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It becomes clear very early on that 'Eternity and Afterward' is one of those stories where everything works. As Shepard moves the story, from its starting block in a grey car park on the outskirts of Moscow, into the forbidding mafia-run club known as Eternity, there's something in the confident rhythms of his prose that pulls the reader easily along. Within waits a world, and more.

"The place is immense. All around us the earth is honeycombed with chambers. Apartments, a casino, a gymnasium, gardens. Even a surgery. Eternity is both labyrinth and fortress, a country with its own regulations and doctrines. There are no policemen here, not even corrupt ones. But commit a crime within these walls, a crime that injures Yuri, and you will be dealt with according to his laws." (p131)
Yuri Lebedev is the owner and architect of Eternity, once the most powerful crime lord in Moscow. He built the club as his insurance, his protection; and when it was complete, he disappeared into it, creating doubles to maintain the illusion of his existence. Or so the stories say, at any rate; the workings of Eternity are enigmatic and understood by few, and Lebedev has rapidly become more legend than man.

Certainly Viktor Chemayev, a low-ranking hitman, has no special knowlege. He has, however, fallen in love with one of the girls working at the club, and he's the one waiting for the reader in the car park, going over the details of his plan in his mind. He means to buy Larissa's freedom from Lebedev and escape with her to America, and a new life. Of course, things aren't as simple as that.

His attempts to reach Lebedev lead Viktor through a series of increasingly strange encounters that take place in a series of increasingly dislocated landscapes. At first they seem to be simply the result of psychotropic manipulations; soon they become undeniably fantastical. He talks to his boss, in the club's main theatre. Wrestles with an Irish gangster in a tangled garden. Listens to a dead friend, at a party that may be the afterlife (or a franchise thereof, at least), or simply Lebedev's dream. And then the encounters repeat, in reverse, in a mirror structure that Viktor himself recognises and attempts to analyse. Through it all Lebedev is never definitely found, although there are several characters that may be him, or perhaps aspects of him. The story ends, as it began, back outside, in the cold of the car park.

The whole piece has the feel of myth, and seems to me to be richly, if occasionally confusingly, symbolic. Love and power are perhaps the main themes; love is, we are told, 'a kind of absolute surrender' (p164), a forfeit of power. Viktor may believe he's on a quest to free a woman that he loves, but the true nature of his relationship with Larissa is thrown into question more than once. He has a talent for self-deception--is his love a vulnerability, a sign of weakness for enemies to exploit? Or, has he fallen for a woman he can never realistically attain as an unconscious method of self-protection? Or is the whole emotion simply the product of an obsessive-compulsive nature: he wants her without thought, simply because she represents a challenge?

It's perhaps worth noting that Larissa herself never gains full agency. In this, in the way that she remains a symbol and never becomes a character in her own right, she is not uncommon amongst Shepard's female characters, a point I plan to return to when I discuss 'Jailwise'. Here, at the story's climax Larissa is revealed as a (literally) naked symbol--a 'priceless symptom of illusion' (p130)--indicating, depending on your reading, either that Viktor has wasted his chance to save her, or that the fact of his chance mattered more to him than the outcome.

'Eternity and Afterward' is a long novella, but perfectly paced. Shepard takes his time building his characters, ensuring that their reactions and reasoning utterly convince. He also takes his time building his landscapes; creating, in Eternity, a dazzling metaphysical palace where opulence and filth are never more than a hairs-breadth apart. It is masterful work and much, much more than the sum of its parts.

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I don't know how I should feel about you writing about my girlfriend that way Niall. :-p
Hey, the Irish (thuggish, brutish, violent) ganster is called Niall. Larissa got off lightly. :-p
Thuggish, brutish, and violent applies...but only when you're hungry. :-p