Imagine if a medical procedure could transfer your consciousness into a perfected version of your body. Imagine if cancer, AIDS and all sorts of illnesses can be cured, and those afflicted could wake up one morning in a perfect copy of their body, minus whatever genetic or cellular matter led to the disease in the first place. It sounds like the set-up for a Gattaca-type thriller, and I was pleasantly surprised that Jessica Chiarella’s And Again did not feel like a sci fi novel at all.
Rather than focus on the miraculous nature of the procedure, or on the corporate and political bodies attempting to benefit from its existence, Chiarella focuses on the patients who underwent the procedure. While at least two of the patients are fairly high profile (David is a conservative Congressman and Connie is a soap opera star), and while at least part of the plot does mention the political machinery behind the procedure, the bulk of the story focuses intimately on the individual lives that benefited from it. The question Chiarella poses is not so much what good or evil this procedure can bring humanity, but rather: how would you feel living life as a perfected copy of yourself?
It’s a haunting question, and particularly poignant in the case of one of the patients, Linda, who was in a car accident eight years prior and had been completely paralyzed ever since. How would it feel to be able to walk and talk again, and how could she cope with a family whose lives have moved on without her? I especially love how she comes home and finds solace in watching the soap opera she’d watched every day in her hospital bed, a rather sad reminder of what has become her normal.
Also compelling is the story of Connie, an actress whose career had ended when she was diagnosed with AIDS. The procedure gives her a new chance in her career, but what I really found touching was the friendship she’d formed with her elderly neighbour after her diagnosis. She returns home after the procedure, thinking it was mostly her looks that have changed, and her neighbour, who is blind, thinks she’s a stranger because her voice and her scent have also changed. It raises the question of how much would actually remain of you, if your body changes.
This question is most urgent for another patient, Hannah, who though the novel is told in the alternating voices of all four patients, still feels like the main character. Hannah is an artist, yet after the procedure, she realizes that she seems to have lost her talent. A comparison of her self-portraits from before and after the procedure reveals that while the subject had become younger and more attractive, the post-procedure work lacked that special something that had once made her work great.
Chiarella raises some interesting questions about personal identity, though I also wonder if focusing on a single character would have allowed her to delve into these questions a bit more deeply. Does artistic talent such as Hannah’s reside in the genes and memory, or is there some muscle memory formed as well over time, which would be lost in a new body? How desperate must a conservative politician like David be to go against his own beliefs and agree to being cloned, or are all his “beliefs” just presented for votes? Connie’s resurgence of beauty is briefly touched upon when she encounters her former agent in her new body, but the responses to it remain fairly shallow — this may be the point, but I wonder how much of the depth of emotion she brings to her roles may have been sacrificed in this new body? And Linda’s story just had a few random twists that I felt detracted from what I had found so compelling about her in the first place.
The book is well-written and the stories beautifully told. Though I admit I thought Hannah and Connie’s stories felt a bit more complete, whereas Linda and David’s stories felt somewhat abruptly cut off, Chiarella manages to juggle all four characters well enough. At the very least, this book raises some interesting questions for the reader, and inspires you to imagine: what if you are given a second chance, with a genetically perfect version of your body? What would you do with it?
Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.