Monday, July 31, 2023

the last book I read

Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson.

We're in the Florida Keys - ah, you'll be saying, that's nice, lots of sun, some nice seafood, maybe some trips out to the mainland to visit Miami and the Everglades. Well I've got news for you, buddy - there's been a nuclear apocalypse and Miami is a blasted charcoal wasteland and the Everglades are an irradiated hellscape populated by barely-human mutants. A small contingent of surviving humans holds out in Key West, or as it's now known, Twicetown, its new name (and the fact of its continuing existence) deriving from the landing of two nuclear warheads on it but neither exploding. The surviving missiles and the warheads they carry are now objects of quasi-religious reverence, with, you would hope, some instructions to those making a pilgrimage to see them not to go poking them with a fork or anything.

Yeah, but what about the seafood? Well, fish do still exist, and people do still go out in boats to capture them, although the percentage of many-headed Lovecraftian monstrosities among the catch is a fair bit higher than it used to be, and there is an associated risk to the fishermen. Like much in the book, this is never explained in very much detail - is it just that the rickety nature of the technology makes the whole fishing venture inherently more risky than before? Is there something lurking out in the depths, or some new weather phenomenon, that occasionally claims people? Is there some unspoken mutual agreement that a sacrifice to the sea occasionally needs to be made?

Most of our time here is spent in the company of Fiskadoro, a boy in his early teens, whose father, Jimmy Hidalgo, just happens to be a mate on a fishing boat and, moreover, just happens to go on a fishing trip roughly halfway through the book from which he never returns. 

Fiskadoro is, like most of the characters featured, too young to remember the apocalyptic events (which we are invited to infer took place a few decades earlier, maybe sixty years or so), and has grown up with the limited life in Twicetown seeming completely normal. Mr. Cheung, who leads the grandly-named Miami Symphony Orchestra - in reality a ragged assembly of musicians of various levels of ability - is just about old enough to remember the apocalypse, and his grandmother, very possibly the oldest person left on earth, definitely is, though in her mind it's all bound up with previous traumatic experiences including her escape from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war. 

Life proceeds as normal - people are born and die, not only in fishing accidents but also from various aggressive cancers and by being murdered, both things that occur at significantly higher rates in the post-apocalyptic world. People amuse themselves by drinking home-made hooch, acquiring trinkets (most of them cripplingly radioactive) from various travelling traders and listening to radio broadcasts that appear to originate from nearby Cuba and allude to the Florida Keys being in some sort of quarantine zone. Fiskadoro gets clarinet lessons from Mr. Cheung and occasionally amuses himself with his mates burning radioactive kerosene on the beach - well, you've got to amuse yourself somehow, haven't you? Following his father's death Fiskadoro goes off the rails slightly and wanders into regions outside the safe(-ish) areas around Twicetown, at which point he is promptly abducted by the people the Twicetowners refer to as "swamp people" who inhabit the lower reaches of the Everglades, and spirited away there, presumably by boat, as all the interlinking bridges connecting the Florida Keys have long since been destroyed. He is eventually returned to Twicetown by one of the roving traders, but not before being drugged and subjected to some eye-watering scarring rituals (NSFW link here) by the swamp people. 

After his lengthy recuperation Fiskadoro finds himself unable to remember his former life, but perhaps as a result also granted some mystical insight denied to others. And just in the nick of time, as something seems to be happening offshore. Is it the end of the quarantine period and a rescue by the Cubans? The approaching cloud-front of some further apocalypse? Or something else?

It's entirely consistent with the strange, slightly dream-like tone of Fiskadoro that the nature of the climactic event is ambiguous at best, though the brief prologue section written in another voice and seemingly from a later time offers some clues. There is some ambiguity about the nature of the apocalyptic event as well, although it's clearly a nuclear holocaust which appears to have taken out the entire continental United States, and perhaps most of the rest of the world as well. 

So since this isn't a work of "hard" speculative fiction concerned with great detail about the nature of the apocalypse, we might ask: well, what's it about then? Well, the human spirit (stop groaning at the back there), the will to survive, fall in love, procreate, have fun, set fire to things, etc., even in the most grim and unpromising of circumstances. Like Never Let Me Go it offers up a world where death is a much more real day-to-day prospect than it is for most of us, and asks: does this actually make a difference to anything? There's also some sly stuff about religious belief and how it evolves out of the dimly-remembered remnants of previous belief systems: gods referenced here include the usual Jesus and Allah but also Quetzalcoatl and Bob Marley. 

Previous novels on this list whose narrative primarily takes place in some sort of post-apocalyptic world include:

As I am a tedious literalist I chafed slightly at Fiskadoro's lack of inclination to explain itself, but it is a strangely compelling story nonetheless. It is also, oddly, the second successive book on this list to feature the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings as a significant plot point - Jim in Empire Of The Sun witnesses the distant glow of the explosions from China (or, at least, imagines that he does), and some of Mr. Cheung's associates here locate a copy of this book and are disturbed by some of its resonances with their current situation.

Other novels on this list primarily set in Florida include both of the Carl Hiaasens (Lucky You and Sick Puppy) and, more recently, Killing Mister Watson. To Have And Have Not is primarily set in Cuba but does involve illicit trips to Key West as a key (no pun intended) plot point. 

No comments: