Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Wednesday, June 9, 2021: Maximum Shelf: Dare to Know

Quirk Books: Dare to Know by James Kennedy

Quirk Books: Dare to Know by James Kennedy

Quirk Books: Dare to Know by James Kennedy

Quirk Books: Dare to Know by James Kennedy

Dare to Know

by James Kennedy

Learning the exact time and date of your death with guaranteed 100% accuracy is the service being sold. $20,000 is the price tag. The problem: a salesman for the algorithm decides to run the calculations on himself and discovers he should have died 23 minutes earlier. James Kennedy's Dare to Know takes the nameless narrator, and readers, on a propulsive, genre-defying trip down the rabbit hole of life's defining moments. At the same time, Kennedy meticulously hones in on the truths that seem essential at different stages of life.

The narrator helps refine the physics of thanatons (death particles), leading to a mathematical algorithm that predicts precisely when a person will die; he becomes an integral part of a start-up company named Sapere Aude that sells this information. One drunken night at a hotel conference for the company, the staff decides to do the strictly forbidden and test it out on one of their own for laughs. The results indicate a colleague will die in six minutes. Nervous laughter fades away as a countdown to six minutes begins. They check and double-check the math for mistakes. None are found. The group's attention shifts to the look on their colleague's face as he dies from an undiagnosed health condition. Bad for him, but the event sparks attention-grabbing headlines and high demand for their start-up's services.

Now called Dare to Know, the company rides the self-created wave of a multimillion-dollar industry for years, until others attempt to copy its success by offering a less accurate but much cheaper version of the same service. Dare to Know's founders sell the company to a faceless conglomerate and the narrator, suffering financially after a nasty divorce, can no longer afford an office space. He's relegated to commission-based sales, taking meetings in strip-mall locations to convince clients to pay $20 grand for the service. The prestige that once accompanied the practical aspect of planning for a client's long or short future has devolved to a do-I-really-need-to-know-this and can-I-get-it-cheaper-elsewhere viewpoint.

The narrator starts to feel like a door-to-door salesperson scraping for pennies instead of the rich, rock-star purveyor of a life-changing process. ("Is it a smell I give off? Some chump pheromone?") One day, after a disappointing deal at a coffee shop in which the client humiliates him ("She's making a scene--this is why we used to do it in an office, not in public--and she's wailing! breaking down!"), he swerves off the road while driving home in a snowstorm. Immobile and awaiting road service, he picks up his "Books of the Dead" and--yielding to depression and temptation--calculates his own death. He's aghast to find he should have been dead already, causing him to question everything leading up to his landing in a roadside ditch. He once had more money than he knew what to do with, and a woman who loved him and whom he loved back. All that the narrator once held true and dear has been stripped away. But he realizes he might have a second chance, since he seems to have cheated death. He decides to look for the one person who made him happy--his former wife, Julia--and to get his life back on track before death claims him for real, whenever that may be.

Kennedy shines in presenting elemental truths that will resonate with readers: "Do you fall in love with someone because you understand them? Not at nineteen. It's their otherness that draws you in. At nineteen you're collecting people. Trying on different ways of being. At nineteen I always scanned girlfriends' bookshelves, full of dead giveaways. Of course she would have that book. But they would surprise me, too. Challenge me, expand me. (During my affairs in my thirties? Didn't care what they read.)"

The author also nails it in capturing the nuances of a romantic relationship. While remembering an early date with Julia, the narrator states, "One of the reasons she ended up liking me was that I hadn't laughed at her when she fell that night. I couldn't understand--who laughs when a girl falls on her ass?" And when that relationship goes sour: "I was a sh**ty twenty-five-year-old who couldn't take his head out of his ass long enough to move to Bloomington and be happy with someone who loved him."

The story isn't entirely cynical or riddled with romantic issues. Splashes of humor appear, like when a drunk guy at a wedding tries to explain the famous Plato's Cave allegory to someone who has a philosophy degree: "Like, there's a cave, right?... And there are people stuck in the cave--they've been there since they were babies, they've never left, it's f**ked up, they're chained there, they don't ask why. Do you get it so far?"

With Dare to Know, Kennedy transitions from writing YA novels (The Order of Odd-Fish) to authoring an eye-popping adult novel spanning multiple genres. Time shifting from present to past, and possibly the future, Kennedy seamlessly integrates philosophy, first love, Beatles music, jaw-dropping science fiction and the four stages of civilization, and turns it all into a fast-paced, existential, mind-expanding thriller--a thoroughly enjoyable read. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis

Quirk Books, $22.99, hardcover, 304p., 9781683692607, September 14, 2021

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James Kennedy: Finding Inspiration in Death

(photo: Jill Leibhaber)

James Kennedy holds a degree in physics and philosophy, topics he examines in his first adult novel, Dare to Know, about a man who sells an algorithm that can accurately predict the date and time of a person's death. Kennedy lives in Chicago. Quirk will publish the novel on September 14, 2021.

