David Eagleman’s “Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives”

According to a jacket blurb from Time, I am to “Read Sum and be amazed.” Other blurbs describe the short collection as variably dazzling, terrific, jaw-dropping, and imaginative. I must admit that as a first-time reader of Eagleman’s work, especially on the theme of mortality and life-after-death, I indeed was amazed.

I did feel more than simply amazed or dazzled by the forty stories in this concise collection however—and I must admit that what Sum made me feel most deeply was a sense of appreciation, of gratefulness. What these forty stories—two to three page flash fictions, to be more precise—give the reader is a sense of hope. Each section provides a different and often progressively more unlikely version of an “afterlife” than the one that came before. Sections range in title and theme from “Circle of Friends” and “Metamorphosis” to “Giantess,” “Angst,” and “Death Switch.”

The greatest thing Eagleman bestows us as readers, other than beautifully precise language and amusing one-liners, is the infinite possibility and individual experience of death. In one version of the afterlife God is absent—has “stepped out” of Heaven and left all souls there to fend for themselves and quarrel over His whereabouts. In another version, God is a married couple acting as omniscient and loving parents to all humans once they reach the afterlife. Yet another version then posits that one’s afterlife is a version of earth, only populated by those people you knew during your lifetime.

With all these possibilities and versions comes the ability of this book to speak to almost anyone, at any stage of life. I can see my angry teenage self identifying with the idea of the universe as a large sound stage, and a person’s life as a big sham played out by actors, as in the chapter titled “The Cast.” My more hopeful twenty-something self appreciates the humor of reliving everyday tasks over long chunks of time (“six days clipping your nails…eighteen months waiting in line” etc) as in “Sum.” And I can imagine a 50s, midlife crisis Anni seriously pondering the possibility of an afterlife populated with every version of one’s self at every age and stage of life, as in “Prism.”

The universality of death and afterlife is explored in these small specific scenarios, and the possibilities are broad enough and speak to all human choice and fear enough that Sum’s stories become mythic. Eagleman himself becomes a great Creator in writing these stories, constructing for his readers a multitude of death worlds in which to languish or thrive. Sum is essentially a choose-your-own-adventure book for adults, and the results for the reader are no less satisfying than they were in one’s youth

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