Book review: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives (2009) by David Eagleman

Like a bowl of strawberries, accidentally dabbed in horseradish sauce, and consumed on a swooning autumn evening, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives is short, punchy and bittersweet. It’s a collection of wistful, existential, funny, and quirky stories about creation, existence and the afterlife. There are a few stinkers (some read like Pratchett/Gaiman ripoffs) but you can’t hit a bullseye every single time, of course. The ones I found most thought-provoking were (in no particular order):

  • The one about reincarnating yourself as a horse.
  • The one about an automated telecommunications network that sends messages on your behalf after you die.
  • The one about cosmic beings trying to keep the universe from collapsing.
  • The one about a very virtuosic quark particle.
  • The one about being split into your multiple ages in the afterlife.

If I have to make one objection to Eagleman’s writing style, it’s that he commits the sin of what I like to call the “overuse of the literary lover”. This refers to the hackneyed and endless referrals to ‘memories of your lovers’ or ‘recalling your lover’s caress’ or whatever. You meet people in real life who have a weakness for this style of speaking (it’s egregious among certain arty types) – individuals who are always going on about ‘my lover(s) this’ and ‘my lover(s) that’.

This behaviour annoys me. By all means, feel free to talk about your sexual predilections (it does not make you more of a marvel or less of a disappointment to me), but please, refer to a goddamn thesaurus. I interpret these people as self-mythologisers: weavers of grand pseudo-narratives about the fairy light string of people they’ve been intimate with. Gah!


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