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Reassuring Mush about a Pointless Purgatory
on April 18, 2006
I read this because it was strongly urged upon my by a friend. It was a quick and painless read, but a waste of time. I will try to avoid spoilers.
It is about a saintly old codger named Eddie, who in the opening chapter dies heroically at the age of 83 attempting to save a child's life. (This, BTW, is exactly how I would like to die -- heroically, at the age of 83). He finds himself in a sort of afterlife, where he must meet five former mortals (all in some way connected to his earthly life) who will explain his past life to him, so that he can understand it better. Evidently, this routine of the five-explainers is something that every departed soul must endure (hence the title seemingly addressed to the generic reader), but it is a different five for everyone. Why it should always be five -- no more and no less --is apparently just an arbitrary decision of the author.
These five heavenly explainers serve as a framing device through wich the author tells us the story of Eddie's life, while still incorporating elements of Eddie's story that Eddie could not have known while alive. The revelations are often painful to Eddie. But apart from its usefulness as a non-linear storytelling device, it is hard to see the point of the purgatory that Eddie must endure, or of the phony wisdom that the explainers occasionally expound.
The overall lesson and theme is that everything is connected, and (in particular) that there were connections in Eddie's life that he was unaware of while alive. He learns, for instance, that his acts have, unbeknownst to him, caused tragedy for others, and that certain of his own fortunes and misfortunes were inextricably connected to each other. (Such latter revelations apparently make it easier for him to accept his misfortunes, but why it should matter now that he has reached the afterlife and his misfortunes are history is unclear). But the author states this connectedness lesson so broadly that it rings false. It may be true, ultimately, that all things are connected. But the universe is a vast and complex place, and (except by coincidence) everything cannot be connected in a way that a mere mortal will find meaningful.
Although the goal of Eddie's purgatory is a sort of enlightenment for Eddie, it does not seem to involve or require any kind of moral growth. As far as we can tell, Eddie never seems to actually done anything that the author regards as immoral. Eddie seemingly is not required to repent of anything, merely to understand. Even the tragedies Eddie learns he has unwittingly caused were not caused by any wrongdoing by Eddie, or, if his behavior was immoral, the author fails to make this clear or explain the moral rules on which his judgment was based. Indeed, it seemed to me rather unjust of these explainers to cause Eddie emotional pain by confronting him with tragedies he accidentally "caused" in the course of behavior that was not inherently wrong, and of which he is unaware until now. So even to the extent that they do inflict repentance and remorse on him (if that is the point) they are applying a skewed moral code in which right and wrong are judged on the basis of twists of fate and accidental consequences.
Although Eddie seems quite the saint and martyr, as far as we can tell, this has nothing to do with his arrival in Heaven. The author heavily implies that happened to him will happen to us all. Five people will explain things to us, we will then understand why our miserable lives had to be the way they were, then (apparently) we will find eternal happiness. This is very reassuring fantasy, and perhaps explains the books popularity. But it is not morally challenging, and it is not deep.
On the other hand, as relates to this life, the message seems potentially depressing and fatalistic. The moral can be read as "be satisfied with all your miseries, because they are a secret punishment for misdeeds you don't even know about."
If you want a far more insightful and morally relevant purgatory-explain-your-life tale (though one which literally takes place on Earth) try TIL WE HAVE FACES by CS Lewis.