One question nobody ever answers truthfully is, “How are you?” This is among humankind’s great achievements—our ability to fine-tune an answer. And if you happen to be cursed with a serious neurological disease, you get used to lying, because if you told the truth, nobody would ask again.
I got the idea for my fourth novel, The Land of Later On, back in the 1980s, long before my first novel was published. In those days I travelled extensively as a freelance writer, so “one man’s odyssey through the afterlife” (whatever that meant, it sounded cool) seemed no more outlandish than other distant journeys I was describing.
My afterlife idea was that sole cryptic phrase in a notebook, and over the decades other novels intervened. But I never forgot it.
Gradually my magazine work was replaced by a career performing and recording as a jazz and classical guitarist. Then, six years ago, I realized something was terribly wrong. Diagnosed with “progressive” multiple sclerosis, I quickly sank from running a few miles a day and playing an instrument on a professional level to living in a wheelchair, unable to play at all. I couldn’t type or scribble; I could write only by dictating into my computer.
Once you’re hit by an incurable illness that doesn’t kill you, but ruins your life, you learn that relativity is at the heart of who we are. What had seemed unbearable a few years earlier now struck me as a picnic—was there no way to wind the time back?—and I’d find myself contemplating suicide as an understandable escape route. Not for me: the core of my life is that I’m happily married. But suppose my wife had died? Would I stick around?
Suddenly that scant idea for a novel, buried for twenty-five years in my notebook, came calling. I began dictating it almost as a lark, to see if there was really anything there. The only blessing of my disease was that plot questions were unexpectedly settled, and I could write of a suicide-inspiring disease with authority. As Emily Dickinson said: Tell all the Truth but tell it slant. I wasn’t writing confessionally (I’m not that sort of novelist), but autobiographical elements inevitably offered themselves.
Here’s the plot of my novel: Kip—a New York jazz pianist whose career was cut short by a neurological disease—returns from a failed suicide attempt with a vivid memory of his journey through the afterlife. Resembling the world as he knows it, but unlimited in space and time, its residents are those who choose not to reincarnate, which would erase all memory of who they once were. Kip has a quest: to find his beloved Lucy, a yoga teacher who shared his apartment for years but died of leukemia before he took his life. Is she still here? Has she waited for him, or “gone back” to become someone else? In his odyssey to find her across centuries and locales (Istanbul to the Marquesas Islands, India to Oklahoma and New Guinea), Kip is guided by the poet Walt Whitman, who urges him to write a memoir on his return.
I know this doesn’t sound funny, but believe me—along with everything else, it’s a funny book. It’s not a novel about having a neurological disease; that’s simply the excuse to push my narrator to commit suicide and venture the surprising afterlife. But suicide is the rarely-discussed elephant in the multiple sclerosis waiting room. It’s on everyone’s mind at some point, despite all those nauseating community photos they throw at you of cheerful, healthy-looking folks bowling along in wheelchairs, playful as puppies.
I can’t imagine I’m the first writer with a severe form of MS, though mine may be the first novel whose narrator has it. My subject isn’t suicide or suffering, but a liberating, life-affirming afterlife. I’m not religious; it’s not a religious book. It is a humane one.