Choose (after)life

Interview with Sum author David Eagleman

First published in The List, here.

Brian Eno composed a score for it. Stephen Fry sent sales rocketing when he mentioned it on Twitter and Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker and Miranda Richardson have been recorded reading from it. Kirstin Innes meets David Eagleman, author of Sum, one of 2009’s most celebrated books.

In the afterlife, you’re allowed to be whoever you want to be. So you decide to be a neuroscientist, who spends his days thinking big, big thoughts about the endless mysteries and possibilities of life. You have an idea for a book composed of 40 very short stories, each positing a different idea about what happens after you die. In one afterlife, people sit in a waiting room equipped with vending machines until the last person who remembers them on Earth speaks their name for the last time. In another, you’re confronted by all the other possible versions of yourself, everyone you could have been. It’s a very simple concept, but people like it.

Six months after your book’s publication, you’re performing sections of it live on stage at the Sydney Opera House, while Brian Eno conducts an orchestra in the score he composed, inspired by your book. Nine months after publication, a famous British man tweets a message about it to all of his followers and your sales go up 6000%. A movement, possibilianism, is inspired by your book. It is translated into 16 different languages and all over the world people are touched and changed by your little book of little stories.
In the afterlife, given the choice, I want to be David Eagleman; particularly as, despite his intimidating resume, in conversation the author of Sum: Forty Tales From The Afterlives he fizzes with the enthusiasm of a particularly imaginative teenage boy.

‘I spent my adult life as a scientist, and science is, essentially, the most successful approach we have to try and understand the vast mysteries around us,’ he says, straight off, when I ask him to explain the genesis of Sum. ‘And yet, when you get to the end of the pier of science, you realise that what we don’t know vastly outstrips what we do know. There are always wonderful mysteries to confront. What has always surprised me when I walk into a bookstore is the number of books that you can find that are written with certainty. The authors tell some story as though it’s true, but they don’t have any evidence that it is true!’

It’s important to note here that Eagleman understands everything as a story – that he sees the narratives propounded by religions and by the ‘new atheists’ (Richard Dawkins et al) as equally narrow-minded and frustrating.

‘That’s all anyone ever hears now, Dawkins versus the Discovery Institute. On the one hand, you have the religious believers, who are absolutely certain in what they believe – on the other, you have these people who have written these fantastic, and very important, books, but … OK, if you’re an atheist, that means you don’t think there is anything left that’s bigger than you, or anything more mysterious, there are no questions left to be answered, we’ve got it all figured out. And that’s not terribly satisfying. People wouldn’t even go into science unless there was something much bigger to be discovered, something that is transcendent. Certainty, about anything, is an absurd position to take. You stop anyone who grew up in a religious tradition in the street and they’ll say, yeah, sure, they can kind of imagine what Heaven looks like. But ask them basic questions like “OK, and how old is everyone?”, and it all just stops making sense!’

The reception Sum has received could conceivably intimidate potential readers. One critic said it ‘fulfils the contemporary longing for a secular holy book’, while Googling ‘possibilian’, the position Eagleman invented to explain his belief system, throws up the beginnings of a worldwide movement. Reading the book in one gulp is, indeed, an overwhelming experience, but the many superlatives thrown at the book, and at Eagleman, perhaps distract attention from the very human stories he has to tell. Why does he think that there’s been this overwhelming response?

‘I think maybe people just appreciate somebody saying hey, you know what, let’s have a celebration of our ignorance and talk about all the things we don’t know. I’ve been calling this whole exercise “shining a flashlight around the possibility space.”

‘None of the stories are meant to be taken seriously, of course, they’re all just meant to be funny and interesting mental stretches, but the exercise is meant to be taken seriously. I’m just saying, hey, why don’t we try shining the beam around, instead of focussing on this one little tiny part which is the Islamo-Judao-Christian tradition and then, over here there’s the Eastern traditions. They make very tiny spots in this sort of space of bigger stories that you could be telling.’

Perhaps, as much as anything else, Sum chimes with people because it stretches muscles in the brain we leave unused all too often these days. One story, called ‘Angst’ (and pungently aware of the freight of this particular poor-me Noughties buzzword), posits the theory that our consciounesses are actually those of great beings concerned with the workings of the universe and millenia, taking soothing vacations in human minds where we ‘care only about a meeting of the eyes, a glimpse of bare flesh … the orientation of a houseplant, the arrangement of hair.’

These stories bring perspective. They may, even, to borrow one of those superlatives, be life-changing.

David Eagleman will be discussing Sum with Richard Holloway at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, on Wed 11 Nov, accompanied by readings of some of the stories from Sum recorded by Jarvis Cocker, Nick Cave and Stephen Fry and excerpts from Brian Eno’s music inspired by the book. Sum is out now, published by Canongate.

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