Duh. The Afterparty.

In the shining presence and love of God, all your unhappiness shrinks to manageable or maybe even melts away completely. Experiencing that loving presence requires you to take in the word of God. Specifically, you ingest it on a small square of paper. The chemicals in the ink printed on that paper get your brain to make you have this religious experience. That chemical is a drug called Numinous, and it’s in Daryl Gregory’s new novel Afterparty.

is excellent. I got home with my copy at five or six in the evening Saturday, read it in the moments I could grab while cooking dinner and hanging out with my kids, stayed up way too late reading it, then read it in all the free moments I could find Sunday, and finished it by dinner. Total book sprint and I’m tired today, and it was definitely worth it.

As in Gregory’s other novels, the main characters struggle to restore strained or broken relationships while coping with forces beyond their control, including other humans’ efforts to fuck each other over for petty, short-sighted reasons. The characters’ griefs and loves and rages are believable and compelling. I don’t want to give anything away because you really should read this excellent and enjoyable book, but one thing I liked is that we see more of the parent-child relationship from the parent side this time; in Gregory’s other novels and several of his short stories we see that relationship from the adult child’s perspective. I suppose it’s a sign of me getting old and having my own kids, but I enjoyed reading characters who are more pre-occuped with their kids than their parents.

The world Gregory imagines is interesting in exactly the right way – I kept thinking about various aspects of it, because he showed just enough to advance the plot and to make it tantalizing. There weren’t any “get on with it” moments; I always wanted to hear more. In the world of the novel, with the right kind of expensive chemical printer, raw materials, and chemical blue prints, you can make drugs at home. The book doesn’t discuss the medical possibilities, focusing instead on recreational chemical use, and the scenario’s believable: people will get high in increasingly varied and creative ways. And in social ways.

Social drug use stands out in the novel. Drugs here aren’t an individual moral or existential dilemma so much as a fairly understandable or at least predictable choice that many people opt for in social settings. People in the novel incorporate altered perceptions and behavior into their social lives, or they use drugs to enhance their performance in professional settings, or they take palliative drugs to cope with the symptoms of the ways they have been broken, all of which seem to arise from social circumstances larger than the characters and out of their control. Often the results of the drug taking leads to worse and more out of control circumstances, which leads to greater attractiveness of drugs, whether of the self-medicating over the counter (or around the back in the alley) variety or of the prescription kind. Often in the novel it seems like the issue is less drugs yes or no and more getting the meds right for people who are hurting badly.

That all seems true to my experience with people’s use of drugs. And of religion. I’ve known a lot of people who have moved from drug problems to religious devotion, and sometimes back, and sometimes more than once. Some of those experiences are highly charged; I can still get angry over some memories tied to that. Knowing how easy it is to get angry and reduce people to their worst behavior in my mind, I especially appreciated that Gregory depicted the users of Numinous, a religion-drug and also drug-religion, in an empathetic way. In awful circumstances, including the ways awful circumstances can echo (or worse, amplify) in our memories long afterward, who wouldn’t want what this chemical offers? That’s part of what makes it so destructive as well: what if you can’t get it anymore? You go from experiencing the physical presence of God and the certainty of divine love to the newly perceptible absence of that presence and love. That loss is hard to cope with. It’s a bit like what it might feel like to be Adam and Eve after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Is that loss real, if it’s all just chemicals and electrical charges in the brain? Sure, it feels real, but is it really real? No. But that opens onto other questions, because a great deal is chemicals and electrical charges. Are our thoughts, emotions, and decisions all just squirts and sparks in gray sponges? To put it in fancier terms, are mental events like falling in love reducible to brain events like neurons firing? Gregory’s characters occasional get into this territory and the discussions are interesting. (For whatever it’s worth I’m convinced we are just bodies – whatever we are exists exclusively in our physical being – but that brain activity alone does not explain mental activity. To put it another way, there is one single process that happens but we don’t currently have a single descriptive vocabulary that is adequate to that process. Currently we need both a vocabulary in terms of brain activity and a vocabulary in terms of the experiential life of thoughts and emotions. This is how I (mis?)remember what I read years ago about the idea of “anomalous monism” in Donald Davidson’s writings.)

I’m not much on metaphor in literature – I mean, I like it but it often goes over my head – but I liked that the drug Numinous is handed out on printed paper. I like the pun there on the word of God. I also wondered if it could a kind of metaphor for writing. Words printed on paper created new neural activity inside my skull, with pleasurable results. I just ingested the words by scanning my eyes over them rather than eating them.

If all this makes the novel sound like an abstract concept book, it’s not. The action comes faster and sooner in this book than in Gregory’s others. This book’s less introspective and takes on a rapid pace more quickly than some of his other work (everyone of his books turned into a hard to put down page-turner for me at some point; this one did so from the get-go). Maybe this book needed less inward-looking given that important parts of it happen in the form of religious experiences induced by custom-made drugs, and so a lot of the rest of the book involves unraveling mysteries through clues found at the scene of a murder, and finding new mysteries after standoffs and gun battles.

You should totally check out the book. I’d loan you my copy except tomorrow I’m going to eat the paper. Look for me in the hotel lobby.