Thursday, January 14, 2016

Find Me (by Laura van den Berg)

I'm not sure what to think about this one. The first half introduces us to the main character, Joy, who is living in a former insane asylum, now a hospital (or "hospital"), during an epidemic. A disease that makes you first forget everything and then die is sweeping through the country, but Joy is immune. Her fellow patients sometimes are, sometimes aren't.

This first half of the book is pleasurably ooky (patent pending) and full of detail. Joy was abandoned as an infant and grew up in a series of foster homes; as the epidemic was spreading, she was working in a Stop & Shop, stealing and drinking cherry Robitussin. (I would read an entire novel about her life in the Stop & Shop.) She's fixated on the mother who abandoned her, just one of the many hints toward the meaning (or meanings) of the novel's title.

The second half is a post-epidemic road trip to find the mother whose whereabouts she thinks she's discovered. It's during the second half that the book seems to slip into dream or allegory. It is too full of coincidence to be literal -- and there are findings everywhere.  (Spoilers: Someone finds a body in the snow. Her former foster brother finds her on a bus. She finds someone who once came to the hospital as a pilgrim. She finds out what memory from her past she has repressed. She finds out she is pregnant. Lots of findings.)

I liked thinking about the underlying themes here, but it is in this second half that the narrative stalls out. The whole episode at the Mansion, for example, is several chapters of wheel-spinning. The characters seem more like surrealist avatars than actual people. I really enjoyed Marcus, and how he and Joy fuse into one brain such that Joy seems able to read his mind, but even he is always wearing masks and doesn't feel quite three-dimensional. On the pure story level, I was disappointed.

That said, I'd be interested in hearing from other people on this -- do you agree with the idea that it's allegorical? And if so, what is the central metaphor? My theory is that it might be about what it feels like to bring a child into a world where dangers abound. Climate change is referenced, sexual abuse, abandonment, disease, all the things that make the world frightening. And yet Joy manages to find some kind of peace, and belonging, and identity, and absolution. Ultimately it feels hopeful -- at least I left the novel with that impression. This might be one I need to turn around in my brain a bit before I can fully process. At the very least, it was interesting!

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