A novel about the plagues offers lessons in humanity
We can’t accuse How far do we go in the dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu to lack ambition. This human, literary, and dystopian sci-fi novel by Sequoia Nagamatsu encompasses love, sadness, and death across millennia and deep space.
It begins a few years from now, with a group of reckless researchers in an outpost in a thawing Siberia, unleashing a virus on the world. The virus is a fearsome shapeshifter, turning one organ into another, resulting in “brain cells in the liver, lung cells in the heart.”
The ‘Arctic Plague’ will alter life for centuries to come, ushering in a warped world of euthanasia parks, forensic corps farms and elegy hotels – and will provide the anguish of those individual stories shrouded in a new form. But does the author manage to capture everything in this episodic collection of humans fighting a great plague?
Chapters move from location to location, character to character, generally remaining chronological but sometimes making profound shifts in time. Most poignant was the second chapter, “City of Laughter,” which emotionally answers the question no one wants to ask: what if Covid had targeted children?
Nagamatsu offers a boldly sinister scenario: The “City” is actually a euthanasia park for dying children, a kind of second-hand Disneyland stuffed with forced merriment and “bull-animal balloons” for the sake of sick children, where parents choose to let their children be children for a few days instead of dying in an overcrowded hospital.
Skip, a lost soul who finds stand-up comedy gigs rare in the new era, finds work at the City of Laughter and bonds with one of his protégés, sick child Finch and his desperate mother Dorrie. The most striking feature of the park is the Chariot of Osiris roller coaster, offering “the last ride” for children. “City”, which could have been a dark satire, veers closer to sentimentality, but is entirely redeemed by the charming and haunting closing paragraphs.
“Through the Gardens of Memory” is soft and a bit spooky in its conception of a dark afterlife floating in a vast space of strangers. Otherwise, the novel has a certain muffled stoicism about the Crisis and little sentiment about the afterlife, as perhaps befits its mostly Asian characters and settings.
But the book loses momentum in the middle and never fully recovers.
“Pig Son” is representative of the strengths and weaknesses of Nagamatsu’s humanist style. David, Dorrie’s ex-husband (Fitch’s mother, that’s no coincidence) is a scientist who cares for Snortorious, an experimental pig who shockingly acquires speech and intelligence in the lab. David struggles to tell this self-aware being he has come to love, that he was raised for his organs to help human children die of the plague.
Much like Skip the comedian is the surrogate father of David’s son Fitch, Pig functions as David’s surrogate son. Oh my, the pig even “loves belly rubs.” But after sketching out this unbearable moral dilemma, the chapter ends with a soft landing that felt evasive. Globally, How high suffers from a lack of conflict.
The linked story format is not quite successful as an organically unified novel. There’s a softness around the edges, as if the author tried too hard to give each character their reasons, not delving deeply into their creepy content.
We want more explicit scenes like the punching of a cartoon mascot by a grieving father in “…Laughs” or the family feud in “Elegy Hotel”. As a heartless cynic, I preferred dark humor moments like these from “Elegy Hotel,” a place where guests are asked to “”Dial 9 for housekeeping. Dial 8 for the undertaker on duty” and the manager responds to requests for help such as “Excuse me, but my husband seems to be running away”.
Science and human interactions feel real. The writing is heartfelt and human, but perhaps at the expense of the equally human overtones of pettiness, anger and greed. It’s also polished to the point that the narrative sometimes slips through your fingers if you’re not careful.
Nagamatsu captures the lonely melancholy of a flattened world of gas station sandwiches; community suicides; Broken down robot dogs who are mourned as part of the family. To his favorite, How high evokes a desolate second-hand atmosphere reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s harrowing novel Never let Me Go.
So is this a Covid novel? Hopefully not. There are few masks around, and no one can agree on how the Arctic plague is spreading – though the lines about ‘abandoned towns and closed schools’ might make you think about recent real-world events. , I couldn’t find any reference to the current pandemic. This scourge is that of the author.
Nagamatsu also says his inspiration came before Covid, and the novel’s copyright page confirms this, revealing How high as a collection of previously published stories, with plague-related themes inserted and character names changed in order to tie together the scattered episodes.
How high is good enough to frustrate me at how much better it could have been. Ultimately, it’s strong content in a stifling format that trades narrative drive for recurring bouts of national drama. And the large-scale reveal of the final chapter, including this now predictable family pattern, goes against the book’s theme of human resilience. But Nagamatsu is a gifted writer and if he ever realizes his potential, watch out.