“Here’s a story
’bout a man named Fred
woke up in the fog
to find he was dead.
He remembered who he was
all the folks he used to be,
like a clown in the circus
and a sailor out to sea.
He was ready to go back
in just a little while.
He wanted to go home
to make the world smile.”
So goes a little ditty in Robert Springer’s The Organ Pipes of the Soul. The hero’s name is not Fred, however, it’s Arthur. Washed up in a fog, Arthur is rescued by the Keeper and his dog, who take him to the Lighthouse where certain things seem familiar: the wallpaper, the sound of the screen door, the weight of the dog’s head, the foghorn of the ferry coming in—but not his own face in the mirror. The place seems oddly bereft of personal items. When he wonders about this he’s told “no one lives here”. That’s a big clue that Arthur hasn’t washed up on just any old beach. He’s arrived on the Waking Shore of the Isle of the Dead.
Robert Springer’s afterlife is peppered with familiar names and symbols: Hades, the Ferryman, the Gatekeeper, the Lighthouse, etc. We presume Arthur has drunk of the river Lethe (Greek for “forgetfulness” or “concealment”) because he’s suffering from amnesia, and, well… he’s dead. But unlike the Greek myth, where only after the dead have had their memories erased by the Lethe can they be reincarnated, in Springer’s afterlife the opposite seems to be true. Only those who can remember enough of who they are or who they wanted to be are eligible to be reborn, to ‘go home.’ To help them along arrivals at the Isle of the Dead can opt from different Stations: the Museum, the Library, the Conservatory, the Gallery— a kind of university in the hereafter. It’s a lesson in co-creation; everyone crossing to the Waking Shore is expected to choose their own heaven by following their bliss, and by patient study attain their next life. As Springer puts it:
“Death should be a haven from life’s riotous exuberance, a place for spirits to rest before plunging back into the uproar of life.”
But as we enter the story something has gone terribly wrong. The afterlife isn’t what it used to be: the Gatekeeper ups the fare, the Ferryman is on the take, and the Stationmasters can’t be trusted. In fact, it seems not so much an afterlife as a parallel world with just as many rules and just as much conflict as the ‘real’ world. We learn that time here is measured in “Frames”, (each created by the landing of the ferry) new arrivals can die a second death of complete obliteration (by failing to remember), and spirits can be become intertwined, restricting and redefining the new lives to come.
For Arthur, reincarnation is a bit like the movie Groundhog Day; rather than moving on, he keeps returning to the same life and the same afterlife—a phenomenon known as “serial reincarnation”—brought on by his love for Elle, the woman he’s been in love with in every life, yet has never been able to be with. When she shows up in the same “Frame” of the afterlife, he realizes this is his last chance to get it right. Slowly Arthur’s amnesia wears off and the workings of this particular slice of heaven are revealed, namely that he is the co-creator not only of his many lives loving Elle from a distance, but of this carefully constructed afterlife gone wrong.
The subtitle of the book—A Theodicy of Love and Reincarnation in a Desperate Afterlife—reinforces this idea that free will is paramount, even after death. A theodicy is a philosophical construct that attempts to answer the question of why God permits evil. Springer writes:
“… Love forms the ground plane of the universe — that the universe arose not in a moral vacuum, but out of love, and that all the evils therein are a departure from its nature.
All evil is therefore human evil, and it results from being cut off from God, which is the essence of sin. So the question of why does God permit evil can be answered in part by saying ‘because God permits us to exist.”
He goes on to have God, aptly appearing as ‘the Fisherman’, answer the question this way:
“If ‘all the world’s a stage,’ I designed the set and provided the outline. Oh, and I did have the key walk-on role. The rest is an improvisation. Other than periodically sending someone onstage to tell the players to consider the bigger picture and to treat each other nicely, I work with the free choices the ‘actors’ make, and bad choices have led us to the brink. We are in a crisis, and now I need to know what you are willing to do to fix it.”
This quote is ostensibly about Arthur’s afterlife, but might just as easily apply to our waking world today. Our multiple crises are of our own making, and we must solve them ourselves. In the end Arthur is advised to sacrifice all of himself, and I can’t help but think we are being asked to do the same.
With its complex structure and large cast of characters, Organ Pipes of the Soul is a rich reimagining of death and reincarnation. If your idea of heaven is grand museum, a library full of books, or a place to study art or music, you will get more than a taste, but if your idea of heaven is peace and tranquility, you won’t find it here. Questions of free will aside, this is a barroom brawl of an afterlife, and a rip roarin’ tale.