Jaroslav Kalfar’s first novel, “Spaceman of Bohemia” (2017), was about a vaguely bewildered Czech professor of astrophysics who blasts into space on an urgent mission. Once up there, his wife back on Earth leaves him and (worse?) a giant, hairy spider latches onto his spaceship. The spider, unlike his wife, can read his mind.
The first half of “Spaceman of Bohemia,” which was a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke award for science fiction and is being made into a film with Adam Sandler and Carey Mulligan, is inventive and charming: It makes you smile. The book reminded me of Victor Pelevin’s short, absurdist and moving Russian space novel, “Omon Ra” (1998). Pelevin’s book is about a soul sitting in a tin can, and it is ripe for rediscovery.
In the second half of “Spaceman in Bohemia,” the spider probes into deeper matters, such as the professor’s history and the Czech Republic’s, and the novel slowly grows leaden. The English writer Max Beerbohm said some writers were weight lifters, while others juggled with golden balls. He believed there were too many weight lifters. What was alive about Kalfar’s debut wasn’t the heavy lifting. He’s a tinkerer.
Kalfar’s new, and lesser, novel suffers the same fate as his first. “A Brief History of Living Forever” has an electric start, but after about 80 pages I wanted to slide it under a pile of magazines.
The novel is set circa 2030. In America, the authoritarian right has jettisoned democracy, surveillance drones sweep the sky, deportation officers in skull masks patrol the subways, Florida has been nearly wiped out by tsunamis, there is talk of cannibals and doomsday cults running amok and … whatever. This critic feels as if he’s perpetually wandering, lately, through a mall bookstore called Dystopias R Us. The bookstore has locked its doors and will not let him out. Aiieeee!
Kalfar’s dystopia feels thirdhand. Happily, he has other things to work with. His heroine, Adela Slavikova, lives in a Czech village. On the novel’s first page, she learns she has not long, perhaps a year, to live. Her doctor, “a great poet of the macabre,” doesn’t give her the option of denial. He is determined to tell her exactly how awful it’s going to be: “crumbling bones, renal failure, death by brain bleed or fungal infection.”
Not long after, Adela is drunk on box wine in her bathroom, sliding off the toilet, as one does, when a carp she is keeping in the tub begins to speak to her. “Find your daughter, go, go now,” it says. “Idiot. Your destiny awaits in the New World.”
Adela gave a daughter up for adoption at birth, and she decides to go to America — the world according to carp — to find her. Kalfar’s inventiveness rolls as if on wheels. Adela flies on an ultra-budget airline where the seats have no cushions, each passenger is limited to one cup of water and you have to pay in cash to use the toilet. In New York, at MoMA, she sees a life-size hologram of Vincent van Gogh pop up and chastise a boy for touching a painting.
There’s a slight tentativeness to Kalfar’s written English (he was born in the Czech Republic, and immigrated to the United States at 15) that endears his protagonists, and renders them believable. He makes a virtue of a limitation. He has a Kurt Vonnegut-like satirical touch, at his best, as well as Vonnegut’s interest in science. He also has an old-world melancholy, beneath the humor, that will put some readers in mind of writers like Mordecai Richler and Jerzy Kosinski.
Jim Harrison, asked by The Paris Review if he had any advice for young writers, said: “Just start at Page 1 and write like a son of a bitch.” This seems to be Kalfar’s method; he’s using his feelers. But the second half of “A Brief History of Living Forever” gets plotty, and heavy, as if it were written by another writer altogether. He’s no longer writing like a son of a bitch; he’s writing like Clive Cussler.
Adela finds her daughter in America and they have a brief, joyful reunion. That night, Adela dies. But in 2030, dead is becoming the new old. Her daughter works for an evil biotech company called VITA, which is working to eliminate disease, upload human minds to the cloud and render humans — select, wealthy ones, at any rate — immortal. Adela’s body dies but she doesn’t peg out; her mind keeps whirring.
She has been dropped inside a version of her daughter’s consciousness, as if that consciousness were a laptop. She’s a ghost in the machine. Her sentience blinks like a cursor. She’s a disembodied, pixel-saturated mom in the bardo. In her ability to access another’s thoughts, she’s not unlike the spider in “Spaceman in Bohemia.”
This is a Pirandellian twist: Whose mind is it, anyway? “Was it so unreasonable to proceed with this horrific violation of privacy, to invade her online realm of information?” Adela asks. “Well, I was dead. Did such moral quandaries even apply to me?”
The comic (and wicked) potentialities of an undead mother being dropped into her daughter’s private thoughts, in incognito mode, are limitless. You expect one shock after another, as well as the sweet and sour chiming of their consanguinity. Kalfar doesn’t really go there. Adela doesn’t deal in whatever uncomfortable truths she discovers about her flesh and blood.
The rest of the novel combines flashbacks to Adela’s past — her youthful political activism, her attempts to make a film, and an awareness of the way men kept smacking into her windshield and muddying her view — with scenes of her two children trying to rescue her body from a black-ops warehouse in Florida, in order to give it a proper burial. There are bad guys with guns, and suddenly we’re in a Jason Statham movie. Kalfar’s wit has burned off entirely.
“Whatever age you are, you still die young,” Ali Smith wrote in her 2020 novel “Summer.” Kalfar’s novel proposes that there’s only one thing worse than disintegrating. It’s being trapped in a mind you can never click off.
The post Welcome to Immortality. Your Body Can’t Come With You. appeared first on New York Times.