If you had more than one life to live in order to achieve perfection, how would you go about it? Michael Poore’s Reincarnation Blues is a wildly imaginative tale of a man who lives nearly 10,000 lives — almost an eternity — only to fall in love with Death herself.

Poore is an American fiction writer widely praised by critics as well as readers for his highly experimental fantasy fiction that employs the same postmodern techniques as those used by none other than the contemporary master of fantasy, Neil Gaiman himself. His debut novel Up Jumps the Devil was well received in literary circles. 

In his second novel, Poore takes us on a thrilling ride through time and space, from the simplistic life in the ancient Indus Valley to Renaissance Italy to galaxies far away, while the protagonist Milo makes one blunder after another and ruins each one of his lives. When we meet him for the first time, he is a wise fisherman enjoying a serene life at sea and an amorous life in the town. When he dies on one of his fishing expeditions we get to know more about his other lives, albeit randomly.

Ten thousand reincarnations to get it right — but if all you end up with is loss of individuality, what’s the difference between Perfection and Nothingness?

What Milo doesn’t realise is that after having spent 9,995 lives, he has only five more left to achieve “Perfection” or else his fate will be worse than that of a dung beetle as he will have to face not hell, but total annihilation.

It turns out that the reason Milo has failed so diabolically at achieving Perfection is his independent spirit. He finds joy in the moment of living rather than aspiring to some less than appetising ideals. Every time he dies, Death ushers him to the immortal realm where Mama and Nan (representatives of the Divine) are waiting to give a verdict on his latest life. If he has lived a good one, his next reincarnation will be good too. However, if his current existence has been less than comely, he will be born as an insect or a tree in the next. Unluckily for him, when you’re on Earth it can be hard to tell whether you’re living a truly soulful life, but he “had led enough questionable lives to know that bad things worked their way into your soul. When you had done wicked things, you arrived in the afterlife with a berserker of a hangover.” (Thanks to his numerous lives, Milo has accumulated quite a lot of wisdom. Unfortunately, “Wisdom is not the same as Perfection.”)

Instead of progressing in a linear fashion, the book gives us random glimpses into Milo’s various lives in the intervals between his last five existences, and there is almost no sense of repetition because all the stories show him as a different man — or sometimes a woman. Over the course of 500 years he has been — among other things — a sorcerer’s apprentice, a rabbi named Aben ben Aben, a tree, a devoted wife, a soldier, an emperor and a young boy called Milovasu Predesh who harbours high ambitions of becoming the tribal chief in the Indus Valley in 2600 BC.

Despite the generally amusing and mischievous drift and some occasional buffoonery, the book gets one thinking. Be it valuable life lessons or general musings, Poore puts it all together in a fun package. Consider the foreknowledge of death, for instance. Even if you know that Death is coming for you and you also happen to be in love with her, death is never going to be easy. But just in case one might be wondering about the precise sensation of the act of dying, it feels like “someone was working on you with a plunger.”

Now, when you get to die thousands of times, it’s inevitable to become partial to one manner. For Milo, his best death was when he was a soldier in Vienna and was shot from a catapult over the city walls by the Turks during a battle: “Crushing speed, and then flying through the night in a universe of battle smoke, the fires of the starving city beneath him. Horrifying but wonderful, wonderful!”

With no dearth of witticism from the beginning to the very end, Reincarnation Blues delightfully deals with the question of human existence and its significance in the bigger scheme of things. Poore’s universe is comprised of human world(s) and a divine realm referred to variously as The Oversoul, Everything, The Great Reality or The Universal Boa. The universe, we are told, doesn’t have a judge or a landlord: “It’s like a river. It flows and changes and does what it has to do to stay in balance.” And time is a “swamp inside a giant washing machine.” The difference between the human world and the afterlife is that things after death are warmer, brighter and more real that than the rest of the universe. Poore’s idea of heaven as “pure form” is very similar to Plato’s theory of forms, according to which our world is merely a shadow world while there is a pure, ideal form of every object in the world of pure forms. Although Poore is inspired by Plato’s ideas, he shows a clear bias towards the human world in all its glorious imperfections.

Milo was not a particularly good meditator. He cracked open a beer, and watched the sun come up. Meanwhile, as always, the more he tried to think of nothing, the more he thought of ridiculous, noisy [things] like his big toe, or France. Maybe he would get a new tattoo... He was, perhaps, the crappiest meditator in the world. But he noticed this, accepted it, and let it humble him. Humility was one of the things that made him a wise man. — Excerpt from the book

As noted earlier, all souls in this universe get 10,000 tries, and if they achieve Perfection they merge with The Oversoul, losing their individuality. If they fail to attain Perfection, then their fate is Nothingness. Milo, however, is not in the least interested in dissolving to become a part of Everything; he’s happy being himself.

Death, meanwhile, prefers to be called ‘Suzie’ since no one in their right mind — even if it’s a demigod or universal soul — would choose ‘Death’ as their name. Though lethally beautiful, Suzie has dreams as ordinary as any human: she wants to open up a shop where she will sell candles. She also disagrees with Nan and Mama about the way “Things Are Meant to Be” and finds herself drawn to the human world. Through her many years of working as Death she has come to the conclusion that happiness usually “scares the crap out of people” who — not unlike our hero Milo — flounder their way through life, finding a masochistic pleasure in making a mess of everything.

Wildly entertaining and rather shrewd, Reincarnation Blues is a brilliant mix of fantasy, sci-fi and Zen. To those of us who have ever felt frustrated for not being the best version of themselves, this book is a reminder: that sometimes even a near infinity of lives can be insufficient to learn what it means to be a human.

The reviewer is an Ankara-based freelance writer

Reincarnation Blues
By Michael Poore
Del Rey, UK
ISBN: 978-0399178481
384pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 29th, 2017

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