Laura van den Berg’s first novel, Find Me, was recommended to me a while back. It seemed to have a lot of acclaim. I put it on my reading list. Now, I’ve finished reading it.
The book centers on Joy, a young woman whose mother abandoned her as an infant, leaving her to grow up in foster homes in the Boston area. Her life into young adulthood consisted of working at Stop & Shop and getting stoned on Robitussin. Then, a plague struck which, among other things, devoured the memories of its victims. Joy was one of a number of people seemingly unaffected by the disease, which brought her into the care of a mysterious doctor at a prison-like hospital in rural Kansas. Here, she and other possibly immune patients live under strict rules of order and contemplate their possible fates.
Halfway through the book, however, the author seems to lose interest in this setting, and breaks Joy out so she can go on a road trip to find her mother. If I had to imagine a sanitized version of The Road, it would probably be the latter half of Find Me.
But I don’t want to pile on too quickly. Let’s run down the positive aspects first.
Van den Berg’s style is brisk and easy to read. I don’t abhor dense prose, but I’m not a fan of authors who employ it poorly. Chapters are brief–the author does not drag out scenes past their welcome. Ostensibly a post-apocalyptic novel–a genre very popular these days–it avoids many of the indulgent cliches that are hallmarks of such settings. There’s no gratuitous violence or rape, no senseless savagery invoked merely to spice up the proceedings. Government conspiracies are alluded to only in passing. The protagonist is in no way a hero–her aim is not to save the world, and often not even to save herself. The cause of the plague is never specified, only speculated. This is not a book that dwells laboriously on the trappings of a ruined civilization. It is much more inward-facing. I appreciate the attempt to, in essence, subvert and invert the typical approaches of post-apocalyptic fiction. It is worthwhile to try to take the genre in new directions and eschew tired tropes. The ambiguous ending was also worthwhile and, I think, more thought-provoking than a stab at total closure would’ve been.
That said, the effort is not altogether successful. Joy, as a character, is very nearly a cipher. Things happen to her constantly, and only occasionally do we get a glimpse into her thoughts, feelings, and motives. The narrative throughline of the novel is Joy’s search for her mother. She gets to know her mother through documentary videos (her mother is a famous explorer of shipwrecks). The book contains other characters, but they are largely lifeless or one-note. Joy herself never evokes much interest. To the extent she has any development, she goes from wanting a mother to accept and relate to her, to wanting that confrontation in order to elicit an explanation–to demand respect and acknowledgment, even. She evolves from a sense of weakness to a sense of power. This would be a good arc if it felt particularly earned–if the events of the story plausibly built up to this transformation. But since Joy is such a relentlessly passive character throughout the book, it becomes rather perplexing that she arrives at this character shift.
The apocalypse itself is poorly elaborated. The disease in question killed hundreds of thousands–maybe a million or two at most–and the United States apparently collapsed into virtual disorder. It’s not quite a violent, lawless wasteland, but it evidently became an empty, inhospitable place with decayed infrastructure and no sign of government authority. Proportionally speaking, that’s equivalent to the American death toll from the 1918 flu pandemic. It must be noted that we were just coming off of the first World War, as well. Imagine: a massive, deadly war and a brutal flu outbreak, and the country didn’t collapse. It is, admittedly, a minor niggle–the book isn’t really about the disease, or its affects on American society. It’s about memory. It’s about Joy’s memory. It’s fine for it to be about those things, but it’s not fine for them to be so uninteresting. And while I wouldn’t expect Joy to be an action hero–there are plenty of those around in other stories–for her to be a passive observer through so much of the book, when what is being observed so rarely sparks much interest, makes for a frustrating read.
The writing style is generally serviceable, at times offering up inventive sentences, sprinkled with an evocative simile here and there. But it’s a hard book to recommend when there is so little I could say about it. Find Me is by no means a terrible book, but nor do I think it’s a particularly good one. It stands apart from the rest of its genre in terms of the themes and storytelling approaches it seeks to explore, but it almost comes off as a cheat to use a post-apocalyptic setting merely as window dressing, as if it’s a cheap cash-in on a popular genre. A dreamlike meditation on the nature of human memory could make for a fascinating novel, but there’s no reason to saddle it with a setting that’s ultimately beside the point.
Find Me, in the end, presents precious few memories of its central character. Given the plot device that is the memory-destroying sickness, it makes sense from a thematic point-of-view. Even so, it makes for a frustrating, unfulfilling reading experience. Books don’t have to be fun, but they should at least be interesting. It was hard to find much of either in Find Me.