The Short Version: A virulent new disease appears in America that causes the infected to develop silver lesions and lose their memories, then rapidly lose motor control and cognitive function before death within ten days. Joy, apparently immune, is taken to a hospital in Kansas where she and several other patients wait out the epidemic. But when things take a turn at the hospital, Joy runs away and decides to head to Florida to find her birth mother, embarking on a strange road trip through this shattered country.
The Review: Some books demand your attention, keeping your eyes riveted to the page. Some submerge you in their depths, others hit you with a fist to the gut – but never before have I read a book that felt like it had me by the throat any time I opened it up. It’s a particular sensation, a hand around your neck, and it demands a certain kind of attention: there’s an intimacy that comes with the force. Find Me demands to be read, but it is right there with you, holding you close.
Perhaps the intimacy came from Boston, a city of quirks and particulars that I know well. Ms. van den Berg was living in Boston for much of her time working on this novel and the particulars of Allston, Brighton, Kenmore… the spots where the T comes above ground, the city’s particular reluctance to address those living on the margins… Massachusetts isn’t the only state with a safe-haven law (in fact, all 50 states have them), but Joy makes this one feel particularly discomfiting as she considers it. I recognize all of these things, they are presented with the frankness of someone living in that great city.
But no, Boston only appears in memory (both Joy’s and mine) so that isn’t quite it. It might in fact be the memory angle, so important both to the plot and to the broader themes that Ms. van den Berg seeks to examine – after all, to think about memory is a very personal experience, especially as you delve into the greater questions of what your mind does/doesn’t remember and why that is how it is.
I’ll come back to the memory thing, because I first want to conclude this sensation examination by saying that I guess it really all comes down to Laura van den Berg’s tremendous skill with words. Her delightful FSG Originals collection, The Isle of Youth, is one of the best short story collections in recent memory – it teetered on the razors edge of speculative/fantastical fiction with such security and every single story was engaging and perfectly formed. I was so gratified to see “Antarctica” in The Best American Short Stories 2014 – because it absolutely was one of the best stories of last year.
Still, it’s never a guarantee, when you jump from the short story form to the novel. But I should’ve known; you read a single van den Berg short story and you just know that she can write pretty much whatever the hell she wants and it will be amazing.
Epidemic/pandemic fiction is having a strange moment right now, one of those eerie life-imitating-art things, with the Ebola outbreak of last year and now the measles resurgence. But van den Berg focuses not so much on the death angle (at one point, there’s a statistic given that something like 300,000 had died – approx. half the population of Boston to put it in context) but the way the disease attacks. Brain-related diseases, especially those that affect our memory, are scary in an entirely different way from those that just kill you outright. To lose your memory is to lose your self, that’s what we say – but Joy, whose memory is damaged in other, more purposeful ways, makes the strong case that we lose our memory all the time. We choose not to remember things, block out pieces of our past, repress emotions or moments that simply feel too much. There’s a perfect (and admittedly somewhat predictable) example in Joy’s own past – but it’s not just that particular trauma that sends Joy wandering through her late teenage years in a sort of a haze of cough medicine. And when she ponders why she might’ve been immune to the disease, she mentions that the disease might’ve seen her mind and skipped over it, seeing that its work was essentially already in progress.
What a thought, no? Bleak – but no less true. We craft our own narratives, some more ruthlessly than others, and that goes for everyone. Just look at the people Joy encounters on her trek across the country: the bus drivers, the god-fearing people, the strange couple living in the Mansion, even her childhood friend Marcus. They have all created an understanding with themselves, made the compact to trade off this for that (that usually being happiness or at least a baseline status quo). It doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting, either: it can mean giving up. Joy’s mother, for example, gave Joy up as a baby – after having her for a month, she finds out in one heartbreaking paragraph – and so she sacrifices the memories she might’ve had with her, preemptively. Joy, too, preemptively loses the experience of having a mother and so never quite has the memories to lose.
There’s a creeping horror behind all of this, one that often manifests itself as a sort of sad ghost – you know, with the drooping mouth and the sad moans. The Hospital, for example, hovers just on the edge of nightmare at pretty much all times: they won’t let anybody in, they’re subjected to continuous tests, and they’re watched over by nurses in haz-mat suits. It’s creepy, is the best term, out there on the Kansas prairie in the midst of winter. And the creepiness continues after Joy leaves – the motel where she spends her first night, the mob of people in Harrisburg, the Mansion (especially the Mansion). There is a Lynchian sort of horror here, in the same way that you could argue Mulholland Drive is in fact a horror film. There are no jump scares here, nothing even technically all that scary – but the scenes that van den Berg puts on the page lurk in the corner of your mind like an awkward guy at a party: they make you just a little uncomfortable. It is an uncanny skill.
One thing that struck me in the second half of the novel was how desolate the country felt. It wasn’t, not really: the disease has ostensibly burned itself out and while the death toll was certainly high, it wasn’t like the pandemics of Station Eleven or The Stand. (It’s not 99.9% who die, but 99.9% who live – and in this way, the book feels even more realistic and possible than those novels ever could.) But there is a sense, as Joy travels up through Ohio and PA before heading down through the Eastern interior, that the world has gotten emptier. She encounters plenty of people, but they barely register most of the time. The arrival in the story of Marcus, her foster brother from the house where she was happiest, feels not like the appearance of the authorial hand but rather an affirmation that the world has gotten that much smaller.
And, of course, there is the sense that there are other things going on in the background. The world is tearing itself apart as Joy goes on her journey – a brief visit to Centralia being the closest van den Berg comes to being too on-the-nose about it – and so the apparent sparseness of humanity or the way that they don’t quite register on Joy’s radar (and, by extension, ours) feels like a part of the greater background apocalypse that is slowly creeping up on all of us. Boston has had nearly 80 inches of snow so far this winter – with more on the way. There were more earthquakes in Oklahoma than in California last year. Measles is back. The version of the apocalypse that van den Berg delivers here is altogether too close for comfort – because it fits in so seamlessly with the everyday of 2015.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. For the smart, nuanced consideration of memory alone, the book would get 5 stars. I dog-eared probably 15 pages with quotes to copy out later – they’re all over the book, whether turns of phrase or deep thoughts or (sometimes) both. Ms. van den Berg has taken the same tools with which she crafts her short stories and simply written a longer one, fleshing it out in all the right ways. It’s a brilliant, funny, sad, smart, and impactful novel – one that, while you read it, takes you by the throat and doesn’t want to let you go once you’ve put it down.