum” asks these and many other questions in sublime fashion, offering spiritual warmth, humor and an enveloping sense of Possibility to those willing to be just a little less doctrinaire and a bit more curious. Ending with a Benjamin Button-like moment, it challenges us to awaken from whatever inertia, ennui or pettiness we may fall prey to and embrace new ways of living. There must be at least 40 of them. If we are open to the possibilities of the Afterlife, can we not also be open to the possibilities of living?
Personal favorites include the clever, witty “Narcissus,” the surreal “The Cast,” the ultimate careful-what-you-wish-for “Descent of Species,” the entirely delicious “Graveyard of the Gods” and the take-a-good-look-at-yourselves “Absence,” the warm and wry “Seed,” and the ethereal, poetic “Search” (so beautiful it was almost enough to make me actually long for the immortality he describes). Some of the stories are dark, some hilarious, and a number of them have ironic twists, but they all share a common thread: all are brilliantly written and challenge you not only to think outside the box, but to kick the box aside entirely and go leaping joyously into the pleasures of exploring the unknown.
The fact that the stories address the afterlife is incidental; what each story really does is hold up a mirror for humanity to peer into, allowing us to consider ourselves, and the many-faceted aspects of human nature, from funny, new, often startling and always insightful angles. Chances are you’ve never read anything like this book, as there’s simply nothing out there like it, at least nothing I’ve ever stumbled across. And I agree with the sentiments of the other reviewers–once you’ve read it, you’ll want to share it with as many people as possible and read it over again yourself.
It’s enough of a struggle to come up with an idea that pushes the boundaries of the expected, something that is challenging, entertaining and remarkable. Even more difficult, though, is to then execute that idea with the brilliance it demands. David Eagleman has done exactly that, though: dreamed up the astonishing, then demonstrated the depth of talent needed to make it come alive on the page. He has said that writing this book was simply his way of shining a flashlight around the possibility space; here’s hoping that he goes on wielding that flashlight for many years to come so that we can continue to take a look along with him. SUM is a truly stellar effort from a very remarkable writer.
“Sum” just may go down as the 21st Century’s answer to Dante’s centuries-old imaginings. I’m guessing David Eagleman’s got a lot more locked inside him, just waiting to burst forth.
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives; Eagleman, David; Vintage; $13.00