The Short Version: A Mormon dies and finds himself thoroughly surprised by the realities of the universe. For starters, Zoroastrianism is the correct religion and Hell is not in fact fire & brimstone (although there are demons). Nor is Hell eternal: eventually, you’ll get to go to Heaven – but you’ve gotta do something first. In Soren’s case, that’s find a copy of his life story in a library that contains every possible book ever written. Should be simple, right?
The Review: A fascinating little novella (just over 100 pages) published by the small press (and fellow WordPress user) Strange Violin Editions that seems to’ve been inspired by the Borges story “The Library of Babel”. I’ve not read that story but the idea is that there is a library featuring every possible combination of stories and letters and word. Books full of just the letter ‘a’ or books full of gibberish – or also the stories of all of our lives. The novels we’ve read or never will get to read. Etc etc so on and so forth. You realize quickly that this means there are a LOT of books. (There’s also a size constraint thing but I won’t get into that).
So Soren ends up in this Hell (there are others) and finds a certain set of rules: you can still die, feel pain, need to eat – but also everything that you did in your life is now null and void. So you’re not married anymore, you revert to about 25 and in prime health, and your task is to find YOUR book. Whatever that may mean. It’s a fascinating thought experiment and also kind of a terrifying one. I like to think about the old BookWorld in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series – the Library – as having been the ideal. It’s manageable, it’s got every book ever written and also the books that weren’t ever written… but it’s a fun place, the Cheshire Cat is the librarian, etc. This is terrifying. This is the ultimate nightmare for a lover of books who wouldn’t mind a Hell full of books – most of the books are gibberish. People rejoice when they find a complete grammatically correct sentence! Finding two words together is a cause of celebration! That’s terrifying.
But this little novella goes into the thought of what it would be like to face eternities that our minds cannot even begin to comprehend. Soren and Rachel spend a thousand years together – blissfully happy, truly in love – but that’s only a blip in Soren’s life. He spends a hundred years remembering his life on Earth – even less of a blip. Some might complain that the slightness of this novel lessens the impact of the idea… but I would counter that you cannot even attempt to describe the monotony that is implied so why bother? Why not just say “I spent a hundred years doing this” and move on. The reader begins to try and make comparisons for themselves: okay, he just said a hundred years doing X so let me look at that as one hundred hours and put everything else into that sort of perspective. Because, as Soren quickly realizes, it’s all relative. When faced with eternity – a library that goes on for lightyears in every direction – you can either go gibberingly mad into the abyss or you can find ways to rationalize it. The day starts at 6am, ends at 10pm (because the lights come on and go off). Just because you’ve been there for millions of years, for longer than ten universes’ lifetimes, for what seems like infinity… infinity becomes itself a manageable concept in this story. And that’s fascinating.
I’m sure this will also bother the religious nuts of the world. In fact, I can only hope that this book becomes explosively popular for one reason or another – the opening scene with the demon where he tears into the Christian is hilarious. I mean laugh-out-loud funny. I don’t say this to hate on Christians – he rips atheists a new one too – but in light of our country’s current Santorum problem, it’s great to read something like this:
“The demon gave a mirthful laugh. ‘Well, was it fair when you were sending all the Chinese to Hell who had never heard of Jesus? Wasn’t it? And what a cruel and vicious Hell it was. And your Hell was not our short little correct-you-a-little Hell… Do you have any idea how long eternity is? My heavens, what an imagination you humans have. What kind of God would leave you burning forever?… It’s crazy. Create a few beings; those that don’t obey you roast forever? Give me a break.'”
It’s also a great examination of human nature. They end up, for whatever reason, in a library that basically features only white Americans. This isn’t a racism thing – they all wonder why this is but they never really get an answer. It becomes apparent, though: you’re in with so many people who are so similar, it’s bit torturous. Think No Exit, you know? It isn’t trying to make a statement about one race or culture above another; it’s simply reminding you that homogeneity can get boring real fast.
There’s also an interesting little subplot with a villain of sorts, although it felt a little appended in order to add a dash of conflict. A crazy guy manages to create a following of cultists who go around and start violently attacking people – this is a problem when you are healed and alive again the following morning, because they’ll just bash you again. But it’s neat to see how people try to cope with changed realities and expectations – and how human nature can always rationalize and overcome something. This cult spreads and begins to terrorise the other people in Hell and just like that, we see the way humans behave on Earth continuing into the afterlife. This is also a positive thing – our hero gets to have quite a bit of sex without any concern, including having sex while in free-fall through the stacks. Once again, human nature wins out.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Ultimately, the length is a bit of an issue. It couldn’t be longer – that’d get boring real fast – but it also feels too slight, I think. Perhaps it was the tone: had there been more of a distinct plot and more of a “let’s follow this character through his ‘life’ until he finds his book”, it could’ve gone on longer. Instead, it feels like a philosophical exercise done up in a novella format. There’s no problem with that – I quite enjoyed it, actually – but that also doesn’t stop it from feeling a little lighter than it could’ve. I do so hope this book finds an audience in these trying times and helps perhaps spread a bit more sanity around. Goodness knows we need it. But maybe that’s just the hopeful existentialist in me, believing Sisyphus happy. If Hell looks like this… well, I guess I could adapt to it like Soren does. We need more people who’d be able to adapt – and fewer people ready to smash in the heads of those who don’t agree.