It’s best to get the main conceit of Jessica Chiarella’s debut novel, And Again, out of the way: four people with terminal conditions win a lottery that entitles them to participate in what’s called the SUB program. This is a program where their bodies are cloned and when they reach the biological age of the participants—which happens after a few months—their memories are transplanted wholesale into the new bodies. Think of Jake in Avatar getting his consciousness uploaded into his Na'vi body, except for these people, the body is wholly theirs, made from their own cells. Yet, the new body, bereft of the dings, dents and scars that even healthy people accumulate, is not quite theirs at all.
The transplants—Connie, Linda, Hannah and David—wake up to a world where sounds, smells, tastes and colors are almost unbearably intense, for their senses are as acute as those of young children. They have to be taught to coordinate their arms and legs, to walk, to write again. For some, the reprieve from mortality makes them humble; for others, it makes them cruel and reckless. The loved ones who expected them to die are as confounded as if they had indeed come back, whole and impossibly healthy, from the dead.
Chiarella doesn’t linger over the technical details of the SUB program, even though the reader is curious. These folks remember absolutely everything about their lives—you can’t even really call them past lives, since the transfer from the old body to the new clone seems to be as easy as putting on a new suit. What sort of gruesome research went into this medical procedure? As for the old, damaged bodies—is there nothing left of the person? Do the patients, even for a moment, have the ghastly feeling of being two places at once? It is actually to the author’s credit that she doesn’t answer these questions; they’d only gum up the narrative.
It’s Chiarella’s laser-like focus on her characters as they fight to pick up the threads of their old lives that makes And Again the unsettling, thought-provoking book that it is.