Canadian Literature – A Quarterly of Criticism and Review
May 4, 2022
Reviewed by Emma Morgan-Thorp
MEDITATIONS ON MERCY
Claudia Casper’s The Mercy Journals is many things: a musing on a post-apocalyptic future, one man’s story of grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an archetypal journey into the Canadian wilderness, a family drama, a love story. At its core, Casper’s novel meditates on the conditions in which human beings will act mercifully, and on what is left when mercy is not enough.
Set in 2047 in the wake of World War III, The Mercy Journals is the story of Allan Quincy, a veteran suffering from PTSD in what was once Seattle. The author’s decision to explore a post-apocalyptic world through the eyes of a white male American ex-soldier yields unexpected rewards. The sense of Quincy as a merciful individual is muddied by his identificatory privilege, and raises the question: what position must one be in to bestow mercy? The novel is divided into two parts: Journal One, in which the reader learns about Quincy and the state of the world in 2047, and follows his relationship with a woman named Ruby; and Journal Two, in which Quincy, with his brother Leo and nephew Griffin, sets off on a journey to the east coast of Vancouver Island in search of his sons and the family cabin.
Ruby is a catalyst for Quincy—a mysterious and alluring woman by whom he is convinced to delve into a past from which he had divorced himself, and to search for an estranged family. The climax of Journal One comes with Quincy’s confession to Ruby of the cause of his PTSD (also the source of his nickname, Mercy). His account of the atrocities committed by American forces at the Mexico-US border during World War III is deeply horrifying, and—more disturbing yet—feels all the more plausible in the wake of the 2016 American presidential election. For an alternative perspective on how the future might play out along that border, one might read this novel alongside Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead; both offer damning accounts of border politics and the road down which contemporary views of nation and citizenship might lead.
Journal Two sees three men set off on a quintessentially Canadian journey into the wilderness—here, a wilderness impoverished by extinctions. Due to the diminished, recovering nature of Casper’s post-apocalyptic world and its location in the not-too-distant future, this is not a work of science fiction. Despite being futurist in scope, The Mercy Journals is not caught up in the excitement and fear surrounding possible technological advancements, but rather dwells in the very plausible consequences of our lives as we are currently living them. Casper’s post-apocalyptic North America has begun to settle into a kind of rhythm. The collapse of the nation-state and the dangerous condition of climate change have brought about strict global imperatives, including a cap of one child per family and a total halt to CO2 emissions.
The Mercy Journals takes its place alongside Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven in the growing tradition of Canadian literature which wonders what will bring on our apocalypse, and what we will do when it comes. Setting the novel in 2047 draws attention to the plausibility of this kind of apocalyptic near-future for Canadians. Casper, a Vancouver resident, clearly takes the threat of climate change seriously; her fears are reflected in the novel, which reads as an admonishment to Canadian citizens to heed climate warnings and change our lifestyles while it’s still possible. Given the novel’s setting on the West Coast and its emphasis on the dire ramifications of climate change, current resource extraction projects planned for the coast (the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline and the liquefied natural gas station at Lelu Island, for example) inevitably come to mind. Casper’s novel thus acts as a powerful environmentalist manifesto and call to action.