What's in Store for Us if Death Is Just the Beginning?

Inconvenience and misery are largely absent from Ofir Touche Gafla’s 'World of the End,’ so why does it sound like such a frustrating place to spend eternity?

The World of the End, by Ofir Touché Gafla (translated from the original Hebrew, “Olam Hasof,” by Mitch Ginsburg) Tor Books, 368 pages, $25

What happens to people after they die? Where do they go, if they go anywhere at all? Do their souls get reincarnated? Is there an afterlife?

Such questions have preoccupied human beings since about the time the first one of them perished. Major religions, philosophers, writers and artists throughout the ages have tackled the issue of life after death, envisioning myriad concepts of what the sweet hereafter might have to offer and what one has to do to get there.

One recent addition to the varied takes of the beyond is Ofir Touché Gafla’s “The World of the End.” First published in Hebrew in 2004, Touché Gafla’s literary debut went on to win Israel’s 2005 Geffen Award for best fantasy/science fiction novel and the 2006 Kugel Prize for Hebrew literature, awarded by the city of Holon.

He has since written four other novels – the most recent of them, “Eshtonot” (Hebrew for “thoughts” or “mind”), came out this year – all of which explore such themes as the meaning of life and death, the fallibility of memory and the passing of time, and juxtapose these motifs with trippy elements of mystery and fantasy, as well as a healthy dash of wordplay.

“The World of the End,” a sci-fi-romance-mystery novel, uses the death of its protagonist as a launchpad for the creation of an alternate universe – a place called the Other World, to which humans are transported after they die. There, they have to acclimatize to a new set of rules, adapt to different, at times strange, technologies and – some readers may shudder at this – roam around as naked as the day they were born.

New inhabitants get a thorough introduction to the Other World on arrival. They learn that, in their new home, their old-world bodies have been upgraded or, as they are told upon entering the gates of their renewed existence, “disease is nonexistent, and health is no cause for concern” (even congenital defects are “excised” upon death); a microchip has been implanted in their brains to allow them to speak and understand hundreds of languages and dialects (despite this, residents have only 20 curse words at their disposal for those “rare moments of rage”); there is no currency – everything is free; everyone is vegetarian; housing is provided; the only means of transport is a 500-seat bus that shuttles through time and space; and there is plenty of entertainment, including video rental shops that stock “special tapes” chronicling individuals’ former lives.

Finally, there is the “godget” (in the Hebrew it is called the eloha, or God) – a gadget that Other World denizens wear around their necks and that allows them to set preferences for time of day or night, weather, sleep – it even allows people to opt out of the afterlife: Pressing a button seven times puts you in a state of eternal sleep. The godget provides news updates from the previous world and also includes a telefinger, which functions like a phone but is operated using fingerprints.

All in all, the Other World sounds pretty heavenly. Soon, however, readers and new residents learn that this seemingly utopian place – which at first glance appears to provide everything a person might want (well, except for a juicy steak) – is far from idyllic, and not much different from the real world, which Touché Gafla paints as full of human folly, grievances and disappointments.

In an interview after the book’s publication in Hebrew, Touché Gafla said it was inspired by a television commercial he once saw featuring a couple and their child frolicking on a “pastoral” beach. “I didn’t believe that such an ideal could truly exist in our world,” he said, adding that the idea of the Other World began to form into his mind then. “I was also interested in the question of the end,” he said, “and beginning a story from the end, from death.”

The death that jump-starts this story is that of protagonist Ben Mendelssohn, who escapes what seems to be the present-day real world in an effort to be reunited with Marian – his wife, who died some time before in a freak accident.

In the previous world, Ben had worked as an “epilogist,” or a “righter,” as he is sometimes referred to – someone who fixes up unsuccessful or poorly planned endings crafted by writers, poets, screenwriters or even letter writers. Ben tries to do the same for his own life after Marian’s death, by hosting an elaborate 40th birthday party for her that, by design, ended with a bang – quite literally, for him at least. In other words, Ben chose to transport himself to the Other World for the sake of eternal love. The only glitch in his plan is that, when he gets there, Marian is nowhere to be found.

