Steven L. Peck, A Short Stay in Hell. Strange Violin Editions, 2012. Pp. 110. ISBN 978-0-9837484-4-1. $11.95.Reviewed by Kate Onyett
Metaphysics: the philosophical study of meaning in existence: the ‘why’ and ‘how’. It’s a big subject. Huge. Only bordered by the scope of human imagination, which a creative soul will tell you can encompass far more space than conventional physics; there is more within the human psyche, thought being a product of the mind unbound by physical laws, than there is without in the physical world. And it is just as well, because this novella is set in a place that’s about as vast as it is possible to conceive of; even in part. Just to get you around the mind-bleedingly large numbers at work, the action is set entirely in one library, containing 951,312,000 books. Ok, if that’s too big to think of (and I don’t blame you, we’re into stupidly mammoth numbers at this juncture), then consider this: it has been calculated that there about 1.580 electrons (tiny, wizzy sub-atomic particles that are present in everything because everything is built up from atoms of varying size) within the entire universe. Even if maths sends you into cold sweats, just looking at the number of digits in each of those figures shows that the novella wants us to consider a place humongously bigger than even our own universe. Already I am running out of synonyms for ‘big’. Take it from me; the canvas for this one is epic. Probably the biggest proposed stage for a story since the short story by Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel, that Peck openly admits (through his hero’s voice) inspired this setting. The action is, thankfully, much, much more focused and very, very human.
To sum up the most basic premise; this is a metaphysical novella. Within its short length the hero is the instrument of discussions on meaning. To do this, it takes the form of a type of thought experiment. A scenario is created with minimal stimulus; just the barest essentials and a goal primed for the human element to aim for, and then the various ways humans try to find meaningfulness is toyed with. Like an intellectual rats-in-a-maze test.
The plot or hypothesis of this experiment is also deceptively simple. A man dies and ends up in Hell. No ordinary Hell, this, but one chosen specifically as one that will provide the best “edification and instruction” that having learned and passed, he can move on to a better afterlife or Heaven. The task; a seemingly never-ending library within which is a book that will be the entire description of one’s life. One must find it and post it into a slot provided. The hero is a Mormon, like the author. This turns out to have been the wrong religion. No, apparently the ‘right’ one isn’t any form of Christianity, Islam or Judaism, either! Most bases covered as the hero and the other occupants of the library struggle to exist and find point and purpose in such an overwhelming task. There’s the visceral; eating, drinking, sex, violence and injury. Each night all damage is repaired and made new, so there is no release from the base line of physical being. Then there is the gamut of emotion; boredom, happiness, rage, fear, humour, and despair and social-intellectual interactions with the formation of social groups to aid furtherment of a common goal; the ‘university’ of thinkers the hero belongs to at one point, various forms of worship attempted and the standard greeting on meeting someone new of exchanging of life stories.
If this is Hell, then is this torture? A rather conventional-sounding demon (red skin, horns, sulphurous breath) whom the hero briefly meets to be assigned his type of hell, rubbishes the idea of eternal punishment. For what is punishment without a lesson being learned? However, when faced with the continuous monotony of the geography, the reset of all damage and death to health and life and cleanliness again over night, the identical race and ethnicity of the hero’s fellow residents (all white American) and the enormity of finding one book in quizzillions, this is perhaps the worst kind of torture. Subtle, too, for in the need to find definition; that human need that compares, contrasts and struggles to identify either for or against in order that we can say ‘I am’. How would one find meaning for existence as a consciousness existing for millennia?
The amounts of time that becomes the norm for units of measurement; weeks, months, years, turn into centuries and eons. So vast that they nullify their own gigantisms, becoming almost commonplace in a sea of ‘meh’ness into which the hero sinks in order to continue his existence for large swathes of time. It’s a brave idea to explore.
Thankfully, the novella centres on the most experiential part of his life in Hell; the first couple of thousand years, during which he suffers love, loss, hope, despair, joy, bitterness, pain and consideration. This is the human mind latching onto the most intense snippets of memory as a form of self-description. Even in the wider vastness of time; human life is a drop in the ocean, yet we live so intensely, and that intensity is what frames our existence into a manageable sense of ‘what’ and ‘how’. Given this, the title is, of course, deeply ironic. Any further writing would be to attempt to unravel what is actually impossible; the chart a life of googols of years, given the very finite frame of earthly reference the author is working with. Instead it is for us, the reader, to make our own decisions and carry on the thinking and the debating after the novella ends. This is the beginning of a dialogue with our own life experiences; the idea that should set us looking; not a book with the answers.
It does make one wonder, as the hero oscillates between company and loner wandering, whether hell is truly other people (thank you, Sartre) or being utterly alone in a faceless, almost bureaucratic geography. The functionality of this Hell, while it stands as a suitable lack of distraction for the human reactions upon which life in this Hell and the story are both predicated, cannot but help reminding people of a Kafka-esque nightmare vision of ‘powers that be’. Without any other beings visible than the residents, yet all inhabitants of this Hell are utterly at its faceless, bland mercy.
The choice of one type of race and ethnicity is also deliberate. It narrows the boundaries of the baseline into something manageable. The author is a white American; he sensibly (given the otherwise huge scope of his thought experiment’s questions) sticks to a Western approach to ideas of selfhood. There is no point in getting upset over a ‘lack of diversity’; the author seems to be admitting he just has understanding as a white Westerner and he is not trying to make assumptions about other peoples’ ideas. For such a thought experiment to work, one has to draw the line somewhere at one’s included elements. Equally, a non-white, non-Western writer could do the same, but using their own cultural background to present questions on identity.
Faith and religion cannot be ignored in this context. Peck’s background is one of and evolutionary ecologist and Mormon, and he has energetic ideas on how evolution is not precluded by his faith, and also compiles a lively blog on his faithful life. Thankfully, the religious slant does not detract from the story, and this novella is not a polemic on one faith, given the very public confidence of Mormonism. In order to find meaning in a place with none except what you bring to it, the hero makes leaps or breaks from some of his previous beliefs. One gets a feeling that the thought experiment is an active for the author; he presents non-Mormon ideas and meets them with his own, filtering this through his hypothesis. The hero is inevitably seen as an avatar for Peck’s thinking on drinking, sex, marriage and godhood. The idea of a principled, apparently normatively calm and centred character (the implication being this is the result of disciplined faith) gives an aura of credibility to the facts presented from his POV.
There are, however, breaking points where one’s values are tested. Such testing, too, is a form of definition, although the hero has broken a fair few by the time we reach the end and he has spent untold swathes of time in that place. Eventually, it seems we wear down our prejudices in line with the environment we find ourselves in, although there is an inner core of personal morality; the hero would not attack another for no reason, for example, or rape a vulnerable woman.
The style is practical; it gets its point across in a remarkably short space of time. The author’s gift is to start us thinking, and if we want to, leave us still thinking beyond the close of the book.
Some of the sentences are a little heavy and wordy. There are chunks of information about mathematical probabilities, substantial speech to express theories on Being and Meanings. But given there is a lot to squeeze in, it could be a lot worse and considerably dryer. Instead there is action and emotion to oil the plot wheels, and on one level it could be read just as a short, amazing adventure story. Everyone’s going to read it differently, and one interpretation is that this is a very original, quirky view of Hell. All in all, I feel privileged to have had a chance to read this.
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