Afterlives (Pierce)

The Afterlives
Thomas Pierce, 2018
Penguin Publishing
448 pp.

Jim Byrd died.


For a few minutes.

The diagnosis: heart attack at age thirty. Revived with no memory of any tunnels, lights, or angels, Jim wonders what—if anything—awaits us on the other side.

Then a ghost shows up. Maybe. Jim and his new wife, Annie, find themselves tangling with holograms, psychics, messages from the beyond, and a machine that connects the living and the dead.

As Jim and Annie journey through history and fumble through faith, they confront the specter of loss that looms for anyone who dares to fall in love. Funny, fiercely original, and gracefully moving, The Afterlives will haunt you. In a good way. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Spartanburg, South Carolina, USA
Education—M.F.A., University of Virginia
Awards—National Book Foundation 5 under 35 Award
Currently—lives in near Charlottesville, Virginia

Thomas Pierce was born and raised in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He received a Master's in creative writing from the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, where he still lives with his wife and daughters.

Pierce spent five years with National Public Radio as a blogger, writer, and producer, work that he says has informed his fiction, particularly his appreciation for "clarity," as well as and the need to be "interesting and engaging."

When you write a radio script, there’s software you can use with a little clock in the upper right-hand corner that tells you the piece’s length in terms of time.… One of my short stories might steal forty-two minutes from your life. I want to use your time wisely.

Pierce's acclaimed short story collection, Hall of Small Mammals, was published in 2015, eventually winning him the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 Award. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic, Oxford American, and elsewhere.

Afterlives, Pierce's debut novel, was released in 2018. (Adapted from online sources, including the publisher and The Paris Review. Retrieved 2/4/2018.)

Book Reviews
In Thomas Pierce’s warm and inventive debut novel, The Afterlives, reality is slippery, time is out of joint and profound disorientation is a feature of daily existence.… Pierce is brilliant at painting an entire life—encompassing passion, missed opportunities, tragedy—in a few pages. He also isn’t afraid to pose the biggest questions: How do we deal with loss? What are the limits and possibilities of love? What is the nature of time?.… Pierce has worked … magic, connecting us to fictional characters who seem, somehow, 100 percent real.
Daryl Gregory - New York Times Book Review

[T]ouching, thought-provoking.… Part love story and part speculative sci-fi, it’s a meandering, albeit meaningful, look at marriage, technology and ghosts—those of the otherworldly type that may exist but also specters of our past that influence our present.
USA Today

Excellent… The Afterlives is sprinkled with "Black Mirror"-style futuristic touches.… The [novel] is as much a dialogue and an attempt at reconciliation between faith and science as it is a contemplation of the opportunities of second chances.

[A] free-spirited lark that questions how people live with the presence of death.… Pierce’s breezy style only partially saves the overlong novel from a lack of urgency affecting almost all of its numerous story lines. When it gels, the novel manages a rare and significant clarity about the effects of death on the living….
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review) Pierce has a gift for probing the limits of the psychic realm to uncover the benevolence that manifests from metaphysical insight. Truly remarkable.
Library Journal

[Pierce] considers life, death, and what comes after.… Timeless questions. Tedious answers.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for The Afterlives … then take off on your own:

1. After his near brush with death (or his brush with near death?) Jim Byrd confesses to Annie that "I feel like maybe I've had a brain injury and didn't realize it." What does he mean? What's out whack? Do you begin to question Jim's perception of reality?

2. Jim is concerned that, even though technically dead, he has no memory of the other side: "No lights, no tunnels, no angels." Let's get down to the personal: What do you expect or hope to see on the "other side"? Have you had, or do you know of anyone who has had, a near death experience? How have they described it? Have you read Heaven Is for Real?

3. How do you describe Jim? Various readers say they found him irritating or not terribly engaging. Others found him funny and delightfully inquisitive. Where do you stand? Does the author bring him to life for you? What about Annie?

4. How would you describe Jim's religious beliefs at the beginning of the novel? After his heart attack, he sets off on a quest to find out what happens after death. With the HeartNet—literally the *power* of life and death—in his pocket, would a stronger traditional belief in the Judeo-Christian God have eased his heart (yep, pun intended)? This is a personal and highly subjective question, friends.

5. Describe Jim's hometown of Shula, N.C. Do you find it funny, with its hologram chickens …or slightly appalling, with its "boutique virus" …or both …or neither?

6. What is Sally Zinker's "daisy theory"? Can you explain it? Does it explain the strange occurrences Byrd experiences? It challenges Jim's concept of reality; does it challenge yours?

7. What role do the stories of Shula's previous residents play in the novel? Why does the author set them in the present tense? Which were your favorites?

8. (Follow-up to Question 7) What about Clara Lennox? In what way is her life a counterpoint to Jim's? A number of readers feel her story was actually more interesting than Jim and Annie's. What do you think?

9. Some reviewers (more than some) have found the book overlong, even tedious. Others say it took time but that eventually they were pulled in—all the way in. How did you experience reading Afterlives?

10. In a Vanity Fair interview, author Thomas Pierce said that most of us stay sane by trying "to avoid any thought of our own impermanence." Why don't Jim and Annie do likewise? What drives them in their quest?

11. Pierce is also interested in exploring the boundaries of technology. One of the questions posed in The Afterlives is the degree to which technology can hurt us as well as help us—holograms and AI, for example. How will we recognize the dangers, and at what point will we be able to turn back?

12. Ultimately, what do Jim and Annie come to understand about life and death? Do those two states have clear-cut boundaries? Or is everything truly more complicated than most of us believe?

13. In a book about matters of life and death, much has been made about the humor. What in particular did you find funny?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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