Laura Van Den Berg
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
The dangers of modern times have led to a wealth of novels which warn of an unhappy future. You have your classic dystopian novels like The Handmaid’s Tale, Lord of the Flies, or Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, which addresses being chipped apart slowly by the onrushing ever-tumbling surge of human language—the ruin and the salvation of us all. As times change, more and more books resemble premonitions of derangement.
And then there are books which take place in asylums. Books like The Bell Jar or Girl, Interrupted, which offer an introspective take on the decline of society from the perspective of those who are directly affected. Robert Walser wrote a lot in an asylum. Samedi the Deafness features an asylum for liars. And who can forget McMurphy rallying patients against the dictatorship of Nurse Ratched in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? But what happens when you take the two genres and create a bleak blend of pretty hell? You get Laura Van Den Berg’s long-awaited debut novel Find Me, about life under psychiatric quarantine as the outside world falls apart at the seams.
Van Den Berg, known for her control and clean, slick sentences as seen in her first two collections What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (2009) and The Isle of Youth (2013), is deft at spinning complex plots. Her stories are gripping, filled with lonely characters—lovable head cases with elaborate personalities. Find Me, a master showcase of confidence and craft, is no exception.
As the story unfolds, we meet Joy Jones who has lived the opposite of a charmed life. Abandoned on the steps of a hospital as a baby, she now spends her days working the graveyard shift as a Stop & Shop cashier “surviving on soup cups and lime Jell-O” and is heavily addicted to Robitussin. But when an inexplicable disease brings the decay of consciousness in of all her neighbors, Joy discovers she is immune and for the first time in her life, she almost feels lucky.
The sickness itself is a mystery: First it brings silver blisters, next it affects memories in the mind like a sudden onset of amnesia, then comes the incoherent coma, and ultimately death. Joy’s immunity places her in a hospital in rural Kansas which acts as both a sanctuary and purgatorial holding cell of bleak isolation. It’s there she submits to daily blood tests and treatments by an ever-dwindling staff sheathed in orange biohazard suits. While in the hospital, Joy forms attachments with other patients, all young like her, cautious, cynical and tired—human lab rats essentially. She even falls in love.
Eventually Joy sets her focus on tracking down the whereabouts of her birth mother, after seeing her for the first time in a photograph from her aunt. This sends Joy on a tour across America as she tries to survive by whatever means she can through hostile conditions and against thieves with no name: “…I run through strands of trees that have been turned into white skeletons by winter, the branches grabbing at my sweatshirt sleeves. I fight through drifts that swallow my knees and want to keep me with them forever.” From bus to boat to motels and a mysterious mansion, Joy is grateful for whenever salvation offers her a decent night’s sleep, as she navigates her way through a living nightmare—in rapid decline of both her mind and the world at large.