Afterparty is nominally a science-fiction crime story. To an extent, that is true. There is a science-fiction element to the story; the mysterious distribution of a new super-drug that supposedly makes people instantly find God, with unpredictable results for the consumer and those around them. And there is indeed a crime involved, as well as the dark back story of the protagonist, Lyda Rose, who has her own ties to the drug. But the novel transcends genres; evades definition.
While the sci-fi elements – some very subtle, like the implied collapse of animal farming and a highly advanced Internet of Things – do serve as a catalyst for Afterparty’s events, Gregory places the spotlight squarely on Lyda and her search for answers, as well as her own version of justice. Through Gregory’s brilliantly deft writing, Lyda comes off as horribly flawed, volatile, unstable and yet she grips the reader immediately and with force. Most of the story is told through her subjective voice, and even with her assortment of mental deficiencies and exceptionally bad judgment.
Americans (this applies to Canadians as well) have had a long-standing fascination with religion and faith, seemingly unparalleled by any other modern culture. It’s a prominent feature of their politics, art and literature, and runs the gamut from thinly veiled Christian preaching to anarchic cynicism.
God seeps into every layer of Gregory’s slow-burning thriller, whether through science-vs-faith rhetoric delivered by the various characters, each with their own view on the matter, or through regular parables, a brilliant device Gregory uses to take us out of the main narrative and into flashbacks or back stories. By the simple act of naming some chapters ‘parables’, the reader’s connotation is altered, which interestingly deepens the whodunnit element of the story. Why are we being shown this? What motives drive this character’s actions? And what does it all mean?
Gregory’s reveal of the mystery at hand is gradual, blissfully void of contrived twists and always faithful to his many three-dimensional characters, most notably Lyda’s travelling companions, former lab rat Rovil, completely dysfunctional ex-secret agent/current lover Olivia and the elusive Dr Gloria. He tells this potentially chaotic tale with such coherence, such conviction, such ease of flow and such range of emotion that it’s hard not to get taken by it.
It asks profound questions of good and evil, faith and science, empathy and cruelty, even sexual identity, and does it in such a way that it will stick with any reader, whatever their literary tastes, whatever their opinions. It’s not insulting to people of religion, while revolving around the concept of God (whatever the name) being a projection of our imagination, here triggered by a super-drug.
The Road Trip From Hell is a well-trodden narrative path in American literature, but Gregory not merely avoids feeling derivative of any potential influences, but in fact creates one of the best drug-related cross-country jaunts in a long time. This is a road-trip revelation for a new generation.