Minnesota writer Sequoia Nagamatsu’s debut novel offers wonder and hope in the face of grief
In early 2020, in an interview with the BBC, science fiction writer William Gibson observed that “Throughout the 20th century we have constantly seen the 21st century invoked. How many times do you hear someone invoke the 22nd century? we. We came to have no future. He described this postmodern pessimism as “future fatigue,” which, in the face of so much negative news, especially that of climate catastrophe, seems quite understandable.
Enter “How High We Go in the Dark” by Sequoia Nagamatsu, who lives in Minneapolis. Its sprawling saga begins in the year 2030 with a rampaging plague in the molten Batagaika crater in northern Siberia and spans 6,000 years into an array of possible futures. In its commitment to imagining the human dreams and dramas that might continue for centuries to come, Nagamatsu’s strange and sensitive epic is refreshing for its resistance to facile dystopian tropes and its commitment to emotions of wonder and wonder. hope, even in the face of grief.
Particularly apt is the way Nagamatsu posits not a single monolithic human fate, whether dark or triumphant, but rather an innumerable variety of fates. Starting with the story of the father of one of the arctic researchers who helps unwittingly release the deadly plague, it moves on to an aspiring stand-up comedian in Los Angeles who gets involved in “parks of euthanasia,” places that, amid the devastation of the pandemic, can “gently end the pain of children — roller coasters that lulled their passengers into unconsciousness before stopping their hearts.”
From there, it tells the story of Jun, a teenage girl who falls ill after the children she “saved during the memorial” for her euthanized cousin Kayla tested positive — and so on.
Nagamatsu teaches at St. Olaf College in Northfield and is the author of an award-winning collection of stories, Where we go when all we were is gone. By constructing his narrative as a novel-in-stories – a loosely connected set of tales about characters whose lives often only intersect obliquely – he is able to achieve sophisticated polyphony.
A disturbing truth that has emerged during our current pandemic is that while we are, in a sense, all in the same boat, we also each have our own, often very different, experiences of the unfolding tragedy. Nagamatsu captures this strange balance between human collectivity and individuality.
Literary fiction meets speculative fiction in every vignette, and heavy as the accumulated material is, Nagamatsu punctuates the tragedy with moments of humor. In the chapter titled “Pig Son” about a scientist raising pigs to “help infected people whose organs have given way to the plague”, the narrator explains that donor 28″ was nicknamed Snortorious PIG after an intern put a gold chain and sunglasses on her at a Halloween party.”
As timely as this novel is, Nagamatsu pointed out that the book was actually more than a decade in the making. We hope readers won’t have to wait that long for his next one.
Kathleen Rooney is the author of “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” and most recently “Dear Friend and Major Whittlesey”.
How far do we go in the dark
Through: Sequoia Nagamatsu.
Editor: William Morrow, 304 pages, $27.99.
Event: In conversation with Kawai Strong Washburn, 7 p.m. Jan. 18, Moon Palace Books, 3032 Minnehaha Av. S., Mpls., in person and live stream @MoonPalaceBooks.