Berit Ellingsen confronts the weighty subject of climate change in her new novel Not Dark Yet. The book follows the story of Brandon Minamoto, a man living on a planet presumably our own. Brandon, still quite young, is already haunted by the mistakes of his past: killing children during his time in the army, and a more recent love affair with an assistant professor named Kaye, an academic idealist with some hope for our dwindling ecosystems.
When he inadvertently kills a research owl in Kaye’s lab and feels responsibility for Kaye’s subsequent disappearance, Brandon leaves his boyfriend Michael for a cabin in the mountains; it is in this isolation we learn of his burgeoning fascination with space travel. He harbors a childhood yearning to visit Mars: “It didn’t matter if the place was inhospitable and remote, had too little air and was too cold and dry. The desire to travel there remained…” As a freelance photographer, what was once mere fantasy becomes a reality at just this moment: Bandon’s country’s space program is accepting applications to Mars. In his new cabin, he prepares.
Brandon isn’t totally alone out there. Neighboring farmers ask him to sign a lease agreement for an agrarian project, an agreement that would allow them to cultivate the previously unfertile moor surrounding the cabin into fields of barely, rye, and wheat. Terror for what this means concerning the warming climate is tempered by intrigue for the new crop strains that might, very soon, help sustain their country’s population. Brandon signs the documents.
What is most distinctive about Brandon in these days are flashes of a bright nothingness visited upon him in his refuge—a white light, and then something metaphysical, beyond his body (his soul?) leaving; then paralysis, sleep. Is it death? It’s not exactly scary, so much as strange. In fact, it begins to seem more and more likely that these moments of earthly abandon are a subconscious preparation meant to propel Brandon’s psyche toward Mars, perhaps even the whole universe.
Right before he fell away [into sleep] the white light flared up inside him, engulfing him. Then there was nothing he lacked, nothing he had to do. It was a break from the world and its concerns. It happened every night, a quiet reset back to himself. Only when the morning arrived would he once again grow a body and mind and become human again.
Whatever these episodes are, they signal a movement beyond our temporal world. Brandon inadvertently seems like the perfect candidate for a trip demanding the severing of earthly and human connections.
The major themes of the book—space travel, crop experimentation, deadly climate change—seem very of-the-moment. However, Brandon himself seems oddly timeless, lost in a transcendental daze. He is aloof, distant from his younger brother, boyfriend, and parents. Even when he visits his own home in the city, he sleeps on the couch, asks permission to use his own bathroom, feels himself an imposition to his longtime friend, Beanie, who he has allowed to housesit for him. We watch as he nonchalantly and systematically disconnects himself from all things the rest of us hold dear (friends, family, material comfort) in order to prepare for initiation into the eternal realm of the grander universe by way of a prospective trip to Mars.
Thematically, this is an interesting concept: a man breaking away, though not breaking apart—that is, Brandon is not losing his mind, but seems to be entering a kind of meditative plane of existence. At one point we follow Brandon as he, in something like a waking dream, relives the mummification process of the body of a long-dead monk, which he visits in his father’s “ancestral country.” The descriptions in this scene are harrowing, painful, and enlightening (fat melting, bones jutting, skin going brittle from a diet of tree sap and holy water); the concept of leaving something completely, utterly behind, and the solace one finds in this accepting state of nirvana is disturbingly beautiful. As this monk undergoes this bodily purge, he too experiences, “a brightness, a glow inside himself, that was beautiful and terrible at the same time. He had no words for it and did not try to explain it, but remained inside it when he could, and simply watched it when he couldn’t.” Brandon’s dwindling hope for the earth and his personalized retreat from humanity seem to mimic the spiritual attainment that comes from the monk’s physical abandonment. To give up earth, possessions, the body, one gains the clarity of the universe, or a similar adage.
However, there is a stagnated sense of momentum as these concepts of a grander purpose develop. Events, occurrences happen, but—do they?, I kept asking myself. Brandon is placid to the point of bemusement. The close third-person narration never reaches beyond his dull perspective. Sure—it is interesting that he is quietly desperate for Mars, proactively turning himself into a stranger in his own house, sympathizing with an ancient mummy. Such character tics have the potential to culminate into a uniquely flawed man. And the prose does mention his small pangs and moments of jealousy or confusion; every once in a while a general fear lights up in a self-preserving way—he has not fully entered into the white, clarifying light of both the nothingness and everythingness that is beyond our individual lives. But these moments of inner turmoil—his niggling feelings of affection for Kaye, for example—are receding on the radar of a character losing himself to a more metaphysical plane of existence. His emotional register does not peak; the prose’s language and rhythm match a monotonous protagonist, which ultimately makes for a bland story. By the end, Brandon realizes the “nothingness he had felt since the end of the previous summer was now stronger than ever. He was no longer in the picture, even if he could see his hands. No head, no body, no outside or inside—it was as if he had been replaced by the entire rest of the world.”
But with the rest of the world slowly dying—is Brandon, too? A further implication is that we are all heading towards this demise, or, more optimistically put, this transcendence. Do we, like Brandon, let the white light in? And if we do, would that mean we are giving up, or giving over to something wonderful in its mystery? Is there more to life than our own lives, our own world?, is the gist of these kinds of philosophical quandaries.
And while I can appreciate the experience of such transcendence and thought-provocation—and sympathize with a character haunted by a world he desires to leave behind—Not Dark Yet failed to move me beyond an acknowledgement of this generalized concept of the spirit confronting temporal uncertainty and impending mortality. The slightly unexpected climax in the novel’s final chapters came too late and amounted to too little in regards to its dramatic effect; I ached for something surprising in the tedium of Brandon’s disenchanted life—would even have been happy with a weird revelation in terms of his bright and bodiless light. But I found Brandon as much a husk as his cabin ultimately becomes, as emptied out as the desiccated body of a mummy—not a prophet, nor a devil, not even much of an Everyman in the middle of that polarizing spectrum. Not Dark Yet lacked a kind of friction between character and plot that I deeply desire.
Perhaps intended as a simulation of the meditative process, the novel develops along the Zen-like path of Brandon’s preparations for Mars and the possible end of the world. The prose’s tonal neutrality ultimately failed, however, to endear me to Brandon’s inner life. Whether the universal white light is a reality or not, we don’t know what it’s like to die, and so all we have when we read are the characters and words on the page, each, in tandem, fighting for their own kind of life. What can we as readers appreciate, then, when the protagonist seems to have already decided to die? What loveliness and profundity will save his story, compel us to keep reading?