Saturday, October 11, 2014

Review of "Outnumbering the Dead" by Frederik Pohl

Looking through my wife’s Angora today—a magazine offering a literal smorgasbord of articles from around the world—I was struck by one of the photos.  It was a close up of Melanie Griffith, an actress I remember from when I was young.  The makeup unable to hide it, the cosmetic surgery she’s undergone has, to some degree, kept her looking younger than she really is.  Age, however, still peers undeniably through the artifice.  And it got me thinking about many things, including the haves and the have nots, as well as the mindset regarding old age that brought about such anxiety as to warrant surgical defiance of time.  It was a nice segue into the novella I read this evening: Frederik Pohl’s 1990 Outnumbering the Dead.

Outnumbering the Dead is the story of Rafiel Gutmaker-Fensterborn, a movie star who takes rejuvenation treatments, but for reasons better left to the reader to discover, remains mortal.  Unlike his fellow actors, groupies, and the majority of humanity, Rafiel knows his time will pass long before others.  The pain of a recent breakup still heavy on his heart, at the outset of the story Rafiel accepts a role as Oedipus for a song-and-dance remake of the classic Sophocles play.  A couple of important surprises revealing themselves during the shoot, not the least of which regards his health, Rafiel is forced to reevaluate his life and career. 

Published in Pohl’s seventy-first year of life, long after his most famous works had come out, Outnumbering the Dead shows that with age he had only refined his writing.  The story moving gracefully and effortlessly, thoughts regarding death, career, and legacy—thoughts that must certainly also have been on Pohl’s own mind—are (vicariously) represented in the window the reader is granted into Rafiel’s life.  Simple words from European languages are added to the dialogue in order to give the characters a false air of sophistication, but when the “nuts and bolts” of real life enter the scene, are quickly dropped in favor of more direct, practical representation.  It all makes for a heartfelt conclusion—a surprise given the initial dislike many readers will have for Rafiel the poppycock.

In the end, Outnumbering the Dead will not be to everyone’s taste.  A reserved, erudite story, it depends on quality prose, introspection, and the confrontation of life’s more difficult (read: mortal) questions for substance.  Robert Silverberg’s Sailing to Byzantium deals with very similar subject matter, and serves as a nice companion piece to Pohl’s given the opposition of character perspectives between the two stories.

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