Imagine you were given a flawless, brand-new body, complete with a transfer of every memory. What are your grandiose dreams for that new body? To break a world record? Become the next American president? Dance as prima ballerina on a spotlight stage? Jessica Chiarella’s debut novel And Again introduces four flawed characters who have the chance to answer that very question.
Meet Linda, paralyzed from the neck down. David, a congressman with brain cancer. Connie, the ex-daytime TV star fighting AIDS. And Hannah, a painter-turned-cancer-patient. Strangers to each other and themselves, these four inaugural patients in the “SUBlife” program—an experimental medical procedure at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital—emerge from their deathbeds in perfect, cloned versions of their former bodies.
Soon enough the patients realize they’re unable to ponder the grandiose. Instead, they’re trapped in the everyday: learning to walk, rebuilding their muscles, plucking their eyebrows, remembering how to hold a paintbrush. The ordinary becomes extraordinary when they’re faced with fingers that have never felt a papercut, taste buds never introduced to black coffee, and lips that have never kissed a lover.
Chiarella, too, turns the ordinary to extraordinary through her beautifully haunting descriptions of these characters navigating their new bodies—and, in turn, capturing what it really means to be human. They must grapple with the fear that one’s humanity does not consist entirely of one’s soul—or memories—but that they may have lost part of themselves in the transfer to their new bodies.
Hannah, for one, realizes,
“It’s how the pioneers must have felt, the explorers, riding their horses through tall, wind-swept grasses. That feeling of danger, lingering around the edges, making everything bright and clear and evident. How significant they were, by simply crossing that bit of earth. And I realize, perhaps for the first time, how alike we are, the four of us.”
Chiarella is also a pioneer as a writer, spinning a plot that’s as groundbreaking as the medical procedure Linda, David, Connie, and Hannah undergo.
Given that Chiarella is a Chicago native who completed her MA in Writing and Publishing at DePaul University with Rebecca Johns Trissler—and that her debut novel is about second chances—it’s only fitting for And Again to be set in the Second City. Further, the new beginnings for the SUBlife patients are just as rocky as those early days of Chicago’s own rebirth in 1871.
Linda, the former tetraplegic, must navigate a variety of responses to her failing marriage—especially difficult when her old life consisted of: “One for no. Two for yes… so much simpler before.” Connie and David struggle to see whether their old bad habits can die hard. And Hannah questions her creative ability, as she realizes her new body can only create soulless paintings. “It would be easy, to forget who I was before,” she says. “The artist, the girl with all the talent, the one with the sharp edges.” As the group struggles to rebuild their lives, the question remains: is the awkward discomfort of their new situation worse than the insufferable pain of dying?
It is Linda who truly captures the SUBlife experience. Able to touch and feel for the first time since she was paralyzed, her guilty pleasure is dipping her hand into a jar of uncooked rice on her kitchen counter. “It’s a shivery feeling, like dipping your hand into water that’s not quite water, and I do it again and again… feeling my stomach clench every time at the sensation.”
Reading And Again is not unlike plunging your hand into that jar of rice: you’ll want to experience the “shivery feeling” evoked by Chiarella’s strong, even prose and memorable characters again and again.
And Again by Jessica Chiarella
Published January 12th, 2016