September 15, 2011


The Postmortal. By Drew Magary. Penguin. $15.

     A dystopian novel with a number of predictable plot points mixed with some genuinely unexpected ones, Drew Magary’s first book is a fast-paced, blog-and-twittererized story about what might happen if a cure for death were discovered. Magary is not talking about immortality or Superman stuff but about genetic engineering: what if it turned out (because of a scientist’s fortuitous bungling of an experiment) that the aging process is not controlled by a multitude of factors but by a single, apparently innocuous genetic component? This does not mean people could not die or be killed – disease, accidents, murder and suicide would still exist – but it would mean that people would simply stop aging once they took “the cure.” Then what?

     Then a number of things happen, narrated by John Farrell, who is the Winston Smith in this Orwellian perhaps-apocalyptic book. We know from the “frame” presented at the start that a mysterious and ominous agency called the Department of Containment has abridged and edited Farrell’s writings and is presenting them to bolster its argument that “the cure for aging must never again be legalized.” By the book’s second page, we know there has been some sort of collapse of the United States – and not too far into the narrative, we find out about the frightening elements of the Department of Containment when it apparently arises in China as some sort of super-population-control overseer.

     But the primary narrative is Farrell’s. A lawyer who takes “the cure” when it is still illegal, he lives a rather dilettantish life after his girlfriend is killed when she too tries to obtain the cure – dying not because of the procedure itself but because of coordinated terrorist attacks against doctors performing it. After the cure is legalized, Farrell meanders through his potentially eternal life, offering short chapters such as “afternoon link roundup” to go with discussions about his father (who, despite being considered too old to take the cure, does take it – and regrets doing so), the son he fathers with a woman who leaves him when he explains unapologetically why he will not marry her, and various political and religious interpositions. The politics surrounding the cure get rather short shrift, which is a shame, and the religious elements tend to be predictable – the Pope declares the cure an excommunicable offense against God’s will, and the fast-growing “Church of Man” uses it as the basis for creating what one character calls “a goddamn hippie day camp” in which people worship (or at least celebrate) humanity and give each other lots of hugs.

     What is most interesting in The Postmortal is the creeping (and somewhat creepy) sensation that the no-more-aging discovery is anything but an anodyne. Something is fundamentally wrong, not scientifically and not in traditional religious or ethical terms, but structurally, in terms of the human mind and (perhaps) soul, with the notion of cutting the aging process short. There is eventually a wholesale breakdown of just about everything, as nuclear explosions erupt, but not in the context of a war between countries, and mild-mannered and (in truth) rather dull Farrell finds himself inexorably drawn into becoming, not to put too fine a point on it, a murderer. One of the later chapter titles, “There Is Nothing Left to Lose,” sums up the direction the book takes, as Magary’s extension of reality becomes increasingly far-fetched but nevertheless retains a certain level of twisted logic within his narrative flow. It is inevitable – indeed, it has been clear from the very first page – that things will turn out badly, so the interest here is not in what happens but in how it happens. Despite some obviousness and stylistic inelegance, how it happens is believably (again, in context), and with enough drama to make readers wonder – well, wonder what, exactly? There is a disappointing lack of analysis and implication in The Postmortal, some of whose plot twists are clunky, some of whose futurism falls flat (as in the assumption that E-mail. blogs and hip-hop will still be important in 2059), and some of whose attempts at verisimilitude misfire (as in the misnaming of Old Dominion Drive, a major thoroughfare in northern Virginia, as Old Dominion Road).

     As a whole, The Postmortal is neither more nor less than a well-paced adventure tale (don’t be surprised if it becomes a movie). But it is not ultimately a thought-provoking book. Unlike 1984, to which it bears a number of superficial resemblances, it does not leave readers contemplating society vs. the individual, or the limits of propaganda, or the great questions of love and duty, or the eternal imbalance between good and evil. It is simply a story – a pretty good one, generally well told, attuned to the low 21st-century tolerance for nuance and ambiguity, but ultimately just a story. It could have been more: the importance of aging to human sensibility and productivity is a fascinating topic. But Magary is content to wring drama (and a not-insignificant amount of melodrama) out of his plot, and it has to be said that he does so very effectively, if not ultimately very meaningfully.

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