What if at the moment of your death, your consciousness was transported to another body, a body through which you can see and hear but not taste or smell or feel? You don’t supplant the body’s consciousness, nor can you communicate with it and have no control over the body’s functions. All you can do is ride along like a passenger. Does that sound appealing?
That’s the situation in Martin Riker’s mind-bending debut novel “Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return,” and if that sounds like a kind of hell, join the club. But thanks to Riker’s charming narrator it turns out to be a great deal of fun.
Samuel Johnson (who shares a name but no relations with the 18th-century English prose stylist) owes much of his charm to his upbringing. Samuel grew up in a small, isolated Christian community in central Pennsylvania called Unityville, about which Samuel has this to say: “It is an idealistic name, Unityville, and well earned, in my opinion. There is great, near-total unity in Unityville. There are also only about thirty people, all of them zealots.”
Samuel is a bit naive, but not in a Forrest Gump kind of way, and the novel takes the shape of a narrative written after considerable life experience, which we’ll come back to in a bit.
Though Unityville could be called a cult, Samuel’s childhood is idyllic if a little dull. The arrival of a contraband television shakes up Samuel’s life and awakens in him a sense of possibility beyond his present circumstances. The television brings the outside world to Samuel, but it also pulls him closer to Emily, a young woman whose secret passion for televised programming matches his own.
“And this was how I came to have what might properly be called a life,” Samuel tells us. “A life with people and a life with television. A life with people and television.”
The couple marry, have a child — Samuel Jr. — and that’s when things get strange for our hero. Samuel foils a drifter’s desperate attempt to kidnap his son, but is killed in the process. Samuel’s consciousness migrates to the body of his killer and takes up residence until the killer is killed and Samuel is booted out and inhabits the body of the next closest person.
“Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return” then is a chronicle of his adventures in other peoples’ bodies and his hapless and largely ineffectual attempts to return home to see his son.
Because Samuel is powerless to exert any kind of influence on the body in which he has taken up residence, there is very little he can “do.” As a result, he becomes keenly interested in watching television. “[I]t would be fair to say the story of Samuel Johnson,” Samuel reflects, “is almost as much about television as it is about Samuel Johnson.”
As it happens, Riker has a lot of interesting things to say about television and its impact on society and the imagination. Samuel often reflects on an unusually dark episode of “Andy Griffith” that he watched on the night he was murdered.
This show, Season 5, Episode 23, was originally aired in 1965 and is called, ironically enough, “TV or Not TV.” It hinges on criminals who disguise themselves as TV producers to take advantage of the fact that the Sheriff of Mayberry never wears a gun. Samuel’s affinity for Mayberry comes as no surprise as it bears such a strong resemblance to Unityville.
Eventually, Samuel comes into contact with people who are attuned to his presence and give him pointers for navigating what he refers to as his “afterlife.” He even meets a fellow traveler — another soul housed in someone else’s body — and learns how to temporarily control his host. Whenever this happens, he invariably steers his body toward Unityville.
It’s not always a smooth journey. Samuel’s situation means there are some redundancies. Each time his host’s body dies, there is a sameness to the getting-to-know you phase no matter how different their lives may be, which bears some semblance to the formulaic television programming of Samuel’s youth.
That said, Riker’s knack for putting Samuel in impossible situations while getting him closer to his goal is hugely entertaining. Then there is the matter of his manuscript, which is simultaneously the story of his adventures in the afterlife and the story the reader holds in her hands.
As the novel accelerates toward its heart-wrenching conclusion, its composition becomes increasingly meta and feels a bit like being stuck inside a high-concept time travel movie.
“But if there is one lesson my story must have taught us all by now, it is that nothing is allowed to end in this world.”
Like a television rerun, Samuel’s situation repeats, but the story of his eternal return does end, as all books must, in a manner that is absolutely dazzling. Given the limitations Riker has imposed on poor ghostly Samuel, it’s remarkable that he was able to get any kind of novel out of his circumstances, much less one so moving and profound.
Ruland is the author of the novel “Forest of Fortune” and the host of the reading series Vermin on the Mount.
Coffee House Press: 256 pp., $16.95 paper