Review: And Again, by Jessica Chiarella

25110965>>Published: January 2016

>>Finally got around to it: May 2016

“Is it what they were talking about on the radio?” he asks, releasing my hand and sitting back in his chair. “A few years ago all anyone could talk about was the UN passing an exception to the ban on human cloning. They were saying it was probably for medical research.”

“It was,” I reply, though I shouldn’t be surprised that Dr. Grath would put the pieces together. “There are four of us, in Chicago at least. I’m not sure how many across the country.”

“How does it work?” He’s very calm, for someone who’s just realized he’s sitting across the table from a clone of his best friend. It makes me want to hug him, though I don’t.

“They cut into your brain. The process kills you, but they’re able to extract pieces of the memory center of your brain and transfer it into a new body, into a clone of yourself. It’s sort of like injecting stem cells. The brain matter takes room in the clones and grows there. You become a new person,” I say. “Well, the same person, but a new body.”

“So how old are you?” he asks. He looks a little pale. I wonder if it was a good idea to tell him, if he’s too old and too fragile for these sorts of revelations.

“I guess, maybe a few months old? But they use hormones to rapidly age the clones so they match up with the age you are at the time of transfer. I guess they figured it would be a bit unnerving for adults to wake up in the bodies of infants. They’re all about the psychological effects, let me tell you. I have to go to a support group every week for a year.”

***

SUBlife: an experimental procedure, up for FDA approval, in which participants are selected via lottery to receive a new lease on life—quite literally. The lucky few, all of whom are dying from one thing or another, are cloned, their bodies aged to be what they were upon the death of their original models, and then given a transfer—bits of the brain’s memory centre are ported into the clone, so that the individual in question is able to start a second life with a full memory of their first.

If only it were so simple, though; as with any experimental procedure, the humans at the heart of it have their own issues, agendas, and reasons for wanting the ultimate of do-overs. Only in this instance they are forced to grapple with some larger-than-life questions, such as whether or not they are in fact the same people they once were, or if the transfer process, if vacating one body for another, has changed them or made them somehow less human.

Author Chiarella focuses the narrative on only one of these groups of people, cloned at Northwestern in Chicago: Hanna, an idealistic young painter with metastatic lung cancer; Linda, a mother and scholar trapped in a waking coma for eight years following a car accident; Connie, an actress who burned bright, got into drugs, and contracted HIV; and David, a right-wing US Congressman with a brain tumour the size of a golf ball.

Upon winning this lottery of lotteries, the four are given certain stipulations—they’re not to take up potentially life-altering pursuits such as skydiving and smoking, for example. Additionally, they are to meet as a support group every week for a year, to chart their progress, as the success of the program’s wider implementation rests on their cloned shoulders.

It’s during the support group, however, that we learn the most from these characters—both of their pasts (all of which are troubled in some way, shape, or form, though none more than Linda’s) and of the challenges and fears they must confront due to the fact that, effectively, they’ve died and pulled a Jesus 2.0. Some of their challenges are quite personal, such as Hannah realizing that her muscle memory for painting has not carried over to her new body; on the other hand David’s plot deals not only with the fact that he bought his way into the experiment but that he did so knowing that the God his constituents believe in, and indeed their beliefs in general, starkly oppose human cloning and, in essence, humans playing god.

Right about now I need to say a couple of things, in the interest of fair play: first, I greatly enjoyed Chiarella’s novel. It plays fast and loose with the science, naturally, but she sells it about as much as she needs to. Because it’s not about the hows or the whys, or if it’s even possible, on any conceivable level, for something like this to work; it’s about the characters, and the asking of a very real, very straightforward question: What is it that makes us human?

The second thing I need to say, and this is where it gets a bit awkward for me, is that I am a very biased reviewer with respect to this specific book, and that what prompted me to pick this title up in the first place was in reading the synopsis and saying aloud in the bookstore, “Well, fuck me, this sounds familiar.” In short, my second book, which I’ve been working on for six years now and which is currently in its fifth round of edits, shares a number of elements with Chiarella’s at the DNA level—from the cloning and transferring of minds to the resultant questions and attempts to understand what’s lost in the process, as well as what’s gained. In short, this was both exciting and a little unnerving, because the last thing any writer wants to see is their ideas or similar approximations in another’s text—we all want to view ourselves as original snowflakes, after all.

Thankfully, however, Chiarella and I differ in our focus, and with respect to the specificity of certain things. As such, I was able to detach a little more from my own work and enjoy this for what it is—a fast-paced character study with some rather lofty ideas.

While I never lost interest in what was happening or the ways in which the story progressed, I do have a few issues with certain narrative choices, and things dropped too quickly or not touched upon at all.

On the strictly narrative side of things, the affair between Hannah and David, who on paper are ethical opposites that despise one another, never really rang true. While it’s justified as two basically reborn people attempting to rationalize their new and old lives and to better understand how to define their current existence, it still felt like one of those things that is inserted into the text because the author simply needed to create further conflict. In short, it didn’t feel earned, and was not helped in this regard by the gaps of sometimes months between each part, in which a fair amount of off-the-page development seemed to occur.

I also would have loved to see further exploration into questions of their autonomy, and whether or not their lack thereof in certain circumstances alters their individual perspectives on what they now are: humans, or products of a larger corporate and/or scientific entity. This concern is most evident when Linda becomes pregnant, at her husband’s request, to try and save their splintering family, only when she has second thoughts she learns she cannot abort the child because the SUBlife committee needs the data from her pregnancy. And because her life and body had been signed over to them, she is given no say in the matter.

It also would have been interesting to witness more of the political and societal fallout from the story getting leaked to the outside world. While yes, this is meant to be an intimate tale of what’s lost and what can be regained or reset on a life-by-life basis, it’s difficult, sometimes, to take a story like this and place it in such a tight bottle—because the ramifications of such a thing merely existing would be so far reaching and dramatic as to change the tenor of the world. It’s the Robert Sawyer problem—stories that change the world but feel like they’re the size and scope of a stage play. Where Chiarella succeeds, though, and where Sawyer fails and fails and fails some more, is in having strong, intelligent characters who are struggling to figure out what their changed identity means.

To bring it back around to my aforementioned bias, I felt while reading And Again that certain character changes came about a little quickly. There’s nothing paid to the idea that their bodies are new save for their fresh and youthful appearances and an inability to taste as they once did, or handle their liquor—or, as revealed later, to be able to carry a pregnancy to term. But there’s nothing to the idea that these bodies, prior to waking up, are unused and would need extensive physical rehab; there’s also little on the medical side of things concerned with the ways in which they function differently, with respect to remembering certain skills but not having the muscle memory to carry them out (ie: Hannah and her painting). One would think they’d be given more attentive care throughout, to adjust and track such things, given all that’s riding on their ability to re-enter their lives as effortlessly and conflict-free as possible. But again, I’m projecting my own ideas onto what is, in the end, a very different story with only a similar overarching conceit.

What carries this book in the end is the journey of its four main characters. Their paths are unpredictable, for the most part, and even when they do fall into either uncharacteristic or seemingly unearned behaviours, we give them grace because they are, in some ways literally, no longer themselves. And they are figuring out what that means at the same time we are learning both who they were and who they now are.

And Again is a quick read, and while I’m not always a fan of the first person, especially when switching between characters, Chiarella gives them each a unique enough voice that one never becomes lost. This is terrific summer reading that asks a little more of its readers than the standard popcorn fare, and is successful in what it sets out to do. Definitely recommended.

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