The ghost story is eternal, and eternally frustrating. Whether the writer is Henry James or a teen texting a “creepypasta,” the genre turns on a provocative question: Is there a supernatural world beyond our own? But because such stories have to relate to our everyday, ghost-free world, they tend to devolve into vague shrugs about the nature of reality or easy fables about our capacity for self-delusion. Boo.
Thomas Pierce’s debut novel, “The Afterlives,” is a pleasant case of a ghost story that gets it both ways — it delivers a satisfying rendering of what that supernatural world might be like, while preserving the sense of mystery that draws us to such yarns in the first place. Its narrator, Jim, is a 30-something banker who was clinically dead, briefly, after cardiac arrest. That, plus the eerie vibe at a home infamous for a tragic fire years ago, has made him obsessive about the line between life and death. He keeps constant watch on the app connected to his internet-wired pacemaker device, and attends services at the “Church of Search,” where the sermons are part Joel Osteen, part TED Talk.
One of those sermons comes from Sally, a quantum physicist who’s found a pathway to whatever is beyond where we are. We’re made up of subatomic particles that flit out of existence — “a nonstop slide, back and forth, between being and nonbeing,” as she puts it. Harness the fact that we’re only 93 percent real and, apparently, you can meet your dead loved ones all over again.
Jim is 93 percent skeptical but ultimately persuaded — and Pierce ultimately persuades us. That’s partly because he dispenses with the fake tension of whether the theory is or isn’t real — here, it flatly is. And it’s partly because he dispenses with the usual ghost-story affectations — no cheap scares or woolly atmospherics.
Sally’s portal into another dimension provides the novel’s climactic scenes. But while Pierce is threading that needle, he’s also creating a near-future world where technology is getting plenty weird right here in reality. Heart monitors like the one Jim has are getting hacked, and cities are increasingly populated by holograms, often as salespeople. “Tom Bradys now stood outside every Subway in America,” he writes. “Was that Salma Hayek modeling diamond bracelets in the window of your local jewelry store?”
Pierce, like every ghost-story writer, knows we crave an unreality to match the humdrum real world we’re stuck in. Unlike many, though, he grasps that we chase that tension not to cross into some “other side” but to feel steadier on this one. “We are here for the heat,” he writes. “For the friction. For the difficult mess.”
Mark Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix.
By: Thomas Pierce.
Publisher: Riverhead, 366 pages, $27.