Reviewed by Joan Givner
Claudia Casper’s new novel adds to a growing body of work designated as “cli-fi,” a genre distinct from sci-fi and fantasy, because the horrors described are not futuristic fantasies but predictions of a certain future.
Fans of Casper’s highly successful first novel, The Reconstruction, will find The Mercy Journals (Arsenal Pulp $17.95) darker and more complex.
Both explore what it means to become fully human and, specifically, the part played by memory in that process.
In the earlier novel, Casper focuses on the memory of humans’ evolutionary past. Her main character, a sculptor, reconstructs her shattered life as she assembles an anatomical replica of the primate, Lucy, for an anthropological museum. “We want visitors to connect themselves to the history of their bodies,” says her supervisor.
In The Mercy Journals Casper’s focus shifts from the distant past to the future; memory is not a benign but rather a crippling force.
The year is 2047; climate change, “a threat multiplier,” has spawned hundreds of global catastrophes—floods, fires, food shortages, new diseases, war and genocide.
We meet Allen Levy Quincy, a veteran of the Third World War and an amputee, who lives amid the remnants of a ruined world. Most of his family has disappeared or perished in the big die-off. It is Quincy’s psychic wound rather than the lost limb that threatens to destroy him. He carries a heavy burden of guilt for his part in an atrocity—the genocidal slaughter of migrants who were trying to breach the wall that was built between Mexico and the United States.
Can there ever be forgiveness for such cruelty?
Casper’s study of humanity involves a comparative look at non-human behaviour. In the first half of the novel she describes Allen finding solace in observing three beautiful goldfish he keeps in a tank (an illegal possession since pets are forbidden). His pleasure sours when he sees the two healthy, well-fed fish tormenting a sick and dying one by taking bites out of its flesh. This image of gratuitous savagery resonates throughout the book, a possible commentary on both species.
As he sinks into a suicidal stupor of drugs and alcohol, Allen stumbles on a way to obliterate his nightmares. On his mobile, he learns of the idea, attributed to Socrates, that writing weakens the mind by making people cease to exercise memory. It also falsifies inner processes, turning them into artificial, manufactured things.
Trees are no longer cut down, and paper and pens are unavailable in the new world order, policed by The Green Planet Brigade and vigilantes. Luckily, Allen finds two blank notebooks and some pencils among his mother’s remains. He hopes that writing a diary will pry loose the death grip of memories on his mind. And there is another element in his healing process—a vital sexual relationship.
Allen appears to be on the way to recovery until he discovers that intimacy precludes secrecy and he can’t avoid confiding the enormity of his guilt to his lover. His confession precipitates a crisis, alienating her and reviving his despair.
Even the act of writing, formerly therapeutic, becomes repellent when applied to the atrocities in his past. He concludes that describing the agonies of helpless and desperate people is a violation of their most private moments, a form of pornographic voyeurism. In another powerful image he compares it to a death-camp guard’s demand for a striptease performance before sending a victim to her death.
“Salvation comes in many ways,” Allen writes in his diary, and for him it is the reappearance of his brother and nephew and the prospect of finding his lost sons that once again revives his will to live.
The second half of the novel is more subdued in tone, and framed in references to ancient myths. With his newfound relatives, he travels to the family’s cabin in a remote northern corner of Vancouver Island, hoping that his sons might have made their way there. Although the cabin is named Nirvana, it is echoes of the Old Testament that predominate. Life on the island starts out as a kind of Eden, in which they live simply, tilling the soil and living off the land. A young woman, already there, adds to the sense of a new beginning because, in violation of the one-child law, she is about to give birth.
Although Allen sustains new injuries, inflicted by a predatory cougar, the wounds, can be viewed as fortuitous. His three companions tend to him protectively, and Allen, in turn, rather than hating the beast becomes protective of the cougar and her cubs.
Echoes of the book of Genesis, and especially the references to the story of Cain and Abel, give the violent climactic events in The Mercy Journals a sense of inevitability. “Were we ever going to act differently?” Allen asks rhetorically when he contemplates the global devastation. It appears humans are programmed to cause universal destruction.
The ending is rich in moral ambiguity and irony arising from Allen’s statement that, although bearing the mark of Cain, he has survived.
A theme throughout is the healing potential, the morality, the danger and the power of writing. Alone on the island, Allen finds a different method of writing; he laboriously chisels in stone a message to the world, using an omniscient voice and cadences reminiscent of the Bible.
In the beginning was the Word, and it seems that after all the destruction, devastation, and death, it is the word that will endure.