Just when the world turned around a little too fast and spun itself into a new dystopian reality is hard to pin-point exactly. It seems it might have kicked-off around 2016 when every one of your favourite celebrities started dying and the Western electorate ticked the box marked ‘collective suicide pact’. Then again, it could have been 2008 when those who told you they knew better then you watched their economic project erupt like a volcano, split into pieces and then slide into the sea. Perhaps for most of the world, dystopia was already the way of things and now those of us in corners of the world in which we were fortunate enough to spend our free time watching endless re-runs of ‘Friends’ are simply catching up.
Whatever the case, dystopian themes in fiction are most definitely in vogue. In fact, authors have always been pessimistic enough to imagine the worse, so there is a long and steady history of the dystopic genre that existed way before Orwell. What is the bible if not one big ‘end of the world’ story. In fact, the religious is not a bad place to start when contextualising our collective obsession with the end of the world as we know it. Religious tales aim in essence to remind one of the fragility of existence, to prompt you to think grander than the everyday so you might just find faith in the one who will meet you at your end. By calling into question the permeance of your cosy life, religion is daring you ignore the threats that await just around the corner. Now it seems most of us are uneasy with thinking the worst might not happen, after all, we only have twelve years to save the world as we know it before the climate changes everything around us. It seems like there are dystopian books popping up all over the place, but I would just hazard to say that it is just that we (as a readership) are in the right mood to read them.
Turning to The Rending and the Nest, we are faced with another dystopian reality – an unsparkly future. Witness to this new world is Mira. Mira was shopping in the mall with her little brother when the Rending happened. One moment she was looking at a necklace and the next she wakes up on the floor with 95% of the population completely disappeared. Not only that, it seems to apply across the board with most animals disappeared too, as well as material things – sides of buildings are gone, most of the contents of the shelves, the cars, everything. It is as if the world has been picked up and taken away, but a few things that couldn’t be carried were left behind. It is like the Rapture happened whilst she was knocked out and she is one of the unlucky ones left behind. There are, scattered around, strange piles of objects. There are piles of consumer goods stacked up towards the sky. The reality of the fast-paced, production of capitalism is left discarded, as if as an after-thought, and those left can only sift through them looking for something useful.
Mira, in her new reality becomes part of a community called Zion. A small gaggle of people live together and work in select roles to keep them all fed and safe. It is a relatively un-threatened life with just enough food to get by and as of yet, no significant conflicts. In Zion Mira is struggling with her new reality, she misses people and things. She writes down the names of objects she remembers from the Before in a notebook she keeps close to her chest. Perhaps most importantly she is restrained in how much of her previous life she gives away. She lives as if skating on pond water, everything is surface: underneath is depth and secrets. She doesn’t consider that this might be the same for everyone else. That is until her friend Lana is the first woman in Zion to get pregnant. Lana’s pregnancy does not go as expected. Lana does not give birth to a baby, she gives birth to an inanimate object. This opens up wounds in Lana and ultimately many of the women in the camp. It is a strange and uneasy turn of events that is unsettling to read. As more women birth more object-babies the uneasiness causes the Zionites decide to acknowledge the babies by naming them and creating nests for them. Just as some order is created around this curious phenomenon a stranger walks into the camp and takes an interest in the women and the babies that will take the narrative outwards, to other encampments where things are not so settled and not easy.
It is an interesting story that moves on to more odd and unsettling things. Considering the themes is almost a quiet book, there is a lot of thinking and not so much talking. There are characters that are dictated by routine who are suffering their own existential crisis’. Even when Mira and others find themselves facing a manipulative man who threatens their freedom, there is not a great deal of violence. The pacing of the book is not particularly quick because the emphasis is on character rather than task. Key to the book is an examination of Mira dealing with her grief of losing her brother in the before and the grief of not understanding the new world. There is a grappling with the unknown that most characters are taking on. As well as these themes, the theme of motherhood is a strong one. The women desire to love their babies although most in the camp cannot understand this. The desire for new life is strong and the desire to direct love towards something is also explored. The book explores this balance of grief, desire and with-holding these emotions and the tensions this provides. Consumerism also has a heavy presence in this book, items of the Before are scattered around, plastic is everywhere and the Zionites utilise these off-cuts of a former life in their new one. The endless rubbish that we produce is all that is left in this new reality.
This is an interesting, if unsettling book. It is sometimes a little difficult to see if any hope lies ahead. I think the author has provided the reader with some fascinating imagery and achieved a vision that reflects what a post-capitalistic environment could look like. There is a lot of emotion to wade through in this book and everyone will find something different in it. At times it deals out some difficult imagery and is thick with the uncanny. It is an exploration of human emotion in an unknown environment and time, rather than a redemptive fable. It is a book that hints just what the end of the world might look like: unsettling, half-empty and of course, littered with plastic.
The Rending and the Nest is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available here.
I was born in Chicago but I’ve lived beside a lake in Minneapolis, on a sleepy street in Indiana, in a rural mountain village in Washington, across from a Mattress Mart in California, upon the side of a volcano in Ecuador, near the coupling of train cars in Montana, and between the dusty walls of a farmhouse in Iowa. Now I live in Northfield, Minnesota where the re-enactment of a bank raid each year is softened with the scent of chocolate breakfast cereal cooking in the Malt O Meal factory down the road.
I studied creative writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Montana and earned a BA from Gustavus Adolphus College. I currently teach composition and creative writing at St. Olaf College.
I’m the author of The Rending and the Nest, Tailings: A Memoir, and Tanka & Me. I also am the co-editor of Claiming Our Callings: Toward a New Understanding of Vocation in the Liberal Arts. My poems and prose can be found in journals such as Crazyhorse, Pleiades, jubilat, Witness, Minnesota Review and the anthology Fiction on a Stick. I’ve been the recipient of a Minnesota Book Award for Creative Nonfiction, a Minnesota State Arts Board Grant, a Loft Mentor Series Award, the Donald Justice Poetry Prize, and a Best of the Net Anthology award.
A poem of mine is printed on a sidewalk square in the town where I live. This means that lots of people can read my words or ignore them, decorate them with sidewalk chalk or spill Pinot Grigio into their very crevices. This makes me happy. I think writing belongs in the messy middle of our lives, making us stranger and stronger, word by word.
Reviewed by J.A. Gregory
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