Sean Bernard, Studies in the Hereafter, Red Hen Press, 2015
Reviewed by Caitlin Barasch
Reading Sean Bernard's novel, Studies in the Hereafter, makes me squeamish. It reminds me of my mortality and my vulnerabilities. It reminds me of life's banalities. And yet, in spite of or perhaps due to these reminders, the novel is a soaring tribute to any human life, in all its flawed glory.
The novel's narratoran angel has a difficult career: he assigns recently dead people, after careful study of their comprehensive lives, an eternal placement in utopic afterlife society.
Admittedly, I also slot living and breathing people—on the street, in the restaurant, on the subway—into my own categories. They must slot me, too. All attempts to avoid eye contact are a charade. Most of us constantly wonder about other people, about how we're perceived. I'm usually disappointed by lack of action, of drama.
My copy of Studies in the Hereafter is viciously vandalized. I underline the shit out of nearly every page. In many instances I simply write YES, a bold capitalization: the printed version of a two-palms-raised-praise-the-lord-amen.
I enjoy winking at the meta-fictions suggested here: our narrator, in constructing written accounts of his subject's life back on Earth, must revise and rewrite to better serve a climax and conclusion. Therefore, both the narrator and I are allies in our desire to analyze and understand another's story.
The first moment in the novel where I write YES upends my expectation about the afterlife. I'm compelled to share it:
No, it's certainly not how any of us expected this place to be—we were all hoping for something a bit grander [...] like neon. Before we got here, we had those standard assumptions about seeing old friends, family members [...] romantic interests that didn't work out when they really […] should have. (3-4)
YES. As an atheist, I ask myself: would I go to church if promised the ability to reignite an old flame in the afterlife?
In Bernard's novel, the narrator's primary subject of scrutiny on Earth is frumpy academic Carmelo, who obsesses over Basque culture and laments the loss of his Basque-American ex-wife, Tetty. I've also spent uncomfortable lengths of time lamenting lost loves (or obsessions), so I inevitably think to myself: am I becoming Carmelo?
The novel forces me to ask, and then answer, my own questions. It forces me to confront myself.
If you want a cozy, unchallenging novel, full of pats-on-the-back and self-validations, I'd advise you to stop calling yourself a reader. You're not.
Read at your own risk.
As the novel unfolds, the narrator continues to unleash bold, unflinching truth bombs about the human condition, about our capacity for happiness. He reveals the "best ratio for living" is "ninety-two percent controlled sunshine, four percent wonder, four percent awfulness" (79).
What, then, is the ideal ratio of a human? What is discovered during our dissection?
In one of my favorite parts of the novel, the narrator explains placement processes for the recently dead. Every human is a medley of elements. The least complex have two primary elements, while the average—those still not complex enough, however, to merit closer study—have three. The percentage of each element dictates what sort of person you are. There are thirteen categories of average human: the gray files.
Carmelo and Tetty are fascinating because they don't fit into any category.
The gray files:
1: Tired, Hateful, Lonely
2: Content, Bored, Sated
3: Anxious, Regretful, Shy
4: Skeptical, Proud, Hostile
5: Hopeful, Content, Lazy
6: Ambitious, Hungry, Solipsistic
7: Sexual, Curious, Alert
8: Reflective, Honest, Reliable
9: Needy, Loyal, Jealous
10: Funny, Sated, Adaptable
11: Excitable, Awake, Curious
12: Open, Empty, Reliable
13: Detached, Logical, Lonely (199)
I can already think of at least one friend/lover/relative/classmate representing each of the thirteen files. But more importantly: do I recognize myself?
Do you recognize yourself?
Are we more painfully average than imagined?
One final truth bomb from Studies in the Hereafter: the least common characteristic is Self-Aware. The joke is on us, now, isn't it?