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Find Me, by Laura van den Berg, 2015, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26.
Laura van den Berg's stories, collected in What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (2009) and The Isle of Youth (2013), shot out of the gate with high pedigree and cheers from spectators. The first got shortlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award; the second won the American Academy of Arts and Letters's Rosenthal Family Foundation Award, was thoroughly reviewed and frequently listed among best books of the year. Those who come to life in these books, a desperate actress playing Bigfoot at a theme park, a small-town mother and daughter magic act, an abandoned woman attaching herself to a troupe of circus acrobats banging about Paris, home-schooled cousins who become bank robbers, are outsiders all, eternal outsiders, however much their efforts aim only toward fitting in—somewhere.
An instinctive writer, van den Berg soon found the otherness of her characters precipitating unexpected ducks and dives. "If you've written, say, three stories in a row with mythical creatures or private detectives, you'd have to be pretty inattentive to not stand back and say, huh, something is going on here." She'd started off in her MFA classes with sure feet, doing the mimesis dance, writing realism. That was what she read, that was what was being written around her. But the stories kept slipping sideways to make room for something else, for mystery and the unexplained, for the weird, the arealist, and as she threw the doors of her reading wider, she came upon bodies of writing she never knew existed. She didn't realize, she's said in interview, that you could do this sort of thing, she had no idea there was all this other way of writing.
Find Me took six years to pull together, during which van den Berg wrote the seven stories of The Isle of Youth as well. Largely, she admits, finding the novel was a process of "excavating" Joy, her central character, and of writing herself away from a realistic rendering of epidemic contagion to a world of mirrors, metaphor, and ghosts.
The first case was reported in June, in Bakersfield, California, when a fifty-year-old woman named Clara Sue Borden stumbled into the ER with a constellation of silver blisters on her face. She couldn't walk a straight line. She pressed a hand over her right eye, claiming everything she saw out of that eye had a funny look. She couldn't tell anyone her name or date of birth or where she lived or how she got to the ER. If there were relatives to call. She remembered nothing. "I am me," she kept saying.
For Joy, the appearance of the contagion, an infection that wipes out memory, came as crowning apocalypse in the chain of such that seem to define contemporary life: Y2K fever, the wars on drugs and terror, the death of bees and bats and whole species, radioactivity in the oceans, ravenous hurricanes. She is a woman who ceaselessly builds walls around herself: isolation, Robitussin addiction, lists that hold life at a remove.
My basement apartment was warm and dark. Trash collection had been suspended and black garbage bags were piling up in my little galley kitchen, swollen and reeking. Outside I could hear a police vehicle rolling down the street, an announcement being made through a megaphone. The hazmat suit was slung over the couch and I had started to think of it as company.
Then appeared the man wearing beneath his own hazmat suit, "like a pallbearer," a black suit and red carnation, come to bear her away. Voluntarily she now resides in quite another hospital, where
On our third month in the Hospital, the pilgrims begin to appear. They gather outside the doors, faces tipped to the sky, while our Floor Group watches at the end of the fifth-floor hallway. The windows have bars on the outside and we have to tilt our heads to get a good view. Sometimes the pilgrims wave and we wave back. Or they hold hands and sing and we hear their voices through the glass. Some stand outside for hours, others for days. We don't understand what they could want from us.
Joy and the others are here, in quarantine, so that their apparent immunity to the contagion may be studied. Overseen by Dr. Bek, they're subjected to inscrutable tests, unintelligible regulations, homilies, and pep talks. "You are the danger now," Dr. Bek tells them when the contagion appears to abate. In the common room he takes the remote and mutes it. There's no way to know how safe it really is out in the world, he insists. They must make sure they're not infected, else they might reinfect the entire population, ruin the chances of finding the cure.
On that same TV one night, watching a show titled Mysteries of the Sea, Joy sees a woman she comes to believe is her mother. The woman's name is Beatrice Lurry, an underwater archaeologist or "ship detective," called in when a ship's gone missing and all efforts fail. A woman with a talent for searching, for finding—but not for holding on, Joy says. "I am proof of that."
This conviction is one among many things shepherding Joy's flight from the Hospital. Her stay there comprises the first half of Find Me. Her stay on Earth had begun at yet a third hospital, left on the steps in a Boston winter, "wrapped in a white T-shirt and rolling around in a cardboard supermarket box."
While Book 1 resounds with phrases of containment (in my apartment, in the hall, in the living room, in the Common Room, in the Hospital), Book 2 opens on a burst of release: After the Hospital I run through strands of trees, After the Hospital I slip up a rise, After the Hospital there is no one to warn me of the dangers, After the Hospital I watch dawn turn treetops and power lines gold. And it's here that, for all its reined-in language, the novel's essential lyricism floats to the top.
Contrasting the first, this second half is given over to what one might think of as Joy's release into the wild, her travel through a puddingstone American landscape in search of her mother. Yet Find Me is no more a standard-issue search for the parent than it is the science fiction thriller we may be led, in the first part, to expect. The epidemic of forgetting remains background, the search figurative. Sentences, scenes, Joy's vagabondage—all take surprising turns, all open onto sudden bursts of beauty and yearning as she travels or comes briefly to rest among men wearing rabbit masks and winged women. During a bus ride, looking out a window, she thinks:
I sink into my seat and watch the slim points of tree branches bend in the wind […] I am terrified by the idea of sinkholes, of being consumed by the earth.
Still, for all the surprise and reward this marvelous, beautifully crafted novel affords, there's little surprise in the fact that Joy finds her mother only in imagining.
We drift closer to the island. I see a faraway line of boats. One of them is my mother's houseboat. She is tucked inside, dry and warm, unable to shake the feeling that something is closing in. She stands up and goes outside. She begins to wait. She feels my energy traveling toward her. This is what I imagine.
Like its title, Find Me is at once imperative and appeal. Overall, the novel reminds us that the fantastic, the arealist, has always been a part of, not apart from, our literature. And finally it's not the aptness and beauty of the language that takes and holds us, nor the untrammeled imagination, the surprises springing out from behind virtually every sentence and scene. Rather, it's that throughout we have the feeling of Laura van den Berg finding her story in much the same way as Joy finds her life.
We are, all of us, fatally trapped within our own minds, our own skulls, a foundering for which the arts can offer relief and respite. John Updike: We are all so alone, which is why it's urgent to keep signaling through the glass. "When I'm really in synch with a first-person project," van den Berg says, "this weird and amazing thing starts happening where I begin thinking that character's thoughts. I'll see something out in the world, but through her eyes." With her work, with all fine writing, it becomes the same for the reader. So that finally, among the many rewards of Find Me, the greatest reward is the way in which the voice, and Joy's self, lifts us from our own world into another, bringing us miraculously to experience that world from within, then to return to our own with new eyes, new yearnings, a heart somehow made, out of the tangled mess of this world, in the tangled mess of this world, whole again.
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