[23 June 2013]
The back cover of the galley copy of Ofir Touché Gafla’s The World of the End reveals the marketing plans for the book. Despite the fact that the novel is being carried by a major literary science fiction imprint, it’s only being targeted to science fiction and fantasy websites. The print side of the equation sees the book’s ads being farmed out to literary, romance fiction and Jewish-interest publications. So this would imply that there’s a broad reach for the book, and, having read it, I can understand why the publisher is reaching out to as many audiences as possible.
The World of the End is one of those categorically slipstream novels: a book with elements of different genres that may make it appealing to a wide cut of the book reading population. The thing is, The World of the End is sci-fi, but not sci-fi enough to really appeal to the genre’s hard-core fanatics. There’s romance, sure, but this is not the kind of bodice-ripping yarn that many readers of Harlequin may adore. And as for the Jewish audience? They may prefer to read this book’s initial 2004 printing in Hebrew if they have a handle on the language. Thus, The World of the End is a book for everyone and no one at the same time. No wonder the marketing campaign is so scattershot.
Despite that, The World of the End was both, paradoxically, “a bestseller and a cult book” in Gafla’s home of Israel when it came out, and the author has gone on to publish other novels since. However, as The World of the End was his introductory novel to Israeli audiences, it now becomes his introduction to America as well, some time after the fact. And it is ... interesting.
While Gafla’s writing style (in the English translation) is rather plain and prone to dramatic monologues that go on for pages, and there are multiple references to writers in the work as “righters”, which I’m not sure is a translation error found only in the pre-release copy or something deliberately done, there’s enough plot here to keep readers satisfied, if not a little befuddled if they put the book down for a few days and come back to it with a fresh mind.
What The World of the End ultimately is, is a rumination on love after death.
When I worked as a freelance journalist, one newspaper that I did business with had a tendency, on slow news days, to comb the obituaries that had come into the paper to see if there was an elderly couple where the husband and wife had died within hours of each other, so it could churn out one of those “love that’s so pure that one person couldn’t live without the other” type stories. And if that shocks you and you believe a newspaper would never be so insensitive, I can also tell you that A. I was personally asked to do one of these stories by an editor (and I failed to obtain the piece as the principles in the surviving family did not want to talk to me) and B. a journalism school colleague was also asked to do one of these stories for the paper (except, in his case, he actually succeeded in getting a front-page story in the paper’s City section). So there’s an infatuation with the notion of love being so true and complete that one person in the equation could not imagine living without the other.
And that is, in fact, how The World of the End opens: a 40-year-old man named Ben Mendelssohn is living despondently after his wife of 11 years has been taken from him in a rather bizarre midway accident atop a Ferris wheel (to quote from a Richard and Linda Thompson song title, “Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed?”). Rather than go on for the rest of his life bearing this absence on his heart, he ends it all with a bullet to the brain, convinced that he will be joined with her in death.
It turns out that, upon his death, he is indeed ported into another world called the Other World. It’s a place where everyone is naked – you can read into the Garden of Eden allusions all you want – which is rather unsettling for the average reader who imagines their characters to walk around fully clothed. In any event, Ben expects to be rejoined with his wife and live out a glorious afterlife with her.
The problem is, he can’t find her. He meets everyone from his grandparents and other deceased family members to Marilyn Monroe (who happens to share his wife Marian’s initials), but after scouring the place, he simply cannot come across the love of his life in death. This leads him to employ the services of an after-life private investigator in attempt to be reconnected. However, it eventually turns out, and this isn’t much of a spoiler as it’s revealed in the jacket copy, that Ben’s Marian might be actually alive and well and living in Tel Aviv, fondly in love with a fellow Salman Rushdie fan – and it’s interesting that Marian is a Salman Rushdie fan given that a good part of his life was lived in a sort of limbo between life and death after having that fatwa issued against him.
