I saw Jill McCorkle give a reading a couple of years ago and have been wanting to read her most recent novel, Life After Life, ever since. She is a dynamic speaker full of energy and verve for southern stories especially. She is originally from North Carolina, and has taught for many years in the North Carolina University system, among other places. This is the first piece of her work I have read.
McCorkle’s Life After Life follows the life and death of residents and neighbors of a retirement community in Fulton, North Carolina. It took me a few tries before I got into the book’s narrative style. Its structure is unconventional. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, and each character spends a good deal of time thinking, rather than doing, making the text at times obtuse and difficult to dive into. As I progressed through the novel, however, I grew accustomed to the distinct voices of each character, and reading their chapters felt like visiting a good friend, much as you would visit a relative in a retirement community.
While there are some flaws in the plot and character development, McCorkle’s biggest accomplishment in Life After Life comes in the overarching form. There are eight primary characters from whose points of view we see the events of the novel unfold. Though each of these chapters is told in 3rd person, we are privy to the inner thoughts of their title characters. In fact, these chapters often feel like character sketches, like explorations of what makes the character tick rather than a device to move the plot forward. Because of this, the chapters often feel meandering and at times pointless. There are two additional elements that hold the narrative together: Joanna’s 1st person journal entries and the 3rd person stream-of-consciousness entries of Joanna’s dying patients.
Having myself considered writing a piece of long fiction with different elements interspersed throughout such as prose poems, dreams, or stream-of-consciousness, it is very helpful for me to see this form in action. While this is not a collection of stories or poems, this novel does feel like it needs a spine to create cohesion among the many different perspectives. As we discussed in Kathryn Rhett’s class, “The Collection as Form”, over the summer, having a recurring element such as Joanna’s entries and the final thoughts and emotions of the dying helps to orient us in the story. As readers, it is helpful to have structural predictability if consistency is lacking elsewhere. This is in stark contrast to Stephanie Powell Watts’s No One Is Coming To Save Us. In fact, these two novels have a very similar style, but what holds McCorkle’s work together and is lacking in Powell Watts’s narrative is that consistent, orienting text that grounds us and makes us as readers feel in control.
My primary frustration with McCorkle’s Life After Life is the lack of development or believability in two particularly cruel characters and the rather rushed and incomplete ending. I felt that McCorkle could have easily cut out some of the more irrelevant thoughts of characters earlier on in favor of adding breathing space at the end and developing the plot line that kills one of her more promising characters.
Overall, the book is a lovely rumination on life and death, and the lives we live after our bodies and minds begin to deteriorate. Unfortunately, it suffers from attempts to pursue too many sub-plots and to develop too many minor characters. While fun to learn about each of them, not every character was necessary for developing the plot. Toby, for instance, did not seem to warrant her own couple of chapters. All in all, though I had trouble getting into it in the beginning, Life After Life soon grew on me and became a refuge for visiting my favorite characters. Perhaps because of this attachment to the characters, the book’s ending felt like a cheap shot, a failed attempt at tying in to the larger meaning of the book.