Title: The World of the End
Author: Ofir Touché Gafla
Translation: from Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg
Published: First published 2004, Tor edition published 25 June 2013
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: mystery, fantasy
Ben Mendelsshon is a righter. In intellectual circles he’s known as an epilogist. What he does is ‘right’ other writers’ work by write endings for them. But the one ending Ben cannot handle is the death of his wife Marian in a freak accident. The couple were deeply in love and had what seemed like the perfect marriage. Unwilling to give up on it, Ben commits suicide in the hope of being reunited with Marian.
The afterlife he finds himself in is neither heaven nor hell. It’s just another world – the Other World – where all the dead keep on living in something similar to a standard, westernised city life, with a few decidedly odd differences, like the fact that there are no clothes so everyone walks around naked. Each individual is given an apartment based on the date and time they died, but when Ben goes to Marian’s apartment, he learns that if was left abandoned.
Desperate to find his wife but clueless as to how to do it, Ben enlists the help of Mad Hop, a passionate detective (whose nickname is based on his favourite fictional detectives – Marple, Dalgliesh, Holmes and Poirot). While they track down Marian, interlinking narratives play out in the world of the living. A famous artist who was once asked to paint Marian’s portrait has a stroke and ends up in a coma. His wife Bessie remains hopeful that he will wake up, while a socially dysfunctional nurse tries to convince Bessie to switch off the life support, as she does with all patients in that condition. The nurse, Anne, has fallen deeply in love with Ben, after seeing him in the gym on her daily walk home from work, and his unexplained absence upsets her.
In a more romantic love story, a man and woman begin an online romance based on their shared love of Salman Rushdie’s writing. Inexplicably, the woman is named Marian and recently divorced her bastard of a husband. Her presence is just as perplexing for the reader as her absence is for Ben. Is Marian dead or alive? Nothing quite makes sense.
It’s a convoluted mystery with loads of characters (I’ve mentioned fewer than half of them), but the story is actually fairly easy to follow. Gafla starts out with a bunch of seemingly disparate narrative threads and slowly begins to weave them together into a story that’s much bigger than it seemed at first. Ben’s search for Marian is still at the heart of it, but other characters’ lives and actions play into it in myriad ways that only the reader – who sees all the POVs – has the scope to appreciate.
It avoids being confusing at least partly because Gafla writes vivid, memorable characters. It’s clearly one of the things he loves most about writing fiction, and one of his greatest skills in the craft. His characters all have their own stories and quirks that are interesting in themselves, full of love, loathing, humour, horror, weirdness and wonder. So, when a character suddenly pops up several chapters after they were first introduced, they tend to be easily recognisable even if you’ve forgotten their names.
Gafla’s not quite so good when it comes to world-building though. Compared to our world, The Other World is a utopia of peace, technological advancement and immortality but it wouldn’t stand up to much scrutiny. The enforced nudity supposedly makes people “infinitely more trusting, developing a reputable, honest society where costumes, masks, and other props are unnecessary”, but it seems impractical. I’d want shoes and sports bras at the very least. And since people still put on plays and other forms of entertainment, what’s wrong with costumes? Also, it’s very fucking odd, but it seems like everyone adjusts to it far too easily after living in a world that requires clothing.
Another world-building issue is the godget – a remote control that each person carries on a strap around their neck. The godget has six buttons, each of which is used to control some aspect of your existence – making it your favourite time of day, effecting your preferred mode of sleep (dreams, no dreams, number of hours), providing updates on the previous world. The way it works is really stupid. For example, button two controls your personal climate, so you click the button once for snowy, twice for cold but not rainy, three times for cold and rainy, and so on with the final option at twelve clicks. How does anyone remember how all these options? A technologically advanced world like this one would have come up with a much more user-friendly device. And if they can give you recordings of your ENTIRE life to watch, how can they still be using video tapes? It’s clearly stated that the Other World advances with the world of the living, so there’s absolutely no excuse for tapes.
However, I would say that you shouldn’t worry too much about the world-building. The World of the End is the kind of novel where that particular lapse in logic can be frowned at and then shrugged off because it’s not the focus of the book. The Other World is there to allow a certain story to play out, rather than as a serious speculation of how the afterlife might function (although it’s an infinitely better idea than heaven or hell).
What you do get then, are ideas on what kind of life you might lead in the Other World, because it’s really just another kind of life. Without currency or any need to work, people tend to do things because they’re passionate about them, like Mad Hop who has “always investigated for the right reasons, unadulterated curiosity. Nothing satisfies me more than the clean annihilation of question marks.” Famous artists, writers and musicians continue to produce new work, often using the technology of later centuries. People can carry their obsessions from one world to the next, they can change with the times (the technology of the present is available to all the dead of the past, for example), they can opt for eternal sleep if they can’t handle eternity. And face with eternity, people’s relationships have changed. Ben has to face up to the possibility that Marian might not want to be with him anymore, since death nullified their marriage vows. And if he finds her, they will eventually part ways anyway.
Admittedly, these ideas aren’t explored in great depth because it would detract from the main story and there just isn’t enough room. As you might have noticed, there’s a lot going on here, and later in the novel there’s also a lot of musing on Ben’s predicament. There’s a metafictional touch when Mad Hop suggests that Ben’s anguish comes not from the fact that he hasn’t found Marian but from the possibility that he might not find her – he’s a man who crafted endings for a living, and he assumed his suicide would either lead him to Marian (a happy ending) or oblivion (the end to all his stories). He did not imagine that Marian could go missing while life went on in new ways. I quite liked this and some of the other little musings by various characters, but this is also where the books takes a turn for the worse.
At the start, it’s a tightly-written, clever story. After the halfway mark, it starts to unravel. It gets a bit long-winded, the living-world narratives keep expanding, and the search for Marian is too unstructured. Mad Hop doesn’t seem like a particularly good detective. He doesn’t do much investigating himself; most of the time he shows Ben investigative paths, like sending him to speak to dead relatives that Marian may have contacted. Then, there are times when Ben happens to mention key information that he didn’t know would be useful. Each time, Mad Hop gets angry at Ben for holding back, but Ben doesn’t hold back; he just doesn’t know what’s important because he doesn’t know how the Other World works. It should be Mad Hop’s responsibility to ask the right questions.
I was starting to worry that this initially wonderful book would leave me disappointed, but I was happy with the way it ended. It’s not exactly a nice, neat ending, but by this point in the book you should know not to expect one. What Gafla does throughout the novel is give us a sense of human life with all its complications, absurdities, joys and disappointments, and the ending is no different. He never descends into dreary realism – on the contrary, so much of this novel is totally bizarre – but he tends to balance happy resolutions with bad ones and non-existent ones. I quite like it and I’m glad I read this one. It’s something very different for both mystery and spec fic readers.