“Our Current American Dystopia”: Find Me, The Leftovers, and the Demographics of Catastrophe

This week I read both Laura van den Berg’s new novel Find Me and Tom Perotta’s The Leftovers, two visions of semi-apocalyptic events (in Find Me a deadly epidemic, in The Leftovers a mysterious mass disappearance that may have been The Rapture) that focus on the lucky(?) survivors. The juxtaposition put me in mind of other recent heavyweights in the cousin-genres of dystopia and post-apocalypse—Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. (In fact, I initially intended to make February the month of [re]reading books of this type, but I decided after chasing van den Berg’s novel with Perotta’s in the same seven-day span that it might be too depressing a theme to maintain.) 

Although Find Me and The Leftovers are very different books and each excellent on their own terms, it was as impossible to avoid comparing them as it was interesting to do so. As I read, I found myself thinking a lot about the demographic focus of each story, and others in the post-apocalyptic genre (including film and television). The Leftovers is a classic disaster-in-Suburbia story, throwing a cataclysmic event at characters coasting through early retirement in $1.6 million homes and exploring the way this First Real Problem shakes up their lives. It’s a critique of privilege as much as it is a portrait, to be sure, a way of exposing the flawed psyches lurking beneath the coifs and designer labels—and it allows for the finely threaded needle of a comic novel about the end of the world, which I think The Leftovers is. (Compare that to the grim face of its doubled-down HBO adaptation—the world of the show apparently too dark to sustain protagonist Kevin Garvey as a small businessman-cum-mayor, it revises him into Mapleton’s chief of police, newly armed with a handgun and mounting psychosis.)

I didn’t realize that I’d grown tired of reading about the apocalypse coming to Easy Street, USA until I read Find Me. Van den Berg follows characters already forsaken pre-catastrophe; her book asks the question: what if the world ended when you’d already lost everything? Her protagonist—Joy, a Somerville grocery-bagger with a history of abuse and a cough-syrup addiction—is like a gyroscope at the center of the dystopic shift; the world reels around her, and she adapts to the fresh disaster as she has been doing all her life. The book is striking for many reasons, but perhaps chief among them is the fact that the epidemics that truly ravaged Joy’s life, so much so that they equip her to survive the “real” cataclysm—addiction, abuse, abandonment—are not science fiction; they are happening every day to countless people. (In Find Me’s backmatter, van den Berg references sources that she says “shined a light on our current American dystopia.”) It’s the hallmark of any any good speculative fiction to use an alternate world to tell us something about ours—what we should fear; where we may be headed. But the caution is rarely so direct, so devoid of metaphor, as in Find Me.

The most striking similarity for me between these two novels was that in both cases the world-shaking, perhaps world-ending event is an epidemic of disappearance—in Perotta’s book the disappearance of people, wholesale; in van den Berg’s the disappearance of memory as the first symptom of a fatal illness. In each story, for those left behind, simple memory of what has been lost and presence in the ruined world is as much a burden as a victory—survival itself is vulnerability; awareness itself is pain. Is it better to forget or to remember? Each story associates existence with memory and then interrogates the relationship in its own fascinating way. 

Great novels of cataclysm are darkly beautiful, and certainly illuminate our own semi-cataclysmic world in a way I love experiencing. Just maybe not more than twice in the same month.