Tackling life’s biggest question is an ambitious goal for a first novel—but Thomas Pierce, one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 recipients, does it with aplomb. Set in the near future, The Afterlives is a mordantly funny and deeply human look at one man’s quest to find out what happens after we die.
Jim Byrd has firsthand experience with death. His heart stops momentarily when he is only 33, but all he remembers is darkness. Ever since, Jim has wondered what that meant. Soon after, at a local restaurant, two more life-changing events happen: Jim reconnects with a high school girlfriend, Annie, and hears a disembodied voice that might be a ghost. As he and Annie fall in love, Jim draws her into his investigation of the voice, a search that uncovers a century-old love triangle and leads to a mysterious scientist in Little Rock, Arkansas, who might have some answers.
Pierce, a graduate of the University of Virginia creative writing program whose short story collection, Hall of Small Mammals, was a literary favorite in 2015, displays a nimble sense of humor and wild creativity in The Afterlives. The near future he conjures here is one believable step from our own, with holograms, called “Grammers,” taking over service jobs and medical devices that can be monitored from your smartphone. The fantastical afterlife elements are grounded in Pierce’s realistic depiction of relationships, from romantic to parental.
“Do you think we’re not supposed to have it? That, to a certain extent, we’re supposed to live in the dark?” Jim asks. Maybe knowledge of life after death is a futile quest, but Pierce’s intelligent debut proves there’s still something to gain from pursuing it.