Reviewed by Candace Fertile
Claudia Casper’s third novel, The Mercy Journals, addresses a timely issue: how to live in a degraded world. The first point is that many people don’t. We learn right at the beginning that the journals are found on Vancouver Island in 2072, along with the remains of a human being and a cougar. Allen Quincy, whose nickname is Mercy, writes his two journals in 2047, after a great die-off and the restructuring of the political system in OneWorld.
Journal One is set mainly in what was once Seattle. Quincy is 58 years old and has witnessed absolute horror. He lives a small life in a small apartment, having lost his family and any desire to succeed other than to survive and to try to dampen the force of what could be called PTSD. He was once a soldier and for many years he has believed that the only way to survive is to reduce his life to the simplest of pleasures: how his worn flannel sheets feel, for example. His life changes dramatically when he meets Ruby Blades, a free-spirited woman, who awakens desire in him — but Ruby struggles with her own demons.
Quincy turns back to alcohol after 18 years of sobriety, and his overwhelming need to forget the past, to lose memory, leads him to write the journals. He’s read that Socrates believed writing “will implant forgetfulness” as it leads people to rely on material outside themselves to remember — and he is desperate to forget.
Casper has created a complex and unforgettable character in Quincy. He grapples with what he thinks is the second main philosophical question: Why am I here? The first question — Who am I? — he inadvertently answers by addressing the second. So we have an intelligent, thoughtful, deeply damaged man who is tormented by his past, unsure of the present, and, at least initially, unwilling to consider the future. And all that is set against a radically altered world which has been nearly destroyed due to human greed and failure to act in time to prevent or limit climate change.
In part, the novel could be seen as a treatise on loss. If Quincy can stop remembering the losses he has endured and even caused, he hopes he can stop the pain. But it’s not that simple, or even possible, so he must move forward and create a life for himself.
And through his relationship with Ruby he learns about his possibilities and limitations. He also has to cope with his brother Leo, whom he has not seen for 20 years. Leo is a vile human being, the personification of greed. He’s the weakest character in the novel because he is so one-dimensional, but it’s understandable why Casper would include such a man, given the destruction the world has experienced because of people like Leo.
Journal Two is a break from the first as Quincy, Leo and Leo’s stepson Griffin travel to Vancouver Island to the old family cabin (called Nirvana) to rebuild their lives. But as we know from the first page, someone dies.
Stylistically, the novel portrays memory realistically with its forward and backward movement. Patterns of imagery serve to create coherence. For example, Casper has used feline imagery to tie together some of the various struggles. Quincy describes keeping things together with the image that his “cats were stuffed in a bag and sleeping”; that image shifts. The cougars on Vancouver Island are real, and hungry. And Leo’s name references cats.
While the novel is set in the future, it doesn’t seem that far away or fantastical. Instead of driverless cars, most people walk or bicycle, although there are automobiles. The Mercy Journals work on two levels: as a cautionary tale and as an examination of one man’s struggle to find meaning in life. The two levels work beautifully together.