Ninety-five years ago T.S. Eliot published “The Wasteland,” one of the first and bleakest visions of a shattered modern world. Nearly a century later, we’re awash in fictional dystopias. Science fiction writers tilled this stony ground for decades before the current vogue for grim variants of the Way We Live Now made bestsellers out of “The Road” and “Station Eleven” and created a vast marketing category for publishers of YA books such as “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.”
But if the dystopia bubble bursts, as the horror market did in the early 1990s, we may see an entirely new wasteland emerge. What dystopic novels might survive a literary apocalypse?
Laura van den Berg’s “Find Me” has a good shot. The award-winning author of two acclaimed story collections, Van den Berg now uses her gift for capturing the disturbingly elegiac qualities of 21st century life to heartbreaking effect in this, her first novel.
Set in a near-future U.S. blighted by disastrous climate change and a baffling, incurable new disease, the book is narrated by Joy, a young woman abandoned as an infant by her mother. Joy spends her first 18 years in a series of grim group and foster homes around Boston. It’s a life shaped by isolation, loss and yearning for an unrecoverable past: excellent preparation for the catastrophic events that overtake the country in the wake of a “memory-destroying epidemic.”
Within a few months, hundreds of thousands of Americans have died from a mysterious and highly contagious disease that appeared suddenly in Bakersfield. The disease’s primary symptoms are silver blisters on the skin, and abrupt memory loss that ends in total amnesia. Nineteen-year-old Joy is seemingly immune. She and others who appear to be immune are brought to a creepy hospital in a desolate part of Kansas, where their health is monitored by a skeleton staff overseen by the ominous Dr. Bek.
The patients aren’t allowed to leave the building. They’re permitted only two supervised Internet sessions a week, when they catch up with the bad news in the outside world, and check government websites like WeAreSorryForYourLoss.com, which keeps a list of those who’ve died in the epidemic.
Joy’s confinement is elegantly rendered by Van den Berg in the first half of “Find Me.” The claustrophobic atmosphere and emphasis on maintaining a normal facade under extraordinarily abnormal and dangerous circumstances evoke novels like Chris Adrian’s “The Children’s Hospital” and Victor Lavalle’s “The Devil in Silver,” set in surreal, disintegrating medical institutions. Like those books, “Find Me” teeters between realistic depictions of a fragmenting social order, and a more visionary style.
In an interview last year, Van den Berg spoke of her desire to capture the apocalyptic mood of contemporary life in a novel. “I really wanted to take that weather, that atmosphere, and ask: what might be the tipping point?” Yet the apocalyptic mood here feels more dreamlike and fuzzily rendered than that of other near-future novels. It’s unclear why the staff members remain at the hospital, how or if they’re paid, or why such a place escapes any federal or local oversight. And the catastrophic breakdown of American society, while well described, happens with somewhat unconvincing swiftness, in service of the plot.
But Van den Berg seems less concerned with creating a believable near-future than she is with depicting a psyche surviving, and perhaps ultimately thriving, despite incalculable trauma. In the hospital one day, Joy watches the Discovery Channel and inadvertently learns the identity of her mother, who is alive in Key West, Fla. “How strange it is to watch her past become animated, to no longer wonder where and how her life was unfolding, but to know.”
The latter part of “Find Me” chronicles Joy’s search for her mother. As the last inhabitants of the hospital succumb to the virus, Joy alone remains immune and makes her escape. Somewhat improbably, she meets up with someone from her early life who becomes a fellow sojourner across the ruined American landscape. If these scenes lack the visceral power of the novel’s first part, that may be because we’ve grown inured to images of devastation, both fictional and real.
Where Van den Berg excels is in her radiant prose and delicate descriptions of small, strange moments of being. Dozens of children nestled in the treetops; a young man wearing a plastic fur rabbit mask on a bus; a friend’s death from the memory sickness.
“I reach for his chest through the plastic. He looks down at my hand like it’s a foreign thing. He’s breathing again, quick and grasping. His eyes are the color of a bleached winter sky. He can no longer speak, he can only listen, so I will have to invent for him something beautiful.”
From this memorable novel’s eerie first paragraph to its enigmatic ending, Laura van den Berg has invented something beautiful indeed.
Hand’s forthcoming novels are “Wylding Hall” and “Hard Light.”
Laura van den Berg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 288 pp, $26