A Toast to Finitude

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In The Postmortal, first-time novelist Drew Magary shows us a world where humans no longer age—with the goal, it seems, of making us grateful that we do.

There are lots of depressing predictions for the future in Drew Magary’s new novel-in-blog-posts, The Postmortal—but by far the worst is the implication that eighty years from now people will still be writing personal blogs.

Yes, I’ll buy the cure for aging. I’ll buy the subsequent social malaise: the mobs of “Greenies” who get a kick out of inflicting gruesome disfigurements on people who must subsequently live with them for decades, and the sex-traffickers who freeze girls at fourteen, and the “pro-death” terrorists who bomb doctors for administering “the cure.” I’ll even buy the “WEPS” devices that all the characters carry—thinly disguised iPhones with an app for pretty much anything.

But blogs? Human beings discover the cure for aging, unleashing generations of innovators who are always gaining experience but never losing acuity, and eighty years from now we’re all still filling the cloud with self-indulgent, navel-gazing Dear Diaries? The only thing more chilling than the suggestion itself is how plausible it seems.

On the bright side, the blogging format plays to Magary’s strengths—he’s a regular contributor to Deadspin, and the narrator, attorney-cum-assassin-cum-outlaw John Farrell, inherits his self-assured and immensely readable written style. The format also allows for a piece of heavy-handed but nonetheless intriguing foreshadowing: in an introductory “note about the text” readers are informed that this collection of posts has been preserved by the ominous-sounding and futuristic “Department of Containment” to provide a representative record of life before the equally ominous-sounding “Correction.” How can you not be a little curious after that?

And yet as a novel The Postmortal has some shortcomings. It turns out that the biggest problem faced by a society where aging doesn’t happen is also the biggest problem for a piece of fiction in the same boat: it’s hard to find meaning in the life of a person who never changes. Indeed, since Farrell starts the book’s final act indistinguishably from how he started its first, it’s sometimes hard to understand the motivations behind his behavior or even ascribe any in the first place.

Even his initially promising character arc, an unconventional and gripping “coming of age” story, reaches a slightly wobbly plateau from which it never properly descends. With little scope for resolution through Farrell’s character, Magary is forced instead to introduce resolution through plot. That’s how we end up at the novel’s particularly dystopian conclusion, which, though it feels both earned and inevitable, isn’t terribly satisfying on an emotional level.

Drew Magary

Drew Magary

If The Postmortal isn’t a perfect piece of fiction qua fiction, however, it’s certainly worth reading for its social commentary. The increasing reach of government, the decline of traditional marriage, the fetishizing of youth, the changing role of religion, the creaking medical system… In true Swiftian fashion, Magary takes all these contemporary social issues to their logical extremes so that we might consider them more fully.

We’re shown a Big Brother-esque government, for instance, that sanctions assisted suicide and covert murder as a means of population control, and tries to restrict people’s access to medical technology. Magary doesn’t use the phrase “death panel,” but he might as well. (The book’s government also lets widespread social unrest and unruly militias dominate major urban centers when the plot requires it, which doesn’t seem in keeping with its otherwise totalitarian tendencies, but that’s a minor quibble.)

And what’s wrong, Magary challenges us, with a “cycle marriage,” one of Farrell’s own inventions when he’s still an attorney, in which the legal bond between husband and wife lasts only five or ten years? Isn’t it better to be devoted and faithful to someone for a set period of time and then break it off happily, than to promise yourself for eternity and end up in a messy divorce?

It’s admirable the way Magary skilfully and repeatedly detaches hot-button debates like this from their usual contexts. Indeed, if there’s a single weakness to his approach it’s that he often fails to push his fictional world far enough, so that we’re left with a series of thought experiments that are merely interesting when they could be truly captivating.

Then, there’s always the blogging, which, as a piece of social commentary, whether or not Magary intended it this way, is as keen and decisive as anything in Swift. That’s because it forces us to “toast our finitude,” as author Stephen Cave wrote in the New York Times recently—because without death looming over us, we come to realize, there would be little driving us to succeed in life; little to give our existence shape and texture. There would be no reason to chase love, no reason to cherish family, and no reason to even nurture friendships.

There would no reason, in short, to force us to close our WordPress windows and join the real world—and to stop doing all that navel-gazing that remains, to the very end, the bleakest part of Magary’s imaginary future.

Andrew Ladd is the book reviews editor for the Ploughshares blog. His work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Apalachee Review, Alternet, PANK's "This Modern Writer" series, DRAFT Magazine and the Good Men Project. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel. More from this author →