Imagine arriving in the afterlife and discovering the analogue to a Gideons Bible is a guidebook urging you to leave.
At least in Anthony Weller’s The Land of Later On, the power(s) that be in the afterlife apparently believe that life, so to speak, is better reincarnated back on Earth as an entirely different person than spent in eternity. In the book, New York City jazz pianist Kip returns from the afterlife after a suicide attempt prompted by a neurological disease that prevents him from playing music. He writes The Land of Later On not to convince people there is life after death but to urge them to resist the guide-books’s ongoing encouragement to reincarnate once they arrive there.
The eternity Weller envisions is much like life on Earth but, with practice, people can transport themselves to almost any time and place. Still, it isn’t quite the same. For example, you won’t be able to meet or chat with Shakespeare, Mozart or any number of historical figures because they decided to be reincarnated. Likewise, you can’t attend a historic event because they happen only once and cannot be experienced again.
For Kip, though, the ability to go wherever and whenever he wants isn’t all that important. Once slightly acclimated, he spends his time searching for his girlfriend Lucy, who died of leukemia a couple years before his suicide attempt. The effort is daunting given that even if he picks the right place, he must also pick the right time. And the search will be inevitably fruitless if Lucy has already returned to life as a new and different person.
Kip is assisted in the search by poet Walt Whitman, who clearly has ulterior motives and is part of an underground cabal trying to convince those in the afterlife not to reincarnate. The search for Lucy takes Kip to several centuries and places, including a truck stop in Oklahoma, a coffee house in Istanbul, the Indian Himalayas and the Marquesas Islands. To a certain extent, The Land of Later On has echoes of author Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series. Ultimately, though, the denouement of Kip’s efforts is somewhat anticlimactic.
While Weller deserves stars for his writing, his concept of life after death never quite reaches full fruition. We learn that while no god is present there, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one (or more) somewhere else. This is especially so as it is clear that someone or something is in control behind the scenes. Who, for example, makes sure each new arrival finds a copy of the guidebook? While perhaps a little esoteric, these issues are rendered rather extraneous by the concentration on Kip and Whitman jumping through time and space looking for Lucy. It also produces some minor inconsistencies. Thus, although Whitman explains why individuals are encouraged to leave and become reincarnated, it is unclear how he gained such knowledge given that he doesn’t seem to know the other whys and wherefores behind this afterlife.
Perhaps Weller avoided delving any deeper into the philosophical issues to keep the book from becoming too recondite. His approach also legitimately leaves readers to ponder whether the afterlife is real or just Kip’s near-death hallucination. Still, a closer examination and consideration of those concepts would have made for a more ingenious story.
When immortality gets dropped in your lap the unexpected question is if you can enjoy living with yourself enough to stick around.
Anthony Weller, The Land of Later On