In Miranda Mellis’s short novel The Spokes, the narrator, Lucia, embarks on a journey to the afterlife, to reconcile the apparent suicide of her mother, Silver Spokes. It is “a realm whose primary substance is not time,” a hazy echo of our own, living, world. The dead wander confused and purposeless, pondering questions of existence. Musicians play age-old tunes to fill the cold air. We meet gods who are clueless and spaced-out kids who talk to their hands.
At first, it’s unclear what Lucia has in mind for her trip. A customs agent warns her not to eat the food, which, of course, she does, almost upon arrival. She speaks of a unique sort of “jet lag,” and for the first page or so, it’d be fair to think she had boarded a cruise ship to the Bermuda Triangle or some other vertiginous land. But once she sees her mother, it becomes apparent what this story is really about: relationships in peril and the fallout of a catastrophe that could have been avoided.
That’s not to say that The Spokes is a family melodrama. What it offers in direct human emotion it matches several times over in poetic, hallucinatory speculation. There is no stable ground in this afterworld, and its occupants aren’t even afforded the grim satisfaction of knowing why they are dead and where they are going in the end.
In many ways the world resembles our own dreams, where fact and fiction, physical and fantastical, mingle in a confounding, fractured whole. Which is ironic, considering the role actual dreams play in the narrative. At one point Lucia awakes on a park bench and is greeted by her mother and a younger version of herself. She recalls, “They spoke to me about my dream, which they called a movie, for dreams in the afterworld are movies for the dead.” Dreams are entertainment—a diversion from the harsher dimensions of this reality. Elsewhere, Lucia asks her mother why she chose to take her own life. Silver says, “Life seemed unreal; a death-dream. In any case, it wasn’t choice, but chance … . We don’t posses our selves, you know.” Here, it seems, is the paradox at play—life as an inversion of itself, unknowable, and forever drifting further from the truth.
Elsewhere, Mellis elaborates on these philosophical head games. But more often she defers to art, which functions as a sort of map to this transitional universe. The afterworld is organized around a series of “stations,” where the dead gather to do whatever it is they do. Each station is, in fact, a different work of art: Philip Guston’s The Tormentors, Toulouse-Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge, Nancy Spero’s Tongues. Whereas in our own world art occupies the outer limits of expression, here it functions as geography, a stand-in for space, time, and logic. It is a point of continuity between the living, the dead, and also a divergence.
None of this measures up to Lucia’s expectations of the afterlife. She had imagined “everyone drinking coppery nectar in the bright light, geniuses standing by windows combing each other’s hair, snow on the statues, and long-bearded beauties with piercing eyes.” She finds dancing, dream movies, an all-gelatin diet, famous paintings, and dead family members. But she does not find the resolution—of heaven and hell, perhaps—that she has anticipated.
Eventually, Lucia and Silver are transported to the apartment of Lucia’s father, Leo. She possesses his body and tells him to “remember.” He drives out to the cemetery where Silver is buried, but it is closed for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. Lucia, meanwhile, finds herself along a coastal highway. She is still full of questions, but seems more at ease. Near-reconciliation is, it seems, as far as she’s going to get.
The Spokes is a difficult book and, at times, hard to make sense of. Mellis’s stark, aphoristic prose brings the reader into a different world. But in this world nothing is literal and nothing can be truly understood. There is confusion at nearly every level of the story, which is all the stranger considering how briskly it is told. But there is also a sense of warmth to The Spokes that enlivens the dreary talk of death. It is experimental fiction as folklore, an attempt to address, in the simplest terms, the questions of who we are, where we are going, and why.