The plot revolves around the death of Elner Shimfissle, who passes into the Great Beyond only to be sent back, to the chagrin of obituary writers, physicians, and anxious family alike. After a few hours spent visiting with Ginger Rogers, wondering at orange squirrels with purple polka dots, and having a slice of heavenly cake with an old friend, Elner wakes up in the hospital and sends everyone around her scurrying to figure out why she's not dead. Her small Missouri town froths with the kind of antics only a sleepy community can put on.
Flagg's work kept me smiling all the way. It was only near the end that I finally realized what the book missed.
I enjoy listening to Prairie Home Companion, the Minnesota radio show hosted by Garrison Keillor. (I can't when Sara's in the car; she won't abide it.) I find his vignettes, especially "The News from Lake Wobegon" and "Guy Noir," quite funny. I have, however, also noticed that his work--for this seems to be true of all the radio pieces I've heard as well as the one book of his I've read--lacks something essential. His stories have no real tension.
The stories of this midwest radio show bring the listener into no real danger, no real risk, nothing which would generally draw one to the edge of one's seat. This absence of conflict or vital uncertainty no doubt makes the show safer for listening while driving, but that essential peak of conflict about which we learned in high school English (thank you, Aristotle) sucks the life out of the narrative. More than that, the sound of Keillor's voice conjures the idea, right at the outset, that nothing's really at stake, everything will be all right, and if I miss something it won't matter. Keillor's work is shot through with hakuna matata, but without the catchy Disney beat. After all, what can go wrong when "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average"?
Elner Shimfissle's glimpse of heaven offers the world no stunning insights; in fact, it offers no insights at all. The one plot hook that offered potential was the presence of Elner's pistol in her hamper. She takes the secret to her grave (again) at the end of the book. And we're told, in the words of one of the characters via flashback, that the only lesson from that secret is "Think what you want, but some days luck is just on your side." With a back-from-the-other-side opportunity, Flagg could have shown us the excitement of life, the danger or the thrill. She could have used Elner Shimfissle to ignite our passion for something or someone transcendent. She could have cracked open the mundane and revealed the numinous. Instead, like the flaccid young men of Lake Wobegon, she shrugs her narrative shoulders and declares that good or bad is all about luck.
The legacy of Elner Shimfissle gave me lots of chuckles and a few laughs out loud. But if life is up to chance, and heaven is just a place where the squirrels are orange and the cake tastes better, Elner and Flagg can have them. I want a life with more grit and an afterlife with more hope.