Let's get the most obvious question out of the way: Would you want to know the date and time of your demise?

I'm going to die on December 19, 2046. A librarian told me, "Did you know there's a website that tells you when you'll die?" It's called and it's from 2005--you know, back when the Internet was still an innocent and wonderful place. So I visited and found out. I've got to make these last 25 years count!

One of the fun challenges in writing this book was thinking through the psychological consequences and philosophical implications of the premise. Because if it really was true that I was 100% guaranteed to die on December 19, 2046, then what happens if I throw myself off a bridge today?

In the end, no, I don't really want to know when I'll die. Too many details of our lives are already humiliatingly subject to algorithm. The time of one's own death is one of the few mysteries left for us. To have even that mystery become a bland datum would be dreadful.

In the novel, the company called Dare to Know offers the time and date of a person's death, and a competitor offers the same info for a cheaper rate but with less accuracy. Which one would society embrace more?

Oddly, I think the less accurate company would be more popular. People like more information, even if it's less accurate. Indeed, if we've learned anything over the past few years, it's that people often prefer information that is known to be outright false. We are perverse creatures.

At Julia's wedding, the narrator encounters an intoxicated guest who tries to explain the theory of Plato's Cave. The exchange reads almost too specific in detail to be random. What's the inspiration for this comedic moment?

Actually, that scene is invented whole cloth! I've never been to a wedding like that, and I've never had a conversation quite like that--although of course we've all had to suffer from a condescending bore holding forth on his pet topic.

I knew I had to explain the theory of Plato's Cave (and introduce the peculiar spin that Dare to Know puts on it) but I also knew that "exposition" scenes can become dull. You don't want it to sound like a canned lecture. So I worked hard to make a seemingly breezy scene that distracts you from the fact that you're reviewing a little bit of Philosophy 101 along the way. Once I got down to writing it, I realized there were a lot of comic and emotional opportunities in it, too, and now it's my favorite scene in the book.

Rereading the scene now, there is one specific detail taken from real life. My wife and I were in our late 20s, taking a taxi home from some party in the early morning, and the cab driver was telling us about his band, and in particular about his bandmate who was an incredible "scribbleboard" player. My wife and I just said, "Uh-huh, uh-huh" as though we knew what the cab driver was talking about, as if we knew what a scribbleboard was. A day or two later I googled the term, and of course there's no such musical instrument as a "scribbleboard." But I'm certain that's the term the cabbie used! That always stuck with me. So I snuck that in there.

Dare to Know posits the idea that all civilizations historically follow four distinct stages and draws parallels to the stages of love. How much stock do you place in this theory? Are these four stages inevitable to all relationships?

This idea of a "cyclic theory of history" was invented by Giambattista Vico. Joyce used a modified version of it in Finnegans Wake. There's a silly book of pop sociology called The Fourth Turning that uses a coarsened version of it to analyze American history--real historians don't think much of it.

As a novelist, I'm always on the lookout for odd ways of viewing the world, even if they're disreputable. Unfalsifiable theories like cyclical history (or astrology, or tarot, or economics) aren't about truth, they're about structuring and controlling one's emotional experience of events. And, of course, novels are all about structuring and controlling the reader's emotional experiences. So I tweaked the theory, made my own additions, and used it to inform the structure of the book.

The unnamed narrator confesses he judges people by what's on their bookshelves.

In my early 20s I might've judged people by their collections of books and music--I think the term for that is "a**hole." I don't do that anymore. But I'm still curious, and I still look. If you invite me to a party at your house, at some point I will drift over to your bookshelf, and I will look at the books. Maybe we'll have something to talk about!

The narrator has an epiphany about a long-forgotten moment with a former girlfriend that marked a turning point in their relationship. The epiphany harks back to a theory his summer camp roommate shares about what happens when we die, complete with a Looney Tunes reference. How did you come up with such a precise, in-depth idea?

Like most authors, I stole it! I live in Chicago. Lots of Chicagoans sooner or later take an improv class. I enjoyed taking improv classes because it was good for my writing. Along the way I learned about the lore of Chicago improv comedy--in particular about its great-granddaddy, Del Close. I was reading a biography of Del Close, and it described how he and his friend would get high and speculate what the death experience would be like, which Del's friend expected to be "brightly colored concentric circles close about your field of vision, and you see--written in front of you in backwards script, 'That's All Folks!' " When I read that, it unsettled me, and it stuck in my head for years. So I took that single sentence and adapted it, expanded it, and made it a bit more elaborate for the scene in Dare to Know.

But that's just one theory in Dare to Know of what happens when you die--the nightmare version. Later on in the book, Julia puts forth her own idea of what happens when you die: that you live and relive a significant moment in your life, like a record player needle caught in the locked groove at the center of an LP, and you continue reliving that moment until the needle kind of wears down, and you and the moment dissolve. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis

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