Drew Magary is one of the funniest writers on the whole damn Internet. NO ONE DENIES THIS. I’ve been reading his stuff on Deadspin for awhile, and when it comes to humor, the guy always delivers. I particularly enjoy the “anecdotes” from Fake Robert Evans, Magary’s exaggerated caricature of the infamous real-life Hollywood producer.
So when I heard he wrote a novel (his first), I had to give it a look. And as it turns out, The Postmortal is pretty good, though it’s a departure from Magary’s familiar comical voice. It lays out a dystopian future where scientists have discovered a cure for human aging and death of natural causes. However, the Four Horsemen remain in play: People can still die of violent carnage of all sorts. And do they ever.
Magary puts in some funny bits, but when the book is serious, which is often, it’s deadly serious. (Sorry, no more puns. I promise.) I can say, without revealing too much, that the story does not end well for the denizens of this fictional future world.
The sudden introduction of The Cure — not the English New Wave band, but a drug that “freezes” people in their current physical age — sends the masses to dizzying heights of folly in no time at all. Their behavior ranges from silly (such as trips to Vegas where patients are administered The Cure in over-the-top, baptism-like rituals) to horrifying (like when a woman gives her 18-month-old daughter the drug, halting her at that age) to Twilight Zone bizarre (at one point John Farrell, the main character, physically appears to be the same age as his son).
The biggest beef I had with this book was the fact that every time Farrell (a selfish and guarded man) resolves to lead a better life and trust his feelings of love for another person, something terrible happens. It seemed a bit contrived in that respect.
But really, what happens to the characters is incidental. (Even the protagonist’s name seems generic and inconsequential.) The novel is at its best when it examines how the absence of aging could conceivably affect human institutions and morals. This is frequently spelled out in “news articles” that Farrell archives for personal reasons, which steer much of the narrative.
In the scenario Magary dreams up, The Cure impacts everything. A humanistic religion called the Church of Man forms and converts millions. Millions more join a sadistic countercultural movement that resists The Cure and fetishizes death. But most folks simply follow their basest desires with reckless abandon. Even though these people have all the time of the world, so many of them just live for the moment, with little thought of the consequences their actions might bring about tomorrow.
This near-absence of aging has geopolitical implications as well. The government of already-crowded China bans the drug, locks down its citizenry, and takes some extreme population-control measures. The Russians build up an army that’s so massive it strains to hold together. And in the years immediately following the introduction of The Cure, the United States devolves into hedonism and excess.
One other interesting aspect of this story is that although it spans several decades, very little innovation takes place. With the exception of Cure-related breakthroughs, technology and commerce essentially remain in stasis. It seems that when you take away aging, there’s really no incentive to move civilization forward.
I finished this book around the same time Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs died, and I remember seeing in more than a few eulogies this excerpt of a commencement address he gave a few years ago at Stanford University:
“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away.”
The Postmortal reveals what humanity looks like when people defy that critical change agent. And after reading the book, I can say I’m happier to inhabit a reality in which, as author Adam Hochschild put it, “Work is hard. Distractions are plentiful. And time is short.”