It just might be the oldest question: What happens when we we die? Is there anything more to look forward to beyond becoming our own special brand of compost? What happens to the stuff that is us, those things that make us unique and special snowflakes? Does it really all just vanish, melt away? These are enormous, eternal questions, and in a scientific era, they haven't escaped the attention of the men (and women) in the white coats.
Mary Roach is the perfect person to examine where science and the soul might meet. A long-time science journalist, her previous book examined the more tangible things that happen to people — more specifically, to their bodies — after death. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers was an immensely readable book that managed to treat death with the kind of dignity and humour that thumbs its nose at taboos. The book is on my top ten list of books of the '00s. And so, I went into Spook thinking that Mary Roach was a natural choice to examine the other side of death, that I would be very fortunate to have her as a tour guide. I wasn't disappointed. In her introduction, Roach explains:
This is a book for people who would like very much to believe in a soul and in an afterlife for it to hang around in, but who have trouble accepting these things on faith. It's a giggly, random, utterly earthbound assault on our most ponderous unanswered question. Its spirituality treated like crop science.
The book features chapters with titles like "You Again: A visit to the reincarnation nation" and "The Vienna Sausage Affair." Between each chapter is a single image to illustrate the subject matter, photos that are as ironic and odd and compelling as Roach's approach to the book itself. Typical of the delightful skepticism and humour in Roach's work is a description of Catholic Church's reaction to early scientific inquiry about the afterlife. They feared that the research might open a window that couldn't be closed, with disastrous results. "But the window presumably opens by itself, whenever something dies," notes Roach, wondering where the threat could be in examining that phenomenon before going on to wonder: "Why can't souls use doors like the rest of us?
This kind of goofy humour, this childlike questioning provides a great deal of the book's character. Roach has an uncanny ability to say what her fellow cynics and skeptics might be thinking, asking serious questions with a lighthearted edge, and lighter questions with weighty seriousness. She also doesn't flinch at the scatological. In a footnote, she ponders the medical terminology for excrement, "motion."
Perhaps this is why the term "motion pictures" was replaced by "movies." Now that I see it on the page, "movie" would have been a far better BM euphemism than "motion." I'd love to chat, but I need to make a movie.
Spook is not an impassive academic treatise. As with Stiff, the story is as much about how Roach, as a human being, reacts to the experience of her research as it is about the science itself. She is a participant-observer, in as much as one can be when death is your milieu. Roach is trying to understand what death means, the people who claim to have answers, or who just share her questions. To do this, she's up for anything, whether it's watching mediums lab tested like rats, attending heart-stopping surgeries in the hope of glimpsing out-of-body experiences, meeting with the next of kin of a ghostly will writer whose final (contentious) testament appeared after his demise, or attending a course to learn how to bring out your own inner medium.
The course was held in the former home of parapsychology researcher, Arthur Findley, which now houses the Spiritualists' National Union, complete with gift shop. Roach reports on how inept and incredulous she feels compared to her fellow students:
Earlier today, I heard someone say the words, "I felt at one with the divine source of creation." … I had to fight the urge to push back my chair and start screaming: STAND BACK! ALL OF YOU! I'VE GOT AN ARTHUR FINDLAY BOX CUTTER! Instead, I quietly excused myself and went to the bar, to commune with spirits I know how to relate to.
Roach wants to believe, she tries to believe. Part Mulder, part Scully, she seeks her belief via knowledge. By the end of the book, Roach has discovered some shysters and some charlatans, but no sure answers. Roach is still asking: Is there life after death? If there is, Roach concludes, those who could tell us about it are being too vague for science… but just enthralling enough to have allowed her to write another supernaturally lively book.