Monday, July 16, 2012

The Postmortal by Drew Magary

“I’ve always known it was a lie. You cannot hide from the world. It will find you. It always does. And now it has found me. My split second of immortality is over. All that’s left now is the end, which is all any of us really has.”

“Who wants to live forever?” - Queen

I struggled to find a piece of prose to headline this review, because The Postmortal isn’t really built around strong prose. It’s got very little style, beyond its unique structure, which intersperses a first-person narrative with blog posts, news stories, and television transcripts and is sometimes a little clumsy or overfamiliar. It’s also not really character-based—outside of two or three characters, most of the cast was thinly sketched. It also has serious third-act problems. In spite of all that, I can’t help but qualify it as a success, largely due to its setting, a world in which science has conquered death.

The novel focuses on John Ferrell, an average guy who chooses to have his physical state frozen at the age of twenty-nine. Author Drew Magary follows Ferrell through the next 60 years, as the face of the world changes in light of mankind’s newfound immortality. Ferrell changes along with the world, gradually transforming from an average Joe who just happens to be immortal into a cynical jerk into a government-sponsored “End Specialist”—essentially a euthanasiast. In spite of the novel’s combination first-person/epistolary, it sustains some serious momentum throughout, and, even when events strain credulity, it maintains an emotional core that directs the twists, including a particularly Whedonesque one near the midpoint, directly at the gut.

Magary starts from a simple premise—what if, barring disease or violent death, we could live forever?—and extrapolates from it a worldwide culture which is surprisingly believable. Following the cure from its pre-legal stages all the way to a nuclear apocalypse, Magary takes the long view, speculating on how immortality would affect religion, marriage, healthcare, politics and personal behavior. There’s very little that doesn’t receive at least cursory treatment, and Magary’s conclusions seem logical enough. As it turns out, this is enough to sustain the whole enterprise. Even when things take a turn toward action-movie clichés, John maintains a sense of humanity that grounds the sensational events surrounding him. There’s thought-provoking material in The Postmortal, ranging from the things everyone has thought about—won’t everyone I know die, is immortality really something desirable—to the extremely unsettling, as in a transcribed interview with a woman who injected her baby girl with the cure at 9 months, rendering her an eternal infant.

However, it’s not all sunshine. In spite of some good moments, including the ending, the last third of the novel, where Ferrell (spoiler) hooks up with the most beautiful woman in the world after saving her life, feels a lot like shallow wish fulfillment and somewhat undercuts the rest of the novel’s willingness to pull the rug out from under the reader just when things started seeming too familiar. Still, none of these problems took me out of the story too much. The themes were just too universal, too primal, and the world too well conceived, to be derailed by plot contrivances. Who waits forever anyway?


Christopher said...

I find these ideas intriguing but I'm not sure I want to read a book that incorporates blog posts.

Brent Waggoner said...

Actually, the various media incorporated throughout work surprisingly well. They are pretty infrequent too.

Carlton Farmer said...

Sounds interesting. What made you pick this up?

Brent Waggoner said...

I saw the premise online and it was appealing enough to get me to check it out. I think you'd probably really enjoy it. Fast read too.