The Next Person You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom
Mitch Albom’s The Next Person You Meet in Heaven is his fifteen-years-later sequel to The Five People You Meet In Heaven, which follows in its predecessor’s path tightly. It embraces the original’s structure and thematic content, but sufficiently fleshes out its own identity to avoid being branded a cash-grab clone. So well does the format work in this second go-around, that the series could continue indefinitely as an anthology series on the Hallmark Channel. It’s a tricky endeavor to portray an entire life within a relatively brief work of fiction, but Albom succeeds reasonably well. Sadly, despite these apparent accomplishments in craft, Albom is guilty of peddling feel-good truisms intended to console devout believers in a manner that severely lacks substance. He is essentially a self-proclaimed psychic performing a cold reading to make readers feel better about their existence despite apparent evidence to the contrary. While this goal might seem benevolent enough, the suspension of critical thinking is a moral failing in any culture or era.
Albom presents the life of Annie: After a childhood and early adulthood riddled with mistakes, obstacles, and insecurity, she finally finds love and marriage by reconnecting with a childhood pal. The day after their wedding they go on a spontaneous hot air balloon ride gone wrong, resulting in Annie’s abrupt death. As with Eddie in the original book, Annie ascends to Heaven where she meets five people who played a significant role in her life—some obvious, others tangential. Each figure talks through the events of Annie’s life to help make sense of it all in retrospect.
These conversations boil down to truisms and feel-good maxims of the kind people share in inspirational memes on Facebook: We often think things are about us, when they actually aren’t. Love is not something to be forced. War is the same everywhere. Albom even employs tautological statements asserting that love comes when it comes. A book about heaven, carrying moral lessons of this kind, belongs primarily on the summer reading list of a Catholic high school.
An authorial foreword offers the disclaimer that the book provides only his imaginative version of heaven, not a prescribed dogma. There’s nonetheless a significant concern that portraying an afterlife with this kind of informational infrastructure is educationally harmful. Albom preys on insecure readers by consoling them with the suggestion that when they die and go to heaven, an omnipotent cast of characters will present a detailed powerpoint that will help them make sense all the troubling, confusing events in their lifetime. This is a moral infraction because it reduces a reader’s incentive to take action now to make sense of both their own choices and the actions of others—all floating in the ever-present cytoplasm of chance and circumstance. Depending on where you fall on the grid of Pascal’s wager, now may be the only opportunity you have. In which case, to defer this responsibility, is to unknowingly cancel it permanently. Plus, to preach that even the most tragic and gruesome horrors all serve some greater universal net gain, is an unforgivable suspension of critical thinking that rationalizes and normalizes fully preventable horrors.
As a wise marketing decision, The Next Person definitely stands on its own—readers unfamiliar with the original entry won’t be confused even when the narrative alludes to events of the first book. That said, knowing that a majority of readers will have read the original, it’s irritating that Albom makes such a prolonged effort to explain his version of the afterlife. Annie continually asks questions intended to be audience-surrogate inquiries: What is going on here? What was that? None of this makes sense to me? Since the audience full well knows the afterlife infrastructure by this point, Annie’s Alice-in-Wonderland reactions of curiosity and confusion quickly grow tiresome. The “transitions” between each of the five people Annie meets, feature all manner of surreal, abstract assaults on the senses. Landscapes morph, bizarre visions come and go, all serving as convenient anti-segues to get Annie from here to there in a disorienting fish-out-of-water kerfuffle. It all unintentionally highlights the reality that the afterlife cannot in fact wrap up the sum of your existence with a neat deliberate bow.
Most offensively, the book’s ending employs an cop-out that egregiously has its cake and devours it too, shamefully peeling away the stakes upon which the narrative had been built. Convenient solutions of the kind Albom employs here are an unforgivable offense, cheating the reader in an attempt to surprise and please. Given the amount of “Everything is Awesome” sentiments delivered throughout, perhaps this plot escape-route is fitting. But were the series to continue as further books or Hallmark Channel live action productions, Albom’s going to have to start playing by his own rules.