Monday, May 13, 2013

Book review: The Afterlife of Emerson Tang by Paula Champa

Beth Corvid is an archivist who works for the wealthy art collector Emerson Tang. Beth and Emerson are both solitary, private people, and their arrangement suits them both well until Emerson discloses he has a terminal illness. Then Beth takes on a larger role in his life, coordinating his medical care as well as overseeing his collections.

Emerson is only in his early 30's. He is angry that is life is being cut short and thinks that nothing comes afterward. Beth knows better, because she had a near-death experience as a child, and ever since has felt on the outside of things. She pines for the peace she had during her experience and has no idea what purpose she returned for.

Beth and Emerson discuss what will happen to his art collections after he's gone, but he refuses to talk about the vintage car he acquired without her knowledge, a 1954 Beacon roadster. One day, artist Helene Moreau contacts Emerson. Helene is known for the futurist "Speed paintings" she created by running cars over canvases. She is interested in the Beacon and offers to buy it.

Emerson refuses to sell to Helene and furthermore becomes obsessed with the idea of uniting the body of the car with its original engine. During this quest, Beth meets Miguel Beacon, the grandson of the auto company’s founder who is trying to both revive the brand and invision more sustainable transportation. Miguel offers to help find the engine. The story follows the quest for the engine and its aftermath, each character dealing with the effects of longing, loss, and grieving.

The Afterlife of Emerson Tang is an immensely thoughtful novel. Although much of the plot revolves around a vintage car and first-time novelist Paula Champa provides some interesting ideas on the appeal of cars and speed, the novel mainly deals with death and grief. Emerson struggles against death. Beth has never embraced her own life after her narrow escape from death, and she must figure out how to live without Emerson. Helen Moreau has been stuck in grief over a lost relationship and counts on the car to reignite her creative spark. Miguel is striving to deal with the demise of his grandfather’s company by both reviving it and making something new.

Champa's gorgeous, intelligent writing provides many memorable passages. One of my favorites: "What is a vehicle but a private capsule? One in which the mundane errands and memorable adventures of a life are accomplished. By some alchemy, through this constant association, a mingling, a transmutation can occur. In memories alone, a car is capable of encapsulating and entire life. Or more than one."

I found part one of the book ("The Body") completely engrossing, and I loved all the questions it raised. Part two ("The Engine") failed to deliver on the promise of the first for me. The addition of Miguel at this point (he does not appear in part one) and his coincidental relationships was a hindrance rather than a help. I actually wish he had been left out, because all the pieces were in place without him. Beth, Emerson, and Helene’s story, with its philosophical questions about cars, life, and death, was enough for me.

Regardless, Champa’s ambitious debut provides plenty of food for thought. I may never look at cars in quite the same way again.

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