The Life of the World to Come

The Life of the World to Come

A Novel

Book - 2016
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Leo Brice is dead, in a sense (not the traditional one). When the neurotic law student meets his cosmic match in Fiona Haeberle, an impulsive spirit and burgeoning soap star, all seems well--the two fall fast in love, and spend three years navigating their twenties in wide-eyed wonder. But once the fantastical woman who had defined his future bolts to pursue a fantasy life of her own, Leo is forced to come to terms with a reality that more closely resembles an epilogue than the story he'd hoped it might be. Now a junior death row advocate, Leo immerses himself in the esoteric world of his condemned client, a born-again Georgia inmate named Michael Tiegs. As both men become consumed by the question of an afterlife--and as Leo becomes increasingly confused by his own future and past--Tiegs' fate hangs in the balance. Leaning on his friends and grappling with his memories, Leo must try to save a client who may not want to be saved after all, even as he struggles to confrontthe prospect of his own mortality.

At once obsessively readable, philosophically probing, and verbally acrobatic, The Life of the World to Come announces Dan Cluchey as a fresh new voice in fiction.

Publisher: New York : St. Martin's Press, [2016]
Edition: First edition
ISBN: 9781250077165
Branch Call Number: CLUC
Characteristics: 244 pages ; 22 cm


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Mar 20, 2017

The Life of the World to Come, deftly written but not without numerous flaws, presents Leo Brice, narrator, as a Jew in a state of true love. This state makes him superior to all his friends, who have never experienced true love, else they would have suffered, as he has suffered, from the complications that arise from true love.

So who is the focus for Leo's true love? Her name is Fiona, who Leo describes early on as "a dazzling cartoon mouse of a woman." It's descriptions like this that have made the editors at St. Martin's Press gaga. "Gaga" means more than "carried away by enthusiasm"; it also means "mentally confused." After a complication in Leo's true love arises, the story doles out page after page of Leo's mental confusion. This confusion, however, is transformed by clever strokes of the pen into a virtue. Leo remains the superior man.

The wild and wacky description of Fiona, which is not validated later in the story, is just a sample of a style that some, perhaps many, readers would find off-putting. The ending of chapter three, for another sample, includes this wild description: "I mushed the icy, stupefied dogs of my body into motion, and ran to the open window overlooking the city below." Earlier in the same chapter, there's this: "…I gathered the churning lumps from inside my organs and secreted them out as words."

Once a story turns to true love, nothing else matters. A feeble aside enables Leo to pass the bar exam and for his first act of representing a client, he is assigned to seek a defense for Michael Tiegs, a man on death row hunting for eternal life in the world's religions. The conversations between Leo and Michael make a poor diversion from Leo's suffering in true love, but Tiegs serves two purposes, each crucial to the overarching story. First, the fact comes out that Leo is a Jew. Second, it is up to Michael to point out that per Jewish tradition, the Jew who has lived a good life enters (after death) Olam Haba, which means, "the World to Come," the key element of the title for this story.

A delight of The Life of the World to Come is the motif of President James Buchanan, who pops up throughout the book. In one instance, Leo Brice offers the opinion that Buchanan couldn't envision a world without himself. Ironically, the same could be said for Brice.

Another motif, one of a serious bent, came into play at critical junctures and thus rose to the level of lesson learned from the story. The motif: "You don't get to know everything."

A third motif is core to Leo's true love. The story begins with Fiona saying, "I have a theory about the universe that, if true, will just blow the lid off everything." This theory pops up again and again and finally at the end of the story. Fiona's theory wasn't valid, but that didn't matter in true love. This theory was what Leo most remembered about her. But it was more than that: Fiona's theory of the universe was Fiona.

The premise of Fiona's theory of the universe is that time "is infinite in both directions…infinite into the past and the future." She then goes on to say, "…so if time is infinite, then everything that could possibly happen in the universe—say, for example, the formation of the Earth—has to happen, not just once, but an infinite number of times." This theory later becomes grounds for Leo to think that his true love will forever "recur" after he dies. Each recurrence, though, would include the heart-wrenching complications of his true love. What is to be gained by this theory?

There's an inherent flaw in Fiona's theory in that "everything that could possibly happen…has to happen." The key word here is "possibly," which means, contrary to how Fiona and Leo view the theory, their love would occur only once in the imagined infinity. If Leo had recognized this, he might have had the strength to throw off the self-pity for the hard times and relish the good, for this would be the only time this good would ever manifest.

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