Early in his new novel This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!, Jonathan Evison makes an artistic decision that’s sure to divide his readership. It’s on page 14, at the beginning of the book’s fifth chapter, and there’s no way to talk around it, so here we go: Evison sets a scene in heaven, where Harriet Chance’s recently deceased husband, Bernard, gets a dressing-down from a bureaucrat named Charmichael for interfering with the world of the living.
“Any contact is forbidden, Candidate Chance,” Charmichael says. “Regardless of the nature. This was all in the orientation, as well as the manual. Hard to miss, really. Section One, as a matter of fact.”
And so here we are, in the hereafter. Charmichael’s office is disappointingly mundane — “the cork bulletin board, the squat gray filing cabinets, the rotary pencil sharpener” — and the punishment for Bernard’s continued transgression is vague but menacing: “Nothing will happen to you. Things will still happen. Just not to you.”
This is an audacious decision for a novelist to make in the year 2015 — especially a novelist from godless Seattle. The last good popular fiction I can recall where the afterlife played a part was The Lovely Bones, and Alice Sebold’s novel seemed almost embarrassed to employ the conceit, shrouding the idea of post-death consciousness in mystery. (I am of course ignoring Mitch Albom’s treacly The Five People You Meet in Heaven and all the Christian books “written” by children who supposedly survived through near-death experiences, because those books are clearly playing to Christian audiences that believe in the afterlife.) Here, Evison seems to be taking a light-hearted approach to heaven, with its ineffectual middle-management and office decor straight out of the 1950s.
A novelist can ask a lot of readers, but heaven might be a bridge too far for some. Part of the problem is that when you write heaven into a novel, it’s hard to make the rest of the book “count.” If an author firmly establishes the existence of a hereafter where good people can go to play in the elysian fields for all eternity in the context of a novel, that makes it difficult to care about the foibles of a few corporeal characters. You know where they’re going to end up, so why bother? And when topics like this pop into a narrative, a secular audience suddenly has to contend with a whole value system that likely brings them a certain level of discomfort. I confess that when I realized what Evison was getting at in that chapter, that it wasn’t a hallucination or a fantasia but rather a scene set in the world of the novel, with consequences that would affect the remainder of the book, I considered setting down Life and never picking it up again.
But Evison has earned my patience with his debut novel, All About Lulu, and especially with his most recent novel, the excellent Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, and so I powered through. It’s pretty apparent from the rest of Evison’s work that he’s not going to start writing feel-good Christian propaganda anytime soon. Besides, the narrative dropped a few clues that Evison was working toward something interesting. I’m glad I stuck it out.
Life is Evison’s first novel featuring a female protagonist — in fact, the stars of most of his other books are haunted by the significant lack of one woman or another. And tonally, Life is unlike anything else he’s written. At least in the first few chapters it reads like a farce, the kind of broad comic novel you’d find in general fiction sections in the 1950s. You’ll likely find more exclamation points in a few pages here than you will in any one of Evison’s other novels.
The (mysterious) narrator is actively cheering the main character on as the narrative pops around to different points in Harriet Chance’s life; the first chapter is set at her birth — “Here you come, Harriet…” — and the third is about her joining the work force at age 20 — “Look at you, Harriet, a grown woman!” And though Harriet has plenty of the sourness you’d expect in a 78 year-old freshly widowed woman, she’s much less salty than some of Evison’s other main characters; when it comes to cursing, the most ribald you’ll see Harriet get is a blurted-out “my goodness!”
Life’s primary narrative sees Harriet going on an Alaskan cruise purchased by Bernard just before his death. She’s not comfortable with the idea of a cruise, and she’s still not used to the idea of a Bernard-less life, but she heads out anyway because a life without a quest is not much of a life at all. At first, it seems as though Life is going to be a Wodehousian comedy of manners, the story of a fragile and proper older woman who’s forced to re-engage with the modern world after years of sedentary retirement. But as the narrative weaves around itself and Harriet reinvestigates her past with an eye toward uncovering secrets, the story starts to change. Everything gets a little bit darker.
The broad strokes of Life’s first few chapters are not unlike the pleasant face you show a new coworker. It’s too early to start hinting that there may be more to the job than they signed up for, so you stay cheerful and exuberant — maybe slather a few extra exclamation points into your conversation — and wait patiently for reality to insinuate itself into your relationship. From afar, any life seems simple, as black-and-white and obvious as a selection chosen at random from a hymnal. But when you get closer, you start to recognize some of those smile lines look more like stress fractures.
Gradually, we are introduced to Harriet and Bernard’s two adult children. One of them, Caroline, joins Harriet on the cruise just as the dark undertow of Harriet’s life, all the secrets and heartaches, rises to the surface. This mother-daughter relationship is the heart of the book, and it’s as true and as touching as anything Evison has ever written. And it brings another of Evison’s major career themes, the trials and pains of caregiving, to Life.
When he writes about one person’s sacrifice for another Evison is at his best, because he doesn’t fall back on cliche or glorification or simplified truths. No child at age six or 12 or 18 looks at their parent and thinks, lovingly, that they can’t wait to tend to them in their dotage. Caring for someone else — especially an adult who once cared for you — is heartbreaking, annoying, painful work. It’s not done out of selflessness; it’s done because nobody else will do it. This is what life comes down to, sometimes. If you’re lucky. Or if you’re unlucky. Your estimation of luckiness, or lack thereof, in caregiving ultimately comes down to whether you’re currently taking care of someone. In the moment, when you’re wiping an ass or answering the same dazed question ninety times a day, you feel as though you’re shouldering a weight you can’t bear for a minute longer. But when the person you’re caring for dies, you might remember those moments as the most important in your life.
And so with all that in mind, we still have the problem of the afterlife to deal with. This isn’t It’s a Wonderful Life, or a geriatric version of Ghost. Hell, the ghost of Bernard doesn’t feature very much in this ghost story at all; if it weren’t for the couple of scenes set in Charmichael’s offices, it would be easy for a reader to dismiss Bernard’s appearances as a hallucination. It’s quite possible that the story might work with the Charmichael scenes excised entirely; at the very least, it would have saved me one overdramatic eye-roll in the course of reading the book.
But in the end, I’m glad Evison inserted the afterlife scenes into Life. What is an afterlife, after all, but an attempt to forge reason and order and fairness out of the chaos of existence? And couldn’t you say that a novel serves the same purpose — to throw a frame up around life and to say that this is what it is all about? Heaven exists to reassure us, and in some ways, so do novels — especially the enthusiastic sorts of life-spanning novels that Evison promises in the beginning of Life. The conclusions that he reaches, though, aren’t nearly so clean as what he promises us in the beginning. We’re not granted a concluding sequence of Bernard and Harriet running through fields of wheat toward a city carved of ivory. Not every promise in Life’s opening chapters is kept, but every character tries just as hard as they can. Maybe that’s the best we can ask for.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant