I had a deep and tragic relationship with The Postmortal long before I ever read it. My brother was a big fan of author Drew Magary and begged me to buy him an advance copy at the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con. I met Magary, bought the book, and got it signed for him. Four months later my brother was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. I read The Postmortal two months after he died, so I brought a lot of my own intense emotions to the book.
Outside of his books, Magary writes a regular column called the Dick Joke Jamberoo. He uses all caps A LOT. He also writes a column called Funbag! in which readers send in really stupid questions and he answers them. If you can get past the stupid bullshit Deadspin readers are interested in, you’ll begin to realize that Magary is actually a very thorough thinker. He just usually confines his thinking to junk food and horrifying poop scenarios. (There are so many horrifying poop scenarios) But given a strict premise, in this case that humanity has discovered a cure for aging, his ability to think through every possible consequence of something creates a thoroughly grounded world.
The Postmortal, which has been optioned for a film, is set in the near future and follows John Farrell, a lawyer who gets the cure for aging when he is 27. The events of the book run for about seventy years, with a few major time jumps. Honestly, if we actually did discover a cure for aging, world events would probably play out exactly this way. Initially illegal, a black market flourishes while pro-cure and pro-death activists debate, extremists resort to terrorism, churches condemn it, the cure is legalized, and everything in our society is changed forever. Religion crumbles, marriage becomes irrelevant, and gangs of “terra trolls” maim and blind the ageless population as overpopulation and declining resources lead to government-led population culls and, eventually, war.
Magary is at his best writing about the experience of specific types of relationships. He writes about both sides of the father-son relationship really well. John’s physical reaction when he reconnects with an early crush is dead on. There’s a fantastic passage in which he describes the way proximity to your child feels like proximity to your favorite rockstar. And while his dialogue is sometimes a little clunky, he writes about women and their concerns far better than I was expecting. John’s sister is particularly well-drawn, and my first thought when I considered the implications of the cure was echoed by John’s roommate Katy, namely, “I’m going to get my period forever.”
My first time reading the book was a profoundly emotional experience. It was the last experience I shared with my brother, and given that the entire book is really about death, well, that’s a lot of feels. But revisiting the book recently, I realized my emotional experience came from what I brought to the book. The details are great, but Magary doesn't deal with the big, universal questions nearly as well. Towards the end of the book, our main man John says that he has finally realized… something. I think it’s that he should have married any one of the several very attractive women who were in love with him throughout the story, and maybe that he shouldn’t have feared death so much. But it's not entirely clear.
The Postmortal isn’t especially deep, but there is plenty of surface area to explore. And it’s pretty fascinating to watch immortality kill us all.
The Dusty Shelf Book Review is a weekly column in which we take a look back at a sci-fi and fantasy books that aren't new releases. Put your requests in the comments.