Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Louise Erdrich: "Future Home of the Living God"

Nothing is happy in Louise Erdrich's recent book Future Home of the Living God. It might be one of the most depressing books I have ever read. I don't want to talk about it much, but here are a few thoughts.

Minnesota, and maybe the rest of the USA, has become a desperate dystopia in this novel. The decent Minnesota people in the novel don't have a chance to live the decent life they've always experienced. For most of the novel the narrator and many others are trying to escape a newly created Orwellian government, including surveillance of everybody all the time. Computers -- even when not attached to any internet -- suddenly start showing images of "Mother," who seems to be a version of Big Brother in Orwell's 1984. Cell phones report everything to the mysterious police state, so most people have destroyed theirs. Fear reigns.

The whole world until just before the start of the novel was evidently pretty much as we know it ourselves in 2018 America. It's in the near future, with just a bit more climate change. Even fairly young characters remember when there used to be a Minnesota winter, though that was lost by the time the novel opens. Suddenly, as the inhabitants of this sad future see it, evolution has started running backwards. Maybe the explanation is that suddenly mutations are causing abnormal throwback-seeming creatures and plants to be generated instead of what's expected. No one understands exactly what's going on, and mass communication has essentially ceased. Darkness has descended. Everything that was predictable disappears -- accountable government, reliable news sources, trustworthy neighbors, and so on.

The thing is, the characters are incredibly vivid in their distress especially the young woman who is recording the narrative in real time, while it's happening to her and her family. Some of the main characters in her narrative are Native Americans living on a reservation and some are urban residents of Minneapolis. Everything about them seems so real it's scary. Good people help each other, bad ones turn each other in to the evil authorities, and it's hard for the sympathetic characters at the center of the plot to know who is who. I'm not going to try to do a plot summary, just to say that the most real thing is the horrendous fear they experience in trying to escape from the totalitarian society that has inexplicably and suddenly emerged.

Food becomes a kind of indicator of the circumstances. Early on, food made by family can make the bad times seem more normal. But conditions are deteriorating and hoarders begin to buy all the food, booze, and cigarettes from supermarkets. When the narrator is imprisoned, bad institutional food underscores the horrors of her experiences. She writes:
  • "I must stay ready for the sign, remain alert, prepare myself, stay strong. So I drink the powdered OJ and eat the rancid eggs, the strange bread, the curdled milk, and the coffee-type beverage so acidic it brings tears to my eyes. I eat the bean paste and slimy orange slices, the wads of wet Kleenex that are supposed to be mashed potatoes, and I walk up and down the one corridor, observing the routine, looking for a hole in the day." (p. 133)
  • "We eat every bite -- a mushy spaghetti with indeterminate meat in the sauce. Powdered milk. Congealed cornstarch pudding, butterscotch or maybe just scorched." (p. 158)
Comfort food after an escape and attempt to flee, creates a moment of peace, but not for long:
  • "Shawn stalks over to the stove, uses a can opener to neatly remove the top from a can of baked beans. He puts the can on top of the woodstove with a pair of tongs.... I can smell the rich sauce and the little white gobs of pork before the stuff is even warm. ... The beans heating in their tin bean can exude a summery hot-dog fragrance. Shawn spoons out half a can each of bubbling and hissing beans, into steel bowls." (p. 167-168)
  • "... sandwiches -- real bread, real sliced turkey, even mayo. And canned milk heated up with cinnamon and chocolate. ... 'So tasty I could cry.'" (p. 171)
A very very sad book. Unredeemed sadness, I think. Unredeemed by the narrator's efforts to find hope in religion, unredeemed by any other hope.


sherry from sherrys pickings said...

wow Mae. that sounds soooo depressing. at my advanced age, i don't think i can stand to read such things.:=) I often wonder why YA novels revel in this theme? (not that i/m saying this is YA) Hard enough being a teenager without having to read such stuff, i would think. At the very least, you need a happy ending!

Vicki said...

Way too depressing for me. And reading about the rotten food is gross. Can't imagine putting that stuff in my mouth. I'd gag or vomit for sure.

Unknown said...

Thank you. The book was great. If Atwood and Orwell had a baby that would be it.

Recommended it for translation to my publisher (English is my third language).

Jeanie said...

I've given up on depressing books these days. Life is too short.