Pairing up with the Mad Hop

Like Dante, who is guided through hell and purgatory by Virgil and through heaven by Beatrice, Ben pairs up with a man known as the Mad Hop, an Other-Worldly sleuth who steers him through his unfamiliar new home, and tries to help him crack the mystery of Marian’s disappearance. During this pursuit, Ben confronts a strange cast of characters: He has a chance encounter with Marilyn Monroe, who shares his wife’s initials and has taken up residence in Marian’s apartment to avoid irksome fans; meets his parents, grandparents and some of Marian’s relatives; and even gets introduced to his unborn child, whom Marian had miscarried in the previous world.

Ben’s journey is an eye-opening adventure both for him and the reader: It dispels the myth, or the hope, that the afterlife is devoid of the strife that plagues existence and human relationships in the real world. Take, for example, Ben’s parents. In the previous world, they were happily married for decades, but in the Other World, they are separated, as Ben surprisingly learns when he meets his father’s girlfriend.

Sensing his disbelief at the fact that his parents have not lived – and died – happily ever after, the girlfriend tells him, “This happens all the time… you must keep in mind that these two worlds are radically different. No one can guarantee that a love that worked there will work here. You say this can’t be happening because you think the two people who brought you into the previous world were meant to stay together in both worlds.” Soon after, when Ben meets his mother, she confirms that sentiment, telling him, “…I recognize that life is just the prologue, the introduction to the real thing. Ben, I’m happier than I ever thought possible. I’ve never felt as alive as in death.”

At the same time that “The World of the End” traces the fairly quotidian goings-on of the afterlife, with a focus on Ben’s quest, it also keeps tabs on the previous world via a host of subplots and characters, some more interesting or likeable than others. There’s Ann, a hospital nurse, who “hated the world” and who found her calling in disconnecting hopelessly ill patients from life support, earning her the nickname “Annplugged.” Her character, which serves as a bridge between life and death, ends up being as creepy as her moniker might lead readers to expect.

Then there are brothers Adam and Shahar, a game designer and an actor, respectively, who cross paths with Ann and Marian and also possess some less than admirable traits – one of which comes pretty close to a predilection for pedophilia. There’s another character named Marian (or maybe she’s the real Marian?) who shares a love of Salman Rushdie with another eccentric named Yonatan, and there are Kobi and Tali, friends of Ben and Marian’s who also happen upon some of the other characters in the book’s tangled web of people. (And these are just some of the book’s ancillary characters.)

If you’re wondering why Touché Gafla introduced such a vast cast, you’re not alone. “The World of the End” proceeds at a snappy pace when Ben and Marian – and even their immediate family members – are at the center of the action. After all, their story is propelled by love and loss, and builds genuine suspense, as Ben gets ever closer to solving his wife’s disappearance. Yet their arc is disrupted by other characters’ story lines, which are bizarre at best and gratuitous at worst. The author also includes chapters that are wonderfully odd or inventive – for example, one chapter is written from the point of view of a photograph, while a few others are told from the perspective of enigmatic caretakers who tend to forests of family trees.

All of this makes for a mind-bending read that is simultaneously gripping, touching and frustratingly scattershot. What begins as a rumination on love, life, death and life after death – playing on the whole notion of ’til death do us part – ends up being a watered-down musing on the fragility of human relationships and the sometimes-baffling choices people make in life and beyond. One is left with the feeling that the hereafter may not be as sweet as humans have often been led to believe – that it is rife with dilemmas, petty conflicts, loneliness, aggravating people and, perhaps worst of all, the humdrum of everyday life, like dealing with bureaucracy or only being able to catch express buses at certain stops. In that respect, Touché Gafla can claim at least one notable achievement: By helping readers understand that the grass isn’t always greener, even on an unknown, often romanticized, other side, he also helps them better appreciate the here and now.

Anat Rosenberg is an editor at Haaretz English Edition.

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Daniel Tchetchik