Laura van den Berg
Fiction | Apocalyptic Novel
5.79” x 8.54” Hardcover
Review Copy: Hardcover
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
New York, New York
Review originally published on 3/9/15
Laura van den Berg’s Find Me is an unforgettable story about a troubled future where a sickness spreads that begins with memory loss and ends in death. It’s told in present tense by a young woman named Joy who is one of the fortunate to be immune to the illness.
It could be easy to label Laura van den Berg’s novel as just another apocalyptic novel. It could be easy to write off apocalyptic literature as a trend. It would also be a miss. I’ve read a few of them over the last year and each one effectively disproves those ideas with unique and deep spins through the premise.
The strength of this story is the protagonist Joy’s personal conflict and how she chooses to reveal it to the reader in sparse brutal sentences that initially feel like scary whispered secrets from a stranger until, little by little, they work like the bread crumbs left by a lost friend who deserves to be found. In the world where memory is dying, where people are losing what it means to be alive, young Joy hasn’t even had the fair chance of finding out who she is. Her life started in crisis when she was a baby dropped off at a hospital, abandoned by her mother. Difficulty in orphanages and group homes followed, and her adult life had barely started when the world began to fall to the spread of disease.
Being immune to the new plague isn’t necessarily to be saved. The first half of the book takes place in a strange hospital that is studying (collecting) the immune in an attempt to find a cure. Here, she has basic safety and establishes relationships with the other survivors, but it’s fairly clear that she is in need of more than just physical security. The hospital is like a combination of Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the ominous imagination of Stephen King. Joy isn’t quite the rebel or martyr that Cuckoo’s McMurphy was, but she definitely provides life to the residents. She has touching relationships with a set of twins, with a male roommate, and her mind is constantly busy finding ways to make life in the hospital bearable. This also makes the book more than tolerable. It’s not all bleak; Joy is a strong character to spend time with.
The survivors fight a constant battle with memory. They want to prove they don’t have the disease. They hold on to thoughts of the past like it’s a life preserver. They create lists. They recite their histories or facts about the world so they can make sure they can save it. So it can save them:
He repeats my name in a slow slur, turning the word over in his mouth. I imagine the little black spot on my own memory eating away at my brain like a fungus, because that is what the sickness does, after all: it takes those dark stains that exist within us and melts them down into a lake of forgetting.
Joy’s entire life is defined by fuzzy memory or from having the worst things happen to her in stages of life she couldn’t possibly remember. One of her more heartbreaking lists is “things a mother could do to a baby worse than abandoning it.”
The second half of the book covers her life after the hospital when she embarks on a road trip to find her mother. It’s a risky move to spend so much time creating the unique world of the hospital only to discard it and begin a new journey, but it succeeds because of the continuity of the protagonist’s voice. She is driven not just by surviving, but by finding her mother, by making her mother find her.
There are some moments of the road trip portion of the story that seem to exist only for transition, just a way to get Joy to Florida. But before it becomes too much of a weakness, her life on the road leads to some of the most suspenseful and scary moments. Even if the spread of the disease has waned, the chaos it spawned is still spreading. There is a reason the road trip is such a convention of the apocalyptic novel: a world without law and order, one full of desperate people, is damn scary!
If Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is a literary destruction of the modern world in order to find the parts of it to be loved, and if Eric Shonkwiler’s Above All Men is to find the parts that should be fought for, then it follows that Laura van den Berg’s Find Me is the deconstruction of the world to find what parts should persist in memory. What should be remembered or found. What should be forgotten or lost.
This isn’t told as a love story to the world. It’s told by a woman who rightly has a different emotional perspective:
A woman standing on the street corner, the wind whipping around her. A tissue crumpled in her hand. A flush is spreading down her nose and across her cheeks. She looks to be about the same age as my own mother. Her son survived the sickness, then dove off the Golden Gate Bridge. He left a note telling her he couldn’t trust the world anymore.
What would Dr. Bek have to say about this man, about his unconscious mind?
She looks into the camera. A clear stream runs from her nose.
“When could we ever?” she says.
As she tries to find her mother, as she tries to dodge questionable characters, to find the intimacy of hope with others, the bread crumbs are completed, and we see what she needs to be found:
The bus slows. The air is thick with fog. Something inside me collapses, goes warm and soft, and there is a wet heat on my face. Never have I wanted someone to remember me as much as I want to be remembered now.
The next hundred pages after this go fast, they are hard to put down, and they accomplish what Joy longs for. I hope she is impossible to forget.