This is not a review, I leave those to others more qualified (BHodges), rather it is a few reflections on some of the themes of the book. I will try not to give too much away but there are spoilers. Like most Mormons, I do not know a great deal about Zoroastrianism. Additionally, I know SteveP well enough to be fairly confident that he is far from ignorant of that religious tradition. As such I am sure to mis-read certain elements of the book because of that lacuna in my knowledge. This will certainly be a Mormon interpretation of the book but I hope it is an interpretation that encourages a few others to buy it for themselves.
Last Friday, I read ‘A Short Stay in Hell’ in one sitting. Apparently, I am not the only one. Since the book has been published through Strange Violin, with Matt Page’s new excellent cover, comments about the book have been regularly popping up in my Facebook feed.
That same Afternoon, I gave the book to my Mum who also read it within a few hours that same day. We had two quite different experiences: while she found it a little pessimistic (although thought-provoking) I found it unsettling but unfailingly hopeful. I am, as I have written elsewhere, ‘someone who is intimidated by the boundlessness of the eternities and who can (perhaps) envisage a time when I might choose to cease to exist’. This book offered some comfort regarding why and how I might choose to be with another for eternity.
Peck provides a compelling account of Hell that is born of modernity and Mormonism. It is precisely the Mormon-ness of this particular Hell that seems, I think, to haunt those readers whom I know. The novel’s Mormon qualities reside not in the apparent verisimilitude between spirit prison and this Borgesian library, although this theme is certainly developed. Rather, it is deeply Mormon because it describes so closely the Mormon folk-view of the Celestial Kingdom and brings its hellish qualities into a rather stark light. Hell is homogeneity; or, in the words of e. e. cummings, ‘sameness chokes oneness’. It is the realization of sameness, under the rhetoric of perfectionism, on which Peck founds this Hell. You might say that, the first law of Hell is to be like everyone else.
In contrast to this view, Peck hints at, but does not fully articulate, a vision of Heaven that is based on beauty through diversity. Early in the novella, before the weight of eternity presses on the reader, the narrator reminisces about a book which argued that ‘God created the universe as a way of sorting through the great library, finding those books that were most beautiful and meaningful… the work entertained the notion that evolution was the most effective algorithm for finding the subsets of coherent and readable books that are scattered thinly through the library’ (3). Peck, in this passage, is being a little playful but does so in order to make a serious point. It is no coincidence, in my opinion, that this argument is one of the only texts of any significant length residing in this library that is presented to the reader. As such, the trace or impression left by this book follows our journey through Hell despite it being a late discovery for the narrator.
This suggestion of randomness, implied in the nod toward evolution, is reflected in the apparent absurdity of the search for meaning in the library. This is evident in the ‘most significant text’ of year 102. Yet, the search is carried out under the assurance that the library contains meaning; not only this, the library contains us. We are part of the beauty that must be found and gleaned from the randomness of life. This beauty, which lies undiscovered but in potentia in the unimaginable possibilities of the library, is all the more meaningful because of its randomness. Rarely has a single line of fragmented prose moved me so deeply as the words found in one of those books. The search for beauty and meaning in a world characterized by randomness will surely produce inanity and superficiality but this does not negate the importance of the search nor the beauty of that which genuinely shapes our lives.
Love and eternal relationships are another prominent theme of the book. ‘Have you ever loved someone for a thousand years?’ Peck’s question works as a counterweight to flippant talk of eternal marriage – especially in light of the slightly relaxed way that Soren Johansson understandably moves between partners. And yet, in the prologue of the novel we clearly hear the lament of the narrator at the loss of his great love. Surely one of the principle themes of the novella is how love comes to ‘structure… the very topology of our consciousness’; it is, in other words, an effort to affirm the importance of eternal relationships without resorting to trite platitudes. Here is one of the most hopeful parts of Peck’s novel: with eternity before us – a genuine and expansive eternity – the chance of finding that lost love is as unlikely (but also as probable) as finding the story of our life in this ‘infinite library’. To guiltily borrow a line from ‘The Last of Mohicans’, “I will find you. No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you.” How could Soren do anything else?
This hopefulness is part of the system. Those who currently reside in Hell are told: ‘Do not get discouraged. Remember nothing lasts forever. Someday this will be a distant memory’. This feeling is more than just a facile instruction; it is part of the setup. Soren cannot doubt, even when he wants to; he believes that there will be something else after this Hell. It is this hope which concludes the book; a hope in the redemptive process of the struggle to find ourselves and each other.
1. One of the uniquely Mormon assumptions Peck brings to his novel is that annihilation is not an option. This is to be contrasted with Julian Barnes’ short story ‘The Dream’ in which the absurdity of eternity is sketched out. Peck seems to ask, if we assume the eternal nature of the soul, on what basis could we find happiness with another forever?
2. I have only ever read one poet!