At first, Laura van den Berg’s debut novel Find Me seems to ground itself firmly in societal collapse and natural catastrophe—a mysterious epidemic is sweeping the country, causing swift memory loss, hysteria, and mass death. When we meet Joy, the novel’s nineteen-year-old narrator, she is living out a ten-month isolation period in a repurposed psychiatric hospital on the plains of Kansas, a place, she says, that is “like a fortress from the outside…a towering structure rising from the absolute flatness.”
Joy’s Hospital stay is a kind of internment. Here we meet her fellow patients—there’s a young widower named Louis, and two parentless ten-year-old twins obsessed with escaping to Hawaii—who have all lost someone to the sickness. There’s also the Hazmatted Hospital staff, Dr. Bek and his flock of code-named nurses, and the eerie, disembodied voice of a Pathologist nobody ever sees, which comes on through the wall speakers to dole out daily meditations like, “REPEAT AFTER ME: YOU ARE WELL, YOU HAVE ALWAYS BEEN WELL, YOU HAVE ALWAYS BEEN WELL, YOU HAVE ALWAYS BEEN WELL…”
This existence is exactly how we’d imagine any quarantined space—fluorescent lights, dismal food, ritual examinations, an occasional patient losing themselves to the disease (the first sign: they might forget how to tie their shoes—next their own name). The only escape is mental escape via Internet and television sessions where Joy, like other patients, can keep an eye on the developments of the outside world through websites like WeAreSorryForYourLoss.com, a tracker updating the national death count and listing the names of both the living and the dead. Most of Joy’s days are boring, full of nothingness, a compulsive desire to construct idiosyncratic lists, and the needling feeling that the Hospital is not at all the bastion of hope it claims to be. “Sometimes it feels like we are standing inside a flashlight,” Joy notes.
In the liminal space of the Hospital where nothing is certain—are they all going to die?, do they truly have some kind of natural cure?, are they patients, or really just lab rats?— Joy examines the past. “Things I will never forget: my name, my made-up birthday, the rattle of a train in a tunnel…Things other people will forget: where they come from, how old they are, the faces of the people they love.” This fixation with the past is heightened by the fact that, as a lifelong orphan whose mother abandoned her, Joy can’t stop wondering if her mother is still dead or alive. That fact, among other details of Joy’s troubled history, makes it easy to see why memory (the power to keep track of our lives) and storytelling (the narrative memory casts upon our sense of self) become natural obsessions for a young woman with a mysterious genesis, watching on as her countrymen forget their own pasts by the thousands. In a moment of dark yet compelling fancy, Joy imagines “the little black spot on my own memory eating away at my brain like a fungus, because that is what the sickness does, after all: it takes those dark stains that exist within us and melts them down into a lake of forgetting.” Ultimately, no one is immune to these cracks in the minds, our species’ congenital propensity to lose track of self-defining moments, and the sickness, Joy knows, takes advantage of these neurological fault lines.
But beyond this typical, somewhat solipsistic conglomeration of memory and forgetting and becoming anew (because the search for her unknown mother is really just a search for the self) is a story that could be read as an old-fashioned odyssey. The book is full of moments of intense isolation and entrapment, yes, but these build up to explosions of freedom and movement, for if the first part of the book deals with Joy’s imprisonment and the dangers of a listless existence, the second part depicts her many escapes—both mental and physical. One could read the book as a kind of dystopian cross-country road trip, reminiscent in some ways of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and more recent books like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Edan Lepucki’s California. However, what makes Find Me unique is that it doesn’t track the story of a lonely survivor post-apocalypse, but rather hypothesizes in a variety of creative ways what our nation might look like mid-fall. Within this thought experiment and Joy’s development from disillusioned orphan to empowered survivor, a consistent, albeit ambiguous, flirtation with hope wavers beneath the weight of all the story’s grit.
