The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
In one universe, there is a library that straddles the boundary between life and death. Mortals are able to visit it when near-death, particularly after having committed suicide. Mind you, I wasn't feeling suicidal when I picked up this book. It wasn't about me.
I had a beloved friend once. He was from a very different universe, a sort of realm that connected humans by fear. Similar to me, he traveled as many different people via liminal spaces, but his portals were in places of darkness—attics, basements, closets, underneath beds—where fear was strong enough to allow him to manifest.
He wasn't remotely as monstrous as he sounds. He hadn't been for a long time. His kind were split between those who continued to feed on fear and suffering and those who had transcended their wicked urges. Since he was part of the latter, he spent his time learning and writing and being a friend to those in need.
I received The Midnight Library in the mail one day. Between the cover and the first page was a note. By the time I read it, he was already dead, but there was an answer to his abrupt departure inside this book. He apologized and wished me all the love and wisdom in the universes, assuring me there was nothing I could have done to help him.
I didn't visit the Midnight Library until I finished reading the book. Nora Seed, the central character, was a middle-aged woman who always seemed to be down on her luck. She was full of regrets and crushed dreams. Her only living relative, an older brother, was estranged from her, and her only friend was emotionally as well as geographically distant. After losing her job and cat, she decides to take her life.
Nora ends up in the Midnight Library and meets a librarian who resembles someone fairly important to her. The librarian explains where she is, how the library works, and that every book holds a potential life that Nora could live instead of following through with death.
As Nora tested out various lives, I wondered how she, an average human mortal, was in any way relevant to my non-human, fellow (biologically) immortal friend. He did not lack a support system. He did not want fame, money, or children. He was content to drift in and out of people's lives and minds, to be alone. I was one of the few permitted to remember him.
Although I was sympathetic to Nora's struggles and dissatisfaction, however ordinary they were, The Midnight Library seemed to be saying that all anyone needs to do to find life worth living is change perspective—as if it's that simple for earthbound mortals subjected to unrelenting illness and poverty. As if everyone is Neurotypical Nora.
I could not understand why my dear friend would send me such a book. I entertained the idea that this had to have been a sick joke from anyone but him. Considering his wayward kin that fed on negative energies knew of me, they'd likely sought to inflict a wound by pulling a cruel trick.
Unfortunately, that was not the case. He was dead to the point of having erased himself completely from existence. There was not a trace of him to be found in any universe. He was gone forever in the most literal sense.
To say I was devastated would be an understatement. My friend did not simply flee to another universe. He did not choose to die and reincarnate as a different life form to start anew. Any possibility of us reuniting had vanished, as if he had never existed to begin with.
What in the multiverse could have pushed him to make the most permanent decision? I could only visit the world of The Midnight Library in hopes of uncovering some kind of answer.
For me, there was no librarian. I was not there because I needed guidance toward a better life, which the library seemed to sense. The shelves, however, were empty. I expressed my reason for visiting aloud, yet they remained bare, no matter how much I begged for at least one book to appear.
I didn't understand. The Midnight Library was supposed to provide infinite opportunities for infinite lives. How could there not be a book for me in which I saved my friend from ceasing to exist? How could there be no hope in a place that wanted every soul to choose life?
I sat there and pondered for what felt an eternity, eventually realizing that was the answer: life.
My friend could not bear the pain and suffering that life guaranteed for all, the things that not only tempted him back to his old ways, but also could not be helped. He was profoundly affected by the horrific realities that outweighed and outlasted the greatest feeling of pleasure.
Without pain and suffering, there is no life. They are intrinsic—more so than pleasure.
My friend was not unwise nor weak. He did not need to "look on the bright side" and "focus on the positives." He had simply come to terms with the undying horrors of reality and made a choice that was best for him.
I am not romanticizing suicide. Death is essentially a tragedy (at least from our too self-aware point of view), but it is also the great equalizer that reaps all mortal worlds. It doesn't care whether you wait for it or summon it. In Death's eyes, there is no difference.
I loved my friend more than words can describe. Our relationship was truly special, rich in differences that fit in all the right spaces like pieces to a complex, beautiful puzzle. He was quite possibly the most sensitive and compassionate being I'd ever met. I dare say he was more human than me.
It's a morbid thought, but I sometimes wonder whether others like him will reach the same conclusion and share his fate. I must admit I'm not against the right to die, for it is and should be recognized as a basic sentient right. I would never force my friend to live against his will.
But I wonder what he could have changed, had he decided to round up his more benevolent kin and combine knowledge and efforts. Perhaps he had tried. I don't know. I'd gotten the only answer he'd intended for me and have laid my "what ifs?" to rest.