LitStack Review: The World of the End by Ofir Touché Gafla

The World of the End
Ofir Touché Gafla
Translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg
Tor Books
English Edition: June 25, 2013
ISBN 978-0-7653-3356-8
World of the End

If there is any “location” that has been written about more than any other, it would be the place that exists (or doesn’t) once our lives on this mortal coil are over.  Heaven, or perhaps hell,  or simply the afterlife, the underworld, Valhalla, the Undying Lands, the Gray Havens, Eden, the Elysian Fields, Hades, Sheol, the Summerlands, Tir na n-Og, happy hunting grounds, as well as other myths and legends, individual tales, fanciful tales, harrowing tales of entrances and exits, dark rivers, bright lights…. one has to wonder if there is any fully realized life after death scenario that hasn’t already been surmised or explored.

Oh, there is.  In Ofir Touché Gafla’s imaginative novel The World of the End, the environment of life after death takes on an expansive, involving presence unlike any within my realm of knowledge.  Take everything you’ve been taught or have assumed about heaven or hell, and leave them on the nightstand; Gafla’s Other World is unique and complex without being bogged down with religiosity and dogma.  And yet, as mind boggling as it is, it is not the main theme of the story.  As with so many tales that take us beyond this life, the story is, at its heart, a love story.

Ben Mendelssohn is a epilogist – he writes other’s endings for them.  Novels, scripts, what have you, this talented “righter,” although never credited, has become well known for his signature flourishes, his ability to find the right way to unkink others’ convoluted stories, to bring resolutions to otherwise lost tales.  Little did he know that his own ending would be something of which he never would have dreamed.

At the start of the book, Ben appears to come out of the funk that he had slipped into at the death of his wife, Marian.  He has emerged from lurking in self-appointed shadows and is once again seeking out his friends; he has even begun working out at a local health club, becoming fit and sculpted – the type of body his late wife always admonished him to work towards.  Because he and Marian had been so very much in love, it did not seem so strange that, 15 months after her death and on the day that would have been her 40th birthday, Ben would be throwing a huge party in her honor.  What did catch the guests off guard, however, was what they found after enjoying a spectacular fireworks display from the front lawn of Ben’s house:

Twenty exhilarating minutes later, they filed back into the house to thank Ben for the generous display but were rudely denied the chance.  Ben lay in a puddle of blood, seeded with parts of his brain.  In his right hand he held a warm gun, and in his left a note asking them to open the fridge and take out the towering birthday cake with the maple syrup script that read, “And They Died Happily Ever After…”

Ben has decided to chance the afterlife, to take the most monumental leap of faith one can take, to join Marian in whatever exists on the other side.  His reasoning is that he cannot exist without her, so why not make a conscious effort to join her?  And he is convinced that whatever lies on the other side, if there is anything on the other side, he will, indeed, find her.  What seems so simple, however, is anything but.  What he finds on the other side is nowhere near what he expected and his new circumstances continually throw him (and us!) for a loop.  Yet he never stops in his central and most basic quest:  to reunite with the love of his (former) life.

The efforts that Ben goes through to find Marian are sometimes heroic, sometimes touching, but can also expose his selfishness and shallowness, and the selfishness and shallowness of our world.  In fact, very little in The World of the End is simple or easy.  Not only is the Other World constantly unfolding, but there are many side stories on both sides of the divide whose journeys intersect and impact Ben’s, again in ways both complex and perplexing.  There’s Ann, the nurse whose diminutive stature and frigid countenance renders her virtually unnoticeable, yet her actions have ripples that end up crashing in tidal waves against others’ lives.  There’s the caustic painter Rafael Kolanski and his virtuous wife Bessie, and the mercurial brothers Adam and Shahar (video game designer and method actor, respectively), who unwittingly play integral roles in Ben’s life – and after life.  There is the portly devotee of Salman Rushdie, who strikes up an online relationship with a kindred spirit half a world away that moves from camaraderie to true friendship, then becomes a catalyst that threatens his very life.  And just to keep things even more interesting, there are also insights from “characters” that are true enigmas – such as the thoughts of a photograph taken on a vacation in Wales that languishes in a closed album for a decade until all of a sudden it is passed through circumstance after circumstance to play a major role in the drama to come.  And these are just some of the additions from our “side” of the line between the here and now and the ever after.

And you thought it was just going to be story about life after death!

Originally published in 2004 in Israel, The World of the End became a best seller and quickly established a devoted cult following.  It won the 2005 Geffen Award from the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy for the best original Hebrew book, and the 2006 Kugel Award for Hebrew literature.  With this impressive pedigree already established, and given the thickness of Ofir Touché Gafla’s prose – along with the many disparate voices alternating with the main story – translator Mitch Ginsburg’s task must have been a daunting one!  But considering just how kaleidoscopic this new release reads, and how melodic even the rambling passages flow, we surely are getting a true sense of Ofir Touché Gafla’s style as well as substance.

This is a challenging book, but in the very best way.  It demands that the reader stay fully engaged and be willing to not only suspend disbelief but also juggle many different voices without losing the thread of the story.  Numerous times, the reader has to simply let go of conditioning and expectations and instead “go with the flow” of the narrative.  Luckily, Ofir Touché Gafla makes this enjoyable and entertaining, rewarding the reader for their participation by offering new and intriguing takes on what has become expected and assumed.  This may not be a breezy, read-it-in-an-afternoon sort of book – but then, would you expect anything less of a book that takes on not only this life, but the next one as well?

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