Works that deal with the end of civilization can be entertaining. They can also be preachy. They can be didactic and stilted and annoying as hell—especially those set in the far-off future, where our—i.e. society’s—craven self-interest bites us in the ass, where the World As We Know It is no longer, and we deserve it. Finally, payback for our selfish ways. Society, in a sense, deserves what’s coming.
What drives the narrative in this sort of fiction is a gap between the protagonist and society—a narcissism gap, if you will. Our heroic protagonist is working to rebut what he slash she sees as a careless and corrosive society, like Al Gore in real life. (I like Al Gore. For real.) Humans have collectively driven society to the edge of a cliff; Joe Character is just noble enough to fight back or to, at the very least, give us hope that in a world nearing total destruction, humanity can retain its humanity.
All of this is just a long way of stating something very simple: Drew Magary’s debut novel The Postmortal is really, really good, due in large part to its ability to work against this formula.
It is swift and funny and imaginative and entertaining and frighteningly plausible. Its form—a collection of “recovered” files from one man’s digital diary—suits Magary’s casual, jocular writing style. It’s also very mature—a somewhat surprising aspect of the novel, given that Magary is best known for his work for Deadspin and Kissing Suzy Kolber, his flagship columns being the “Thursday NFL Dick Joke Jamboroo” and “Drunken Hookup Failure.” (I feel obligated to note that I’m a big fan of basically anything Magary writes—dick jokes to honest media critiques.)
The Postmortal has a very simple premise. It is the year 2019. Aging is caused by one gene in the body, and scientists have found a way to prevent this gene from working, i.e. we don’t have to get any older. All it takes is a procedure involving three shots and voila, you are permanently thirty-two years old. You can still die. You can still get cancer. Bird flu. Hepatitis. SARS. But you will continue to be the same age. People are, predictably, very passionate about “the cure.” Factions break out—pro-cure, anti-cure, humanist environmentalists, narcissistic Church of Man people, “greenie” insurgents, etc. Magary creates the same sorts of camps present in the current American political sphere; the stakes have now been raised, however, and the tactics, too, have moved to the extreme. There are bombings, murders, wars, etc. as a result of the cure.
And there are, of course, moral issues. Is it still a good idea to get married if ’til death do you part now means centuries of love and dedication? Is it morally tenable to take part in a “cycle marriage”—an agreement limiting the union to a scant forty years? How young is too young for the cure? How old is too old? How does it feel to have an eighteen-year old’s body and a forty-five year old’s brain? How can there possibly be a loving and benevolent God watching all of this?
The protagonist, twenty-nine year old John Farrell, deals with all of these issues. He is a divorce lawyer. He fathers a child and struggles with committing to a woman for hundreds of years. His father, in his sixties, gets the cure and almost immediately regrets it—beginning a crash-course cancerous consumption of cigarettes to bring his life to an end.
This is where Magary’s maturity comes in; Farrell is no saint. He helps write the first contract for a cycle marriage. He refuses to marry the woman he loves because, in his eyes, chasing blond tail around New York City just behooves him more. He is, himself, driven by the same craven self-interest that leads people to get the cure. He wants to stay young forever. And he wants to get drunk and get laid. He’s only human. And I think that’s a mature way to write a character. When shit really hits the fan and society’s death-roll becomes all the more terrifying, Farrell’s still out there trying to have sex with really beautiful (ageless) women and either drink or use recreational drugs until his misery is either neutralized or manageable; or until he’s dead. He’s not happy about a life driven by carnal desire, but he recognizes that his self-interest is all he has.
There are, of course, myriad problems in The Postmortal. Magary’s plot twists are telegraphed at times and take on a formulaic pattern (I won’t spoil it). His usage is a little strange—particularly in the first half (the word “quite” is misused and bungled quite a bit—heh). And the prose is a little clunky, at times (of course, it’s written in first-person diary form). But Magary really finds his voice in the second half. The language is crisper; the plot twists harder to see coming; the dialogue natural and funny; the characters three-dimensional. When Magary mentions in the “Acknowledgments” that his agent made him rewrite the second half, it’s not surprising.
At the end of The Postmortal, it’s hard to reason with much of anything. Human beings, for all of our ingenuity and intelligence and general awesomeness, are still fallible. Magary has created a world in The Postmortal where all of our faults are magnified—their consequences fulfilled.
It should be hard to imagine a world where the Chinese government has to nuke its own cities. It should be hard to imagine a world where the American government has to enact a form of population control that amounts to murdering quiet old “cured” women in their ranch-style homes. A world where baseball players never age and Russia invades everyone with a super-duper ageless army and a nuclear holocaust is no longer a nightmarish fantasy, but as inevitable as the changing of the seasons.
But Magary has imagined it—and in terrifyingly lucid terms. It is a startling work and a promising debut.