The Postmortal. By Drew Magary.
Jonathan P. Lewis | Troy University, Covington-East Atlanta
Penguin, 2011. 384 pages, $15.00. ISBN 978-0143119821
In Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot-49, Oedipa Maas famously asks, “Shall I project a world?” (82). In his first novel, The Postmortal, Drew Magary answers her question by imagining a world where aging has been cured and projecting a world of horrors that results. It is a strong first novel that engages the genres of the speculative and dystopian novels through a compelling modernization of the epistolary novel.
Rather than through a series of letters, Magary’s protagonist, John Farrell, narrates his story in a series of blog posts. Magary, who writes for the seminal sports blog Deadspin and is co-creator of the humor site Kissing Suzy Kolber, began his blogging career on a now moth-balled site called Father Knows Shit, an uproarious account of his early adventures in parenting. He makes the transition from blog to novel in a natural and logical manner through the structuring of the novel’s seventy-nine chapters. Each section of the novel is short, perhaps a thousand words, and the first-person perspective lends itself to a confessional style. The quick bursts of narrative detail the downward spiral of John Farrell’s life from a bored tax lawyer to “End Specialist,” which is the novel’s euphemism for assassins who terminate the lives of those who choose to die and those whom the government deems too much of a drain on society’s resources.
Unlike the traditional epistolary novel, the sections are not addressed to any specific reader, but Farrell’s voice has a frailty, vulnerability, and immaturity that works especially well in short bursts. In one of the novel’s most moving sections, Magary describes the moment when Farrell runs into his first crush, a woman named Alison. This section, entitled “We’ll see you again,” is quite similar in tone and language to many of Magary’s autobiographical blog posts. For example, Farrell remembers,
sometimes I got to sit next to her, which was both ecstasy and agony. I’d get to see her in full, and smell her. If she was wearing a skirt, I’d get to see that little crease running up the side of her thigh that made every neuron in my body flare. It took everything in my power to not grab her in the middle of class and consume her entirely. This is the problem with eighth-grade boys. (136)
In this Deadspin post, Farrell’s voice is not too far removed from Magary’s:
The Royal Wedding is tomorrow morning… and I’ll watch some of it because Kate Middleton is very pretty and if you so much as harm a hair on her head you will reap the fucking WHIRLWIND. She is a wild colt who must be tamed and her hair smells like a mountain spring and just one smile from her could end all the wars. It’s true.
That Magary and his protagonist are not dissimilar in voice is not a problem for the novel—rather, it is part of the growth of this promising new writer.
The novel’s dystopic breakdown arises from the completion of something akin to the Methusela Project’s MPrize; the novel’s Aubrey de Grey, a scientist named Graham Otto, isolates and deactivates the aging gene but is later murdered by a terrorist group opposed to the legalization of the cure. The tension between the cured, those determined to stay young for as long as possible (cancer, cirrhosis, and other diseases still kill), and the organics, those dedicated to living without the cure, turns deadly at several points in the novel including terror attacks on doctors who administer the cure on cured individuals. As in Margaret Atwood in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, genetic engineering serves as the vehicle to interrogate humanity’s fear of dying and our contemporary and illusory desire for complete control of ourselves and our self images, a desire fulfilled through plastic surgery and records of ourselves on sites like Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, et cetera. The Postmortal offers a compelling examination of humanity’s paradoxical mental fragility and arrogant need to have our existence validated by others.