I think it was the urging of Jenny and her mother, along with continued encouragement from Relentless Reading, that caused me to go out looking for a copy of Daryl Gregory’s novel Afterparty. By the time I found it, I’d forgotten what I thought it was about and just dove in.
Whoa! I surfaced after a first chapter about a girl given a drug that made her feel the presence of God into a chapter about a woman named Lyda trying to get out of some kind of mental asylum by telling her doctor that she has been “symptom free for months….No angels. No voices in my head” although I soon knew the truth, that her angel is continually giving her advice and making snappy retorts to any of Lyda’s comments about her reality. At the end of the second chapter, Lyda closes her eyes against the sight of the angel, Dr. Gloria, unfurling her wings, and the angel responds “Lo, I am with you always” and “pulsed like a migraine aura, throwing off megawatts of holy glow.”
Lyda goes to see her former drug dealer, who greets her with a shout of “Lyda Rose! My home-again rose!” which pleased me, as the melody of that song from The Music Man had been playing in my head since I’d first read her name. She’s trying to track down the source of the drug that made first-chapter girl feel the presence of God, and she knows the original designation for this drug:
“I’m looking for something designer,” I said. “I think it’s new….Some people call it Numinous….I doubted anyone was calling the substance by its birth name of NME 110….This one makes you see God.”
More specifically, she tells the dealer that the drug she is looking for “operates on the temporal lobe….makes you feel like you’re in touch with a higher power….The supernatural being is there in the room with you. You can see it, integrated in the visual field. Sometimes it talks to you….The drug makes you believe in the higher power. Depending on the dosage, the effect can last for hours or days. And if you OD….Then it doesn’t go away. For the rest of your life, you have to expend a tremendous amount of energy, every day, reminding yourself that it’s a delusion.”
Eventually Lyda sets out to find the other members of her scientific team, the ones who designed NME 110. She has to convince the others to help her, telling them how dangerous the drug is:
“The problem is not that it causes these hallucinations; it’s that it’s so damn convincing—and you stay convinced. Look at Rovil. He knows the chemistry, yet he still thinks that fucking Ganesh is there guiding him. Numinous not only installs a supernatural chaperone, it makes you believe in it.”
The time frame for the action of the novel becomes clear when Lyda says “the fundamentalists are on the ropes here. When I was a kid, they were this scary political force. Remember the Tea Party? Right-wing, Christian, and white. But then gays started marrying, minorities started outvoting them, the climate kept throwing hurricanes and floods at us. Their agenda feel apart, mostly because no young person could buy into their narrow-mindedness.”
The dialogue is fun, especially in conversations between Lyda and her former asylum-mate and present-day lover Ollie:
“I’m just curious,” Ollie said.
“Just curious? That’s a bullshit phrase.”
“It’s a simple question. How long—“
“No, it’s a signal that bullshit is about to follow. It’s the hat that bullshit puts on before it goes out to get the paper.”
Because it’s difficult to tell whose feelings belong to whom in the circles Lyda is traveling, we get a story called “The Parable of the Million Bad Mothers” with the almost-infinite “what-if” scenarios the mother of an infant who “had been exposed to a massive amount of NME 110” can think up. So many scenarios, in fact, that not making a decision to let the child be adopted results in the decision to let her.
Later, because Lyda is tracking down everyone who overdosed on NME 110 with her, they find the child, who has been adopted by one of them, and they all learn the complete story of what happened. Entitled “the parable of the man who sacrificed himself,” it begins with a party to which “one of the guests had invited God. The deity was smuggled into the party inside a champagne bottle.”
In the end, God and her child convince Lyda that the drug numinous is not as dangerous as a rational atheist scientist might think. God says to her that “people need the divine in their lives….Science is a pale, unconvincing story compared to faith. You offer nothing—a mind that dies with the body. Numinous offers a living god. A god of love.” Her child says that it’s okay to have imaginary friends, like Dr. Gloria. “Just ‘cause she’s imaginary doesn’t mean she’s not real” the child says. And in the end, of course, she really has been with Lyda, always, turning the stories of her life into something else.
Surfacing from the deep pool of this novel takes a while. It reminds me of the ending of Faulkner’s The Wishing Tree, a book I had as a child, where the heroine can feel herself rising up out of sleep “like a balloon; it was like she was a goldfish in a round bowl of sleep, rising and rising through the warm waters of sleep to the top….and it was like there was still another little balloon inside her, getting bigger and bigger and rising and rising. Soon it would be at her mouth, then it would pop out and jump right up against the ceiling. The little balloon inside her got bigger and bigger, making all her body and her arms and legs tingle, as if she had just eaten a piece of peppermint.”
The peppermint tingling is the excitement of just having read something good, something that can live in my imagination for a while, insulating me against the possibility of boredom in my everyday life, while I drive to the gas station or walk around the aisles of the grocery store–looking like everybody else, but with a full and satisfied brain.