We hear about Ben Mendelssohn before we meet him. He is an epilogist by trade: a "righter," someone who polishes other people's texts to give them the best possible ending. He was deeply in love with his wife Marian, a love which did not stop when she lost her life in "bizarre aeronautical circumstances" (p. 11); that is, she fell from the top of a Ferris wheel. On what would have been Marian's fortieth birthday, Ben throws a party in celebration; his friends discover that he has spent the last year working out, in order to give himself the toned body that he could not give Marian during her lifetime. To the assembled group, this seems a clear example of Ben's dedication to honoring Marian's memory. Then Ben shoots himself dead.
It turns out that all the exercise had a much more practical purpose: what Ben could not give Marian in life, he seeks to give her in death. His gamble half pays off: rather than being annihilated, Ben finds himself in the Other World—though it is like no afterlife he may have anticipated, being largely akin to a carefully managed earthly existence—but Marian is not there to meet him, despite his having been announced as a new arrival. Ben sets out to find her, enlisting the help of a deceased detective named Samuel Sutton (nicknamed "the Mad Hop"), and tracking down the members of his family, in the hope that someone, somewhere, has seen Marian.
There is a great deal to enjoy about The World of the End, Ofir Touché Gafla's debut novel, first published in Hebrew in 2004, and now available in Mitch Ginsburg's fine English translation. The Other World itself is an intriguing creation: it is explicitly non-denominational, and ultimately just as mysterious to its inhabitants as was the world of the living. There is no disease, and room enough to accommodate everyone who has ever lived in more or less whatever post-mortem occupation they wish. But at the same time, existence in the Other World is highly regimented; and it's not suited to everyone: one of the functions programmed into each individual's "godget"—a kind of personal remote control for the afterlife—is to induce eternal sleep in the owner. So there is the sense of almost limitless possibility for story and drama within the Other World; and humor, too—such as the notion of Mozart being on the run from all his admirers who want him to compose a new requiem, or Marie Curie being an avid watcher of ER (the Other World's technology keeping pace with that of Earth).
Alongside Ben Mendelssohn's story, Gafla continues to narrate events in the living world, and he creates a set of memorable secondary characters for us to follow. These include Ann, a misanthropic nurse who is at first dedicated to caring for her patients because it means they'll have to endure more of the existence she so hates; and then makes peace with the world, which causes her to start helping her patients leave it instead. Or there's Rafael Kolanski, the irascible artist who hates the idea of portraits ("Listen to me—don't document a thing! Not a thing! The more a person documents, the faster his memory betrays him" [p. 13]). Such characters tend toward being larger-than-life, but mostly there's also an underlying rationale to their personalities that keeps them grounded in a sense of reality. This balance makes for some electrifying reading—entertainment and amusement coupled with the feeling that we never quite know where these individuals may go next.
And yet, and yet . . . for all that The World of the End's parts can be delightful, they don't quite add up to a satisfying whole. At the core of the novel is a mystery plot, the mystery of what has happened to Marian Mendelssohn. That plot plays out in the worlds of both the living and the dead: the possibility exists that Ben's wife is still alive, as there's a Marian out there who looks to be having an affair with a man she met online. Circumstances then lead various characters to converge on Ann's hospital. There are a number of issues with the way this all works out: some of the subplots tie back satisfactorily into the main narrative, but others peter out frustratingly. As the clues to the mystery's solution lie mainly in the living world, Ben cannot take much of an active role; it often seems as though he's just shunting between one deceased relative and another, to be told the next piece of information. And the actual solution itself is pretty weak sauce for a mystery, a disappointment following the parade that comes before it.
Leave the mystery to one side, though, and some more interesting aspects emerge from Gafla's novel. Endings are one of its recurring themes, a natural enough preoccupation for someone in Ben's line of work; "People don't fear death," he says at one point, "they fear a bad ending" (p. 323). This theme comes through perhaps a little too sporadically, but it is clear that Ben sees his time in the Other World as a chance to write a good ending of his own (other characters, such as Ann, may also be seen as finding their own approaches to "ending").
Words are also important, one of the fundamentals of Ben's relationships: he worked with writing, Marian was an English teacher; and, when Ben runs into an old flame named Keren (a book critic) in the Other World, their dialogue becomes a brittle rhetorical dance, as one senses it might have been in life:
"My psychologist said that in a dependent relationship the dependent individual cultivates the other side's dependence to the same extent that the latter does."
"She would know, considering her hourly rate."
"Don't be crude."
"Judging by what you say, I've been a lot worse than that."
"True, but like it or not, you'll always be the legendary ex."
"Yes, you. You know damn well what you're worth, and I'm sure you won't be the least bit surprised to find out that all your successors were just pale imitations of the real thing." (p. 222)
Used like this, words put a distance between Ben and the rest of the world; an intimate relationship becomes instead a performance. We see another example of this at the start of the novel, when we hear what Ben's friends think they know of him, which of course turns out to be only true in part; the "real" Ben keeps himself to himself. At novel's end, his web of words returns, but the difference is that, after all he's been through, he is now reaching out rather than pushing away. Finally, Ben Mendelssohn may make himself heard.
David Hebblethwaite was born in the north of England, went to university in the Midlands, and now lives in the south. Along the way, he has read a lot of books, and has plenty more to go. He blogs at Follow the Thread.