by Tim Powers
Orb Books 2007
$15.95; 381 pages
Expiration Date is a "companion novel" to Last Call. It isn't a sequel, but it shares the same world. A few characters with minor roles in Last Call end up being central in Expiration Date. Expiration Date also has a theme in much the same way Last Call did. While Last Call is about the Fisher King, the book also explores the world of professional poker players, and the weirdness that is Las Vegas. In a similar way, Expiration Date is about ghosts, but it also indulges a nostalgia for the Hollywood of silent films and the glamorous world of show business. This gives each book a distinct character, despite a common fictional universe. Eventually, it all gets wrapped up in the third book, Earthquake Weather. But that is a review for another day.
I always really enjoyed the premise of this book. That premise is that ghosts are real, and ghosts flit about mindlessly repeating the things they did when they were alive. Sometimes, the result is comic, as when old ghosts accrete enough substance to panhandle for spare change to buy liquor. Other times, it is tragic, when a lonely and bewildered ghost tries to make a human connection, and accidentally causes its new friend to drop dead.
And, if you are sorcerously hip, then you know that ghosts are the greatest high ever known when inhaled, with the side effect of providing the user with unnaturally long life. A whole underground is devoted to hunting, preserving, and then ingesting hapless ghosts. Which turns out to be pretty easy, since they are also witless. In a Thomistic turn, the electromagnetic remnants that are ghosts don't possess the capacity to be rational because they have no souls, but they do have memories and desires, which are enough to cause them to try to imitate their former lives.
Ghosts are also attracted to certain people. Specific ghosts can become linked to you through strong emotions, particularly guilt. But some people, like Edison, attract ghosts like moths to a flame. The key tool for protecting yourself from ghosts is a mask. Ghosts kill you by overlapping your timeline [in a relativistic space-time sense, an idea that Powers has used in a number of novels and short stories] and abruptly ending it by mixing their lack of life with your vitality. To avoid that, you need to make sure the ghost can't find your timeline, your identity. The methods are varied, but the ability to obfuscate your birthdate, your marriage, and your children is key.
By taking this idea and running with it, Powers is able to invent a secret history that explains a number of unusual incidents in the life of Thomas Edison. Lots of weird things happen all the time, and sober histories usually don't make much of them, although comprehensive ones do document them. But, Edison had a greater share than most. For starters, Henry Ford really did convince Thomas' son Charles to catch his father's dying breath in a vial. But the rest of it happened too. In 1878 Edison traveled to the American West, stopping to view a solar eclipse, and then completing the rest of his journey by riding the cow-catcher of the locomotive. Edison also forced his children to jump in the air while he threw firecrackers at their feet. Those are pretty strange things to do, but if you were attempting to shake the unwanted psychic attention of ghosts and other ne-er-do-wells, it might be just the thing.
Crafting this secret history involving Edison [and Harry Houdini] is classic Powers. However, I've found that what I really enjoy about this book, and much of Powers' writing, is the compelling way in which he writes about human brokenness. The ensemble of characters that fall into orbit around Edison's ghost are all haunted [literally] by their past mistakes. Their journey to deliver Edison's ghost from LA's occult underground is also a pilgrimage of repentance and healing.
Ghosts themselves are not capable of forgiveness or redemption, but in the right circumstances they can help provide those things to the living. Thomas Edison's ghost's ability to light up every dormant wisp provides an opportunity to face the past squarely, and stop running away from it.
For a long time, I greatly preferred Last Call to the other books in this loose trilogy. I still like Last Call best, but I no longer find it to be head-and-shoulders above the others. The characters in Expiration Date make mistakes, suffer from poor judgment, and experience temptation. Ultimately, some of them do find redemption. Others come to judgment for their sins. This moral realism grounded in Powers' Catholic faith takes a fun premise with a sprawling cast of characters and turns it from a book I used to consider second-rate into something quite remarkable.