All in all, that synopsis would seem to provide enough fodder for a novel, right? The thing is, Gafla actually interchanges Ben’s search with other subplots that, at first, seem to have nothing to do with the main plot, and then turns out to have everything to do with the main plot – but it’s still quite unsettling, especially when the book introduces a character who is a pedophile. The sheer volume and wackiness of these tangents makes for an apt comparison between Gafla’s work and that of Jonathan Carroll’s. They seem to both share the same penchant for the weird and wonderful – and Gafla very vividly paints a stunning portrait of the after-world, especially given that it’s so technologically advanced.
But they also share the same common fault. That is, after awhile, things just get so zany that the plot largely stops making all sense (Ben even remarks at once point that, “Nothing makes sense anymore”), and both authors paint themselves into a kind of corner when it comes to how all of the strings actually tie together. While Gafla is fairly successful in tying together most of his disparate sub-plots (though I’m still not sure what happened to the fate of a few characters that seem to have been dropped), and the ending is suitably melodramatic and original, you still get the lingering sense that you’ve missed something entirely in a few places.
And for a society that is seemingly so advanced – characters in the dead zone carry remote-control devices around their necks that do everything from control the weather to give people the chance to, in fact, get some “eternal sleep” – some of the technology is a little suspect. Yes, the book was originally published in 2004 and the bulk of the novel is set in the afterworld of 2001 (a few idyll months, interestingly enough, before the 9/11 attacks), but still it makes you wonder why characters can view videotapes of their former lives. Wouldn’t those who control the afterlife have come up with something that wasn’t quite so primitive? Wouldn’t something like Netflix, even though it hadn’t been invented yet, exist in the afterlife?
Where The World of the End is most successful, though, is in mulling the very notion of what true love is and whether or not it would survive the test of infinite time. We meet a male character very early on in the world of the dead where it appears that his significant other murdered him in the Real World, but he’s so infatuated with her that he’s waiting for her to die so the two of them can be rejoined in unholy matrimony.
On the other hand, Ben’s own father, who perished before Ben did in a plane crash, has actually not rejoined his wife in the Other World, instead taking up with a woman on the plane that he died with. As the female lover in this equation points out, “Monogamy is charming and it often simplifies matters, but not when you’re facing an eternity ... .” So there’s some real questions asked here that offers grist for the mill: What is “true love”? Is it everlasting? What are the limitations on a man and a woman (or a woman and a woman, or a man and a man – and, yes, there is a Gay Village in the Other World, in case you were wondering; Gafla has really covered all of his bases) being in love? And can love actually run afoul in death?
It’s all very metaphysical and weighty, but it does make you wonder about the nature of romance and its transcendence of life, if not its flipside: the possibility that death may very well be a rather loveless existence.
That said, The World of the End is probably best enjoyed if you don’t pay it too much attention, as the holes in the plot and the “coincidences” start to pile up: it seems Ben happens to literally run into the right person who can help his search for his wife (or ex-wife, depending on how you look at it since he’s dead and she might be still living) at precisely the right time. When you learn what entities are actually behind the mechanics of the Other World, you might just groan in disbelief. And it turns out that death can exist within death, and these multiple layers turn this novel into something influenced by The Matrix at one point.
However, for a reflection on true love – a love that’s so true that it might just even border on madness and irrationality – The World of the End is a partially fascinating read. It turns into a page turner as Ben gets closer and closer to finding out the truth of Marian’s existence, and the ending neatly ties back to the book’s very beginning in a way that readers won’t exactly see coming.
All in all, this novel is science-fiction, a romance and a literary read all at once, and it will be really unique to those looking for something different in their fiction. Gafla doesn’t quite succeed in pulling together a seamless work, and it’s often very hard to read this book with much of a straight face with most of its participants walking around in the nude (if I met my deceased relatives in the afterlife and they were as naked as I, I might be a smidge, you know, embarrassed, but that’s just me). But this book is something else, and will be a welcome balm for anyone jonesing for Jonathan Carroll’s newest work, considering he hasn’t published a novel since 2008.
The World of the End just proves that the end of one’s life might not be the end of one’s loves, and makes you really re-think that old line from the marriage ceremony, “‘till death do us part.” If there’s a heaven or afterlife, love may just be everlasting, and that’s a refreshing (or daunting, depending on your point of view) thought to ponder.