An ordinary family man, geologist, and Mormon, Soren Johansson has always believed he'll be reunited with his loved ones after death in an eternal hereafter. Then, he dies. Soren wakes to find himself cast by a God he has never heard of into a Hell whose dimensions he can barely grasp: a vast library he can only escape from by finding the book that contains the story of his life. In this haunting existential novella, author, philosopher, and ecologist Steven L. Peck explores a subversive vision of eternity, taking the reader on a journey through the afterlife of a world where everything everyone believed in turns out to be wrong.
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This short, smart existential novella is a gem. After the protagonist, Soren Johansson, a devout Mormon, dies of cancer, he finds himself in a room with four other people. There, an officious demon cheerfully informs everyone that they’ve all failed to follow the one true religion (which I won’t spoil, but suffice to say, it’s not one of the obvious candidates) and consigns them all to a variety of hells.
For the protagonist, hell is a bigger-than-the-known-universe library containing every possible book (including those whose contents are just random characters, i.e. the vast majority). And the only way out, according to a posted notice, is to find the book containing one’s own life story. Hell does operate according to a few rules, which can’t be broken. There are food dispensers, which give out any meal requested. Non-carried objects return to their place at the end of each day. People who die are returned to life.
At first, Soren does what most people would do: he explores, forms relationships, tests the rules, and discusses solutions to the shared predicament. But days, then months, then years pass. The denizens of the library form societies. Soren experiences wandering and loneliness. He falls in love. Then violent religious mania hits people, and hell really does become hell. So, he escapes to deeper levels, in search of both his lost lover and answers.
I won’t give away what happens from there, but Peck does eventually make it clear that there’s no easy way out. The author’s wry sense of humor makes the haunting philosophical questions go down easy, but that won’t stop them from swirling uncomfortably in your mind later. As I see it, this is a book about what faith really means. What happens if God utterly defies all our expectations? Would we still believe? Could we let go of our belief? And I don’t think Peck is letting non-believers off the hook, either -- if we contemplate the hell of a purposeless reality, might it be better to have some ray of hope in a greater meaning, however slender?
Beautifully unsettling questions. I’m glad I spotted this one in an audible sale.
While this book doesn’t really line up with my own spiritual beliefs, it does present a very interesting version of hell beyond the stereotyped Dante’s Inferno that much of the western Christian cultures have bought into. The first impression of a strange but not especially menacing existence (that is supposed to be only temporary anyway) initially inspires a sense of tentative relief. Then as the magnitude of the assigned task (finding a specific book among billions of books in a library of infinite dimensions) becomes increasingly evident, the reality of hell begins to assert itself. What temporary can mean in relation to eternity is suddenly daunting. Hopelessness, lack of a true faith to believe in, the absence of behavioral boundaries or consequences, and the lack of diversity among the residents may be a reflection of the type of lives many have lived on earth when our naïve thoughts of our own immortality fool us into careless lives. Do we create our own hells, underestimating the effect on our souls of living for the comfortable and the familiar instead of embracing more diverse possibilities of experience and acquaintance?
Beginning with a fairly light tone with humorous episodes, the mood subtly darkens as the story-teller relates his own increasing need to find an escape. Eventually he, and we with him, realize the full impact of his situation. Regardless of your belief or lack of belief in a hellish after-life, this book will challenge your viewpoints, and hopefully challenge your earthly behavior in the reflected image of what this literary hell looks like. Now I wonder what Peck's image of heaven looks like. I'll bet that's a mind bender too.