My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I mentioned to my friend the other day that I was reading this book, and she said, “Oh! Her writing is exquisite, isn’t it? Too bad she didn’t handle the plot well. Because her writing is wonderful.” Or something like that. I’m not sure if her precise word was “exquisite,” but that was the sense of it.
At the time I was about halfway through the book, and while I was reading the rest of it, I kept an eye out for a bungling of the plot, but aside from a little awkwardness in the movement through time, I didn’t really see evidence that Mandel had handled the plot poorly.
Perhaps I was blinded by the world she’d created, though. This is always my favorite thing about dystopian novels, or at least my favorite thing about my favorite dystopian novels: They’re always just a half-step away from the world as it is now. That’s what makes them so terrifying and poignant. If they were too different, they would be neither, or at least not much of either.
On the way to the barbecue at my friend’s house, my spouse mentioned how empty the roads were on July 4th in the afternoon. “It’s like everyone else in the world has died,” he said. And I—still in the haze of the novel, which I’d been reading until the moment we left the house—had the fleeting thought, “But, of course. Everyone else has died.” It was kind of disorienting, but I think it speaks to just how powerfully Mandel constructed the post-flu world.
Reading this novel, I found myself craving this mostly-empty world. Craving nighttime skies lit brightly with stars. Forced to slow down and travel the continent on foot and by horse. Every item judged by its utility, but with a retained awareness and appreciation of beauty and meaning beyond pragmatism. I don’t crave the mercenary killers and gun-wielding religious fanatics, nor do I particularly like the idea of a world without antibiotics or pharmaceutical pain medicines, but the other stuff really appeals to me. I have the feeling that there must be a way to strip away, to hold onto the good that comes of social media and this connection-despite-distance of the internet age and to leave the negative stuff behind. Couldn’t we have both antibiotics and night skies free from light pollution? Is it possible to have Twitter-aided social action in a world where people don’t become famous simply for being weird or rich or for having a couple dozen kids?
Maybe not. Maybe we always have to take the bad with the good. Maybe that’s just the way it is with privilege of any kind. Once we have it in our grasp, it takes something really huge for us to let it go, even if it’s not serving us. Or maybe I should just speak for myself rather than using the first person plural. I personally struggle to identify those things that I hold onto but that don’t serve me. Things I may well be better off without but which are just so hard to let go.
And what’s really strange in all of this is that I actually like feeling this way.