In van den Berg’s previous short story collections, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth, her writing is never a stranger to the weird, ghostly, or darkly magical, and Find Me plays to similar tunes. However, despite the creativity van den Berg instills into her hyperrealism (touches like WeAreSorryForYourLoss.com and the Last Rites Company are examples of a certain level of cleverness), I’ll be honest: I found the prose irksome, overcrowded with ham-fisted similes (“We patients are like a chain of islands: occupying the same water, but isolated from one another…”) and relentless expository interruptions; plus, it was instilled with a preciousness I couldn’t take seriously. One example is the clean and perfect twist of Joy finding her long-lost mother on a Discovery Channel show called Mysteries of the Sea —she’s a badass ocean explorer named Beatrice Lurry. It seemed oddly convenient to have Joy’s mysterious past so plainly connected to the protean nature of the ocean via her mother’s vocation—a gee-whiz, symbolism! kind of moment.
This instance and others gives way to another critique, which is that much of the book is van den Berg either brandishing whatever research she did like a weapon, or seguing into unnecessary information that doesn’t support or illuminate the story. At best some pertinent information is conveyed (“The death toll climbs. People are starving to death and giving birth and killing each other in their homes. In hospitals, doctors are passing out from exhaustion…” ), and at worst it’s just long-winded (there are lengthy descriptions of things like the geography of Hawaii or Plácido Domingo’s abbreviated biography that I won’t subject you to here because they are similar to Wikipedia synopses).
Sometimes the ideas felt downright hackneyed (the Pathologist seemed like a device vaguely stolen from any Panopticon-inspired cautionary tale ever written). No matter where Joy is, what she is doing, society falls apart in a predictable trajectory—crime, disease, paranoia, fear, confusion, violence, rusty, old vehicles, and dank hotel rooms are the vestiges of a once finely tuned civilization. And to make matters worse, Joy’s stoic voice doesn’t provide the sophisticated poignancy her weighty observations attempt to make, having the tendency to become unintentionally (and therefore aggravatingly) melodramatic (“In the hallway a patient screams and it takes me a second to realize the screaming person is me…” or “My life was a wreck, had been seething with a sickness that was beyond what any doctor could cure, and I had agreed to spend ten months in a Hospital and I might live or I might die…”). For all its frank, deadpan delivery, her narration betrays the frustrating quality of treating us readers as if we are chronically slow on the uptake, the prose forever offering unremarkable commentary on Joy’s obviously traumatic circumstances.
In the end, it was hard not to feel besieged by all the clichés of our current apocalypse zeitgeist, whether we’re talking epidemics, nuclear disaster, zombies, or otherwise. These clichés tended to overshadow what I believe is really the heart of the story: Joy’s sense of being and finding peace with who she is and what she has the potential to become. I was often taken out of the narrative by burdensome descriptions of the surrounding apocalypse, descriptions I’ve seen in other novels and in so many movies. I wanted van den Berg to trust me as a reader, take me beyond this wheelhouse, and bring me closer to Joy’s unique inner life as it unfolds in time (a disconcerting failure, as the telling is first-person present tense); to make Joy’s voice truly distinctive; to perhaps introduce me to a someone capable of wonder and/or vitality (or something surprising) in a world full of primarily second-hand plot points. The book lacked the satisfying tension that comes from juxtaposing unlike elements, and instead depicted the rather tedious story of an overdone dystopian future featuring a lusterless heroine.
However, Find Me has a few notable moments of intrigue. The incorporation of slipstream and weird characters were imaginative and to some extent satisfying. Plus, the disturbing reveal near the end of the book is one instance of Joy’s repressed past returning that was representative of some of the best writing I’ve seen from van den Berg. My takeaway, therefore, is mixed. There are significant merits and drawbacks to the book as a whole, but at the very least it makes for an interesting glimpse into what could happen in a possible apocalypse (the hope for a cure and social recovery is never fully eradicated). More importantly, despite her voice, Joy’s character somehow successfully embodies the consistent becomingness we humans possess, even in the face of trauma. Thematically, the book embraces our individual and cultural stuck-in-the-middle existences, our contradictory desire for, and fear of, the past, and the potential hope waiting in a not-too-distant future.