One hundred pages into Laura van den Berg’s melancholy and unpredictable debut novel, Find Me, narrator Joy Jones dons a vampire mask, looks at herself in the bathroom mirror and says, “Pleased to meet you.” The moment is a non-sequitur, a rootless gesture from a rootless young woman, but it is emblematic of the ways van den Berg’s characters experience the self as an inscrutable Other. “Who” is often the motivating question in her work and her plots catch characters in the act of reconsidering their identities. When Joy gazes at her masked face, observing herself as alien, she hopes the disguise will reveal something previously hidden about who she is.
At the start of the novel, we learn that the U.S. has been upended by fear and uncertainty following the outbreak of a “micro epidemic” that deprives victims of their memories, leading to neurological collapse and death. Nineteen-year-old Joy has agreed to leave her native Boston and enter a research hospital in Kansas after learning she is immune to the sickness. There, in the Hospital—“Hospital” is always capitalized, and if, like me, you assume this implies a Theme, your assumptions will be Frustrated—Joy and other patients suspected of immunity are studied, they are told, so the disease might be better understood and eradicated.
The Hospital is overseen by Dr. Bek, an implacable Norwegian who maintains a breezy order with the help of nurses in hazmat suits. Patients are not allowed to leave or roam freely; harsh winter weather threatens the lives of anyone attempting an escape on foot. Joy is docile at first, both because she is afraid of catching the sickness and because her itinerant life as an orphan has habituated her to a kind of a shell-shocked passivity. She befriends a pair of young twins named Christopher and Sam and engages in an on again/off again romance with her roommate, Louis. As the months drag on, doubts about Dr. Bek’s honesty cause patients to grow restless. Joy’s desire to track down her long-lost mother intensifies. She clings to her only photo of her as though it’s the last fragile link to her true identity.
The epidemic sounds an apocalyptic note that rings throughout the novel, but the genre tropes linking Find Me to The Walking Dead, or to recent literary dystopias like Station Eleven, are ultimately subsumed by Joy’s driving need to find a place in the world. She is suffering emotionally but lacks the tools to alleviate that suffering (before the Hospital, she coped by nursing a nasty Robitussin habit). Her state of mind is reflected by the larger society: there is nothing like tragedy and panic to force a people to reconsider its values and its identity.
At times, van den Berg slyly employs the genre to comment on our cultural fascination with cataclysm. Late in the novel, a man named Nelson prompts Joy to “imagine that we are just a nation of people with a deep desire to die.” It’s an interesting suggestion, that our fixation on apocalyptic narratives could be a symptom of collective fatigue.
For my money, the most invigorating aspect of Find Me is the tenacity with which its author pursues her staple obsessions. Rather than retreat into convention to shore up her first foray into the novel form, van den Berg sticks to her guns and lets her idiosyncrasies off the tether. Masks, costumes, water, ice, oceans, orphans, siblings, animals—these resurface in her stories again and again, and Find Me is no exception. That doesn’t mean she’s repeating herself: van ben Berg’s preceding books, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth, show us a writer managing her preoccupations in service of her craft. Here, she worries the seams of that craft like frayed threads on a sweater, impatient with established constraints.
Book 1 of Find Me begins with an epigraph from Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which is instructive. In tackling something as vast and unknowable as the self, van den Berg follows Murakami’s lead in using surrealism and imagery to create meaning through doubleness, parallels and dialogues. The story talks to itself, eschewing the strictly rational, evolving according to esoteric criteria. We can’t assume that a monster mask is sinister or that angel wings connote purity. Worn-out themes and archetypes be damned—van den Berg wants to make new space for her characters to breathe.
Joy runs through the woods to feel the animal abandon of it. She curls into a ball and weeps. She is hunted, she steals, she drinks homemade liquor that turns her companions’ faces “into bright blurs, like the world is a wet canvas someone can’t stop touching.” Joy’s self is blurred and buried, surfacing here as polite diffidence, there as simmering, feral transgression.
For better and sometimes worse, abstraction haunts this novel. People live apart from one another; they are often granted one or two distinguishing quirks; they speak in vague, ethereal dialogue. Even concrete detail can repel the senses with its strangeness—the twins’ distinguishing features are “freckles” on their throats and “toes curled like animal claws.” Joy feels the florescent brightness of the Hospital “inside my cheekbones and inside my mouth.” At times, this kind of language kept me at arm’s length when I wanted to invest. But this occasional vagueness is consistent with Joy’s predicament. She can only describe the world as she experiences it—when we meet her, she is in the midst of deciding whether to disappear into the featureless wash of her subconscious forever. This ambivalence toward the phenomenal world is something Joy has to reconcile, and that conflict is built into the narration.
For the most part, though, Van den Berg’s prose is heartfelt, light of touch and wryly funny. Find Me’s 278 pages turn quickly. For all Joy’s claims to weakness—“I don’t have the right materials”; “No one has ever called me a fast learner”—she is strong, showing a resiliency that becomes more profound as we learn more about her.
If an apocalypse is an uncovering, a move from one state of being to another, then Find Me is indeed the story of an apocalypse—Joy’s apocalypse. Laura van den Berg excavates her protagonist’s future, offering her readers a steadfast solidarity, even if that solidarity is sometimes chilly, fenced off—as it must be—within the confines of an individual consciousness. Joy feels compelled to make contact with the mother that abandoned her. She wants to embrace her life, but first she must teach herself how to do so.
Find Me embraces “the comfort in being sad,” to quote Nirvana, while acknowledging the dangers of becoming too habituated to our brokenness. Ultimately, the novel’s title is both a descriptor and an exhortation to take a similar journey ourselves. Or, as I admonished myself in my notes for this review: Hug loved ones tighter. Savor sunshine.