reviewed by Michael Chin
Studies in the Hereafter
Red Hen Press, 2015
An old adage tells us that nothing is certain except for death and taxes. Yes, taxes suggest giving up a portion of our hard-earned income, but when April 15 occurs to me, I think less of money than of paperwork–filling in numbers on a series of forms and hoping for the best that I didn’t overlook anything. It’s this sense of bureaucracy, mundanity, and unending work that Sean Bernard captures with aplomb in Studies in the Hereafter, his debut novel which explores existence after death as equal parts tale of human emotion and saga of administrative headaches.
Studies in the Herafter splits time between an unnamed narrator who reviews files of humans for placement in the afterlife, and the odd couple of buttoned-up but eccentric Carmelo and more free-spirited Tetty, whom our narrator has been assigned to assess. Twists abound as the narrator abuses his privilege of “insertion” intended to allow him to observe his subjects close up, and winds up all but falling in love with Tetty, and can’t help himself from interacting (a big no-no). Meanwhile the narrator’s own after-life assigned wife is facing an existential crisis—an unhappy woman in heaven, which turns out to be a dangerous thing to be as unhappy people have been disappearing of late.
The balance between personal is very much at the heart of this novel. In applying the lessons from his research to his own administrative position, the narrator concludes, “Work matters: it’s responsible for at least half a person’s life contentment” (148). And so, while the narrator largely maintains a collected exterior, it’s also clear he’s not particularly happy himself, and we catch a hint that he might even envy his more emotionally transparent and vulnerable wife. When he watches her at rest, he comes to the melancholy observation that, “the grandest any person can be is in sleep—perfectly filled with potential. It’s only when we open our eyes, when we speak, that the magic falls away.” (173).
Indeed, the narrator’s wife never does seem to quite fit into this afterlife. Even when she aims to socialize, it’s with both excessive and misdirected effort, such as the theme party she decides to host, primarily for the narrator’s work friends. The party schematic is equal parts ambitious and convoluted, centered around guests wearing masks that represent different emotions that they’re unaware of. Other partygoers must treat them as if they really are experiencing the represented emotion until the wearer catches on and actually begins to act accordingly. The sad, she says, will jump out a window, and based on the rules of their afterlife, will land safely, only to take on another mask. Confronted with a party that might compel them all to face emotions, no one shows up (though this is, at least in part, on account of the narrator’s boss keeping folks in to work late).
Studies in the Hereafter is most remarkable when it rejects specific narrative in favor of the subversive suggestion that Bernard is writing to and about each and every one of us. In the closing movements of the novel, after the narrator’s wife has disappeared and after the narrator has found her, and as the two of them look upon Tetty and Carmelo together for the first time. The wife, newly at peace, gestures to the other pair and tells him, “That’s us. You and me. Right there” (250) and we the readers are left to speculate if this is metaphor, if this is pointing out commonalities between the two pairs of entities, if this this a broader suggestion that we are all Tetty and Carmelo. After all, the very dedication in the front matter of the book labels the novel “for us, you and me”—a note that might be so intimate to Bernard and his kin that it necessitates no further identifiers, or could just as easily suggest this book really is for and about each and every person on this plane of existence and the next.
Studies in the Hereafter succeeds as many things. It’s a cleanly written narrative that dares to speculate wildly about the infrastructure of the hereafter while grounding it in office politics and paperwork. It’s also a profoundly human story of two people who do and do not mesh, moving closer together and further apart in as nonlinear of a narrative as any connection between two thoughtful humans tends to be. Above all, it’s a book that celebrates existence, for all its flaws and complications. The afterlife may not be better than the one we’re living now, but in Bernard’s imagining of it, we’re happy to see through all varieties of being in all manner of worlds.
Michael Chin won the 2014 Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction from the University of New Orleans and has previously published or has work forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, the Prairie Schooner blog, and Word Riot!. He is a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.