Yesterday I sat in the shade under our blossoming magnolia and finished reading Robert Olen Butler’s novel, Hell. The author imagines the after lives of politicians, writers, actors, and artists. His main character is a news anchorman, and his punishments in hell include reading from flawed and obscene teleprompters (“poopy butt, poopy butt”), holding a wooden smile as the camera refuses to pan away at the end of a broadcast, and running stories by Beelzebub, his producer. I smoked a cigar and enjoyed the cool breezes that stirred the leaves and branches overhead. The contrast between the suffering depicted in the book and the comfort I felt created a pleasant dissonance.
One of the themes in the book is that we often are the cause of our own suffering. We choose situations and people who harm us. We do this repeatedly as if our learning curves are flat lines. One character in the novel, Anne Boleyn, is still obsessed with Henry VIII and is incapable of loving any other. She seeks him out, but their relationship is just as dysfunctional as it had been in the mortal realm. After one reunion she gets so depressed that she removes her head and puts it on a shelf. But in the end she reattaches and goes back to him.
Another idea that Butler revisits is that our thoughts are often a source of pain. When we live in the past and consider things we’ve done we eventually find painful memories and regrets. The protagonist, after seeking out his three ex-wives in an effort to discover how he ended up in hell, discovers little that provides him clarity. His exes are just as self-delusional as he. The newscaster learns that living in the moment, no matter how painful, causes less suffering in the long run.
The author also depicts heaven as a place of sterile perfection. In the last chapter the newscaster escapes through a back door into paradise, but eventually decides to return to hell. He realizes that he prefers a messier place where everyone searches for satisfactions they cannot find and seeks comforts that their fellow damned cannot provide. No one in hell can truly understand the suffering of another person, yet all are united by a common denominator: pain. The newscaster realizes that he belongs in hell with the flawed beings parading before him and declares his love.
A man pulled up in an old sedan across the street from me and interrupted my reading when I had just a few pages left. He delivered a pizza to the house next door. As he stepped back into his car he grimaced, slung the thermal bag into the back seat, and asked, “Why does it burn?” He dropped to the hot pavement and began to do push ups. After twenty he stood up, wiped sweat off his forehead, got into his car and drove away.
I watched his car turn a corner and disappear. I thought, “What the hell was that all about?” Maybe I need to reread the book.