“I always tell myself the past only seems simpler because I’ve had time to process it. The only thing I can do right now is react”
This Is the Afterlife, by Jeff Chon, is a collection of fourteen short stories with thematic links around the effects of living in America, especially as someone who looks Asian. It provides an excellent evocation of place and of those who inhabit each space portrayed. Certain characters appear in several of the tales although this is understated, only noticeable to those paying attention. There are undercurrents of sadness such as the inevitability of once close childhood friendships fizzling away into distant acquaintance. The lasting effects of school bullying are explored through aging and reunion.
Racism and bigotry raise their ugly heads as does the manner in which these are typically dealt with – few wishing to make a fuss within a neighbourhood they must continue to live within. The American fetish with those who have fought for their country – ‘thank you for your service’ – appears in a number of entries, along with the reality of how war can ruin participants psychologically.
Many of the young people who feature grow into an adulthood they feel diminishes former expectations. There is a great deal of drug taking, perhaps as an escape or to fit in with peers.
Other recurring themes include difficulties in understanding across generations. They Belong Here Now is a particularly shattering tale of adopted children who wish to reconnect with their place of birth. Two Korean born young adults who have experienced racism growing up in America try to make new lives for themselves back in their home country. They take on names they feel better fit what they were born to be. Their loving parents naturally feel rejected, but as much because they truly believe they were offering something better, unable to see their white saviour actions as anything negative.
The opening story, P.A.L.A.D.I.N., mocks a small town religious community as they try to save their young people from the evils of popular music. Subsequent stories explore what becomes of such young people as they escape to college or the world of work. These are typically quite bleak depictions. Life continues to throw curve balls as they age. Parents are perplexed and disappointed by how their grown children behave despite advice and best efforts.
The dead feature but perhaps the book title is more a reference to how life must continue beyond milestones that were supposed to lead to more ease or fulfilment. There is no happy ever after. People are let down, although mostly by themselves.
The stories may be bleak but they are interesting to read, offering food for thought on attitudes and prejudices. The writing flows and the characters are well formed and developed. A serious take down of the supposed land of the free but one that provides sufficient entertainment to keep the casual reader engaged.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sagging Meniscus Press.