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Recent Reads #3: Short (but not exactly sweet)

Featuring David Eagleman, Cormac McCarthy and Caleb Azumah Nelson

Here are the other three recent reads I wanted to recommend, which aren’t really linked in terms of form or content. The most apparent similarity between them is that they’re short. So that’s what we’re going with.

Sum by David Eagleman paperback cover

Sum
David Eagleman

There’s no evidence that suggests there is an afterlife or what the afterlife looks like if it does exist. So, neuroscientist David Eagleman embraced the infinite potential offered by this unprovable concept and wrote 40 completely different post-death realities.

This teeny book will take you no time at all to read, but it’s full of so many ideas that I refuse to believe anyone can put this down and not feel at least a little astounded. The book also left me feeling creatively inspired, it’s great imagination fuel.

Some of these inventive tales also inspired a great deal of existential dread.

The first tale, “Sum”, presents an afterlife where you relive all your experiences, but they’re categorised, grouped together and then you live them one-by-one. To illustrate what I mean, you sleep for thirty years, read magazines on the toilet for five consecutive months, vomit for seven hours straight, and so on. It’s the kind of story that makes you question how you’re spending your time.

Meanwhile, “Circle of Friends” presents an afterlife populated exclusively by the people you remember. I look at the people I’m fortunate enough to have around me. If this were the world I discovered after my passing, it wouldn’t be so bad. However, never meeting a new person is a sad thought, which was a reminder for me how much I do genuinely like meeting new people.

The Road film adaptation tie-in paperback cover with Viggo Mortenson

The Road
Cormac McCarthy

My old science-fiction tutor once described this book as the one post-apocalyptic novel absolutely no-one would ever want to live in. Whilst narratives like The Walking Dead present horrific landscapes of violent danger and death, they often offer a hopeful vision of how civilisation can be rebuilt. Atypical families form and these kinds of stories can — and often do — present the importance of having community. Post-apocalyptic fiction is dark, but often we find the light within them.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is nothing like this. There’s nothing but loneliness and hopeless desperation. The end-of-the-world has never been so cruel.

We follow a father and his little boy across what remains of the United States, following the road south to the sea. Along the way they encounter other survivors. But have any of them held onto even a shred of humanity like our protagonists? Is the father really a good guy? And what can they hope to find on the beach?

Re-reading this book, I discovered I had misremembered many of its most disturbing images. Nothing can prepare you for the depravity of McCarthy’s world. Somehow, reading the book a second time around was more shocking and powerful. Maybe I had forgotten too much. Or maybe it’s the fear of what our own world may become in the next few decades due to climate disaster.

(See also: this Pingu Random House cover for the book.)

Open Water hardback cover

Open Water
Caleb Azumah Nelson

One night at a party, a photographer and a dancer meet. There is an instant connection, and their lives become entwined in a way that is emotionally intimate. But is it just friendship or is it something much greater?

There’s a lot I loved about this short novel. Azumah Nelson has stated he had to make himself vulnerable to write the book, and I think it invites the reader to become vulnerable too. Written in second-person, you are the protagonist. The introspection Azumah Nelson writes is as much the thoughts of the character as they are prompts for the reader to reflect. My mind often wandered whilst reading, not because I was bored but because I had to break from the narrative to think, reflect and feel.

Open Water is also a love story. But it’s not simply a “will they, won’t they” romance, it’s a novel that interrogates what love really means. I must quote the author’s own thoughts on love and vulnerability here (emphasis mine):

There’s a level of vulnerability which love demands. To ask someone to see you is to ask someone to see all of you and trusting someone with all of you can be difficult. To see all this beauty and rhythm and joy but also to see your uglier parts, your pain, your grief. But it’s wonderful when it does happen, when you are no longer being looked at, but being seen.

The difference between what it is to be looked at and to be seen is the central theme of the book. And it’s not exclusive to the romantic arc, either. Whilst Azumah Nelson may put you in the shoes of the main character by using the pronoun “you”, the protagonist is explicitly a Black male living in London, who is faced with the hostilities of a racist society. In fact, by making “you” the protagonist, we are the ones who are forced to face what that hostility. We are the ones who experience what it is to be looked at as a Black person.

This is a book that will stay with you for longer than it takes you to read it.