Find Me by Laura van den Berg
The easiest thing to say about Laura van den Berg's debut novel, Find Me, is that it's the story of an epidemic. Certainly that's what caught my attention when I first read a synopsis some months ago: The terrible and beautiful disaster she had dreamed up for America. A disease that causes silver blisters and a swift deletion of all memory -- not just events and people, but facts, our ballast in reality. What is a foot, sufferers are forced to ask, and what is the ground it stands on? What is the sky? Van den Berg, author of two short story collections, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and last year's acclaimed The Isle of Youth, and no stranger to the uncanny or the marvelous, is well equipped to lead us into this national untethering. Having written stories about everything from Bigfoot impersonators to magical misdirection, she can certainly handle the apocalypse.
But I said that "the story of an epidemic" was the easiest way to describe the book -- not the best. For my money, Find Me is a novel about the fury and terror of being an outsider, and how that terror transmutes into either action or emptiness. And of course, it is the story of a girl named Joy.
Abandoned as an infant and fostered disastrously throughout her childhood, Joy works at a Stop & Shop and mediates her days through the mental fuzzing-out of recreational cough syrup. She accepts a place in an isolated (and isolationist) study of immunity to the memory epidemic, and given her lack of worldly mooring, the choice makes sense -- even if the Hospital where the study is set has a vibe somewhere between One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Peter Pan's Lost Boys. In ordinary society she is alone, but the Hospital presents the chance to be part of something: a band of patients, if not a cure.
This could be the setup for a plucky, funny, coming-of-age drama: A girl finds herself in the last place she thought to look -- the end of the world. Thankfully, though, the dichotomy isn't that simple -- Van den Berg is careful to show us that Joy is alone in the Hospital, too. Half-loved at best by her roommate and pseudo-boyfriend Louis and perpetually uncertain about the progress of her "treatment," Joy doesn't soliloquize about her loneliness, but we see it expressed in everything she does. It's even present in the bleak Kansas landscape where the hospital sits, which she observes rather than participates in. (Though of course, since Joy narrates Find Me in the first person, arguably anything she "observes" is also something she controls.) Because of the dangers posed by the illness (patients are supposedly immune carriers of the memory disease) the Hospital staff wear Hazmat suits and identify themselves not by name, but by number. A group of people stand below the Hospital windows and stare mutely in, sometimes barefoot in drifts of snow. The alienation is everywhere.
This is a smart move, thematically, and also structurally, because it gives us early insight into the fact that what happens to Joy is in conversation with the things that happen within her -- though it's ultimately the things happening within her that have the most uncanny momentum. As the story progresses, the importance of the illness and the Hospital fall away, until only Joy's internal struggles are propelling the plot, and we find ourselves in a book about an epidemic where the epidemic has ceased to be a threat. Now we see the very form of Van den Berg's story expressing alienation, alongside its content: by rejecting our expectations of what a disaster story should deliver, it makes itself an outsider in the world of apocalypse lit.
Joy embarks on a search for the mother who abandoned her as a baby, all the while wading through memories of her childhood, which she has deeply repressed. She discovers that her mother is a deep-sea diver and explorer of shipwrecks who lives in Key West (which feels both like a nod to Joy's troubled unconscious mind and the culmination of every orphan's hopes and dreams). The interesting thing about Joy's quest is that it has no real endgame; after all these years of absence, what could this woman possibly give her? Try as I did, I couldn't imagine a really happy ending for Joy when she showed up at her mother's door. But of course, maybe the journey itself is the point, along with what the journey expresses: that when we seek to cure our pain by asking someone to take it away, the asking is just as futile as it is brave. And neither the futility nor the bravery cancel one another out.
Van den Berg works in a dreamlike way, so that reading her feels a bit like having someone else's Freudian analysis imposed onto your own mind -- and whatever it might sound like, that isn't a complaint. She offers wildness and deep meaning both, the most powerful work of the subconscious. On the road, heading towards her mother, Joy meets up with a foster brother named Marcus, who seems to be the person she loves best and trusts most. He is, in every scene, wearing a mask -- mostly, a rubber rabbit's head -- making him part comfort toy, part specter. The peculiarity of this might feel too cute or symbolic, except that we know exactly why he does it: to cover up the fact that his eye is encased in grisly scars after being mauled by his mother's cat. Knowing what's under the mask gives it the power to lift and evolve in meaning.
And this is how Van den Berg presents the world to us: as something perpetually and performatively foreign covering up something very raw. The combination makes her world very real, mythic, and feral. Ultimately, Joy feels the most alive to me -- which is to say, the most hopeless and electric -- in a memory she has of swimming out past the buoys at a Massachusetts beach as a child, trying to escape an abusive caretaker. She moves until her body turns wobbly with effort, telling herself that if she swims far enough, she'll find someone to save her. A boat to cast her a rope. But she keeps going and starts to lose momentum, finding no one. Still when a lifeguard pulls her back in, her rage is monumental. She wanted to get somewhere on her own steam.
And it's the people on shore, in the regular world, that she was trying to escape.
Find Me by Laura van den Berg
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux