Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Future Home Of The Living God: Terrifying, All-Too-Realistic Dystopia

The most terrifying dystopias in fiction are scariest because of how closely they predict how the world could actually be. The resemblance to real life is one of the many reasons why National Book Award winner Louise Erdrich’s new novel, Future Home of the Living God, is so fantastic…and frightening. In this novel, babies are born as underdeveloped human-like creatures that can’t support themselves, and scientists don’t understand why. The leading theory is that evolution has reversed, or as Erdrich’s protagonist, 26-year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker, explains on the first page: “Apparently – I mean, nobody knows – our world is running backward. Or forward. Or maybe sideways, in a way as yet ungrasped.”

Because of this crisis, reason and rationality have all but gone away and society itself is slowly devolving into authoritarianism. Streets are renamed after Bible verses. Neighbors turn on each other. Panic begets panic. Civility dies. Society has gone backwards, too.

But this novel is less about the “world” in which it takes place and more about the characters’ ability to navigate it. Erdrich deftly uses the “rules” of her world to explore how rapid change and fear can strip basic human empathy, dignity, and kindness. But it can also bring about instances of amazing courage and heroism.

This is also a novel about motherhood. Cedar, who is four months pregnant, writes this story as a diary to her unborn child. The novel unfolds in three distinct acts. In the first Cedar, who lives in Minneapolis and was raised by adoptive parents Glen and Sara, goes to visit her birth mother on the Ojibwe Reservation, ostensibly to learn if there are any hereditary diseases in her family. But also, as she sees the world crashing down around her, wants to find out why she was given up at birth.

As Cedar tells the story, she frequently reflects on her pregnancy, writing about each stage of her baby’s physical development — the baby has fingernails now, the baby’s synapses are forming and firing. Given the external circumstances – that other babies are being born underdeveloped, the effect of these reflections are poignant, and heart-breakingly hopeful.

As society continues to deteriorate, the authorities search for “normal” babies and begin rounding up women, both pregnant and not, fearing the human race is going extinct. Cedar, rightly so, is terrified and begins to formulate a plan. The novel really picks up thrilling speed in the second act. And even as Erdrich pumps the breaks a bit in the third act, returning to the introspective, poignant prose present in much of the first part, she’s still got several tricks up her sleeve — surprises and twists that shed whole new light on everything that’s come before.

The comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale here are inevitable, but apparently that’s a likeness with which both Erdrich and Atwood are comfortable. Like Atwood’s masterpiece, Erdrich’s novel is profound, subtly beautiful, and extremely bleak.

1 comment:

  1. I've got this out from the library and I cannot wait. Based on your review, it sounds a bit more like Children of Men than The Handmaid's Tale. I shall soon find out!