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Thursday, May 12, 2016

What Do You See (in Michigan)? What Do You Imagine (Here and in the Larger World)?

For only a moment --

Now is that precious time of year – newborn, impressionistic, and all too fleeting. Open your eyes and drink it in. Get up before the sun so as not to lose a single moment!

Serendipity pretty much sums up my approach to reading – what comes my way, what catches my eye. No big, overall plan. And so it was that I found myself reading by chance two books set in Michigan -- one nonfiction, one fiction; the essays by an Illinois author, the novel by a Canadian -- without expecting the similar settings to have the synergistic effect on me that they did.

First came Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild, by Tom Montgomery Fate. I’ll admit straight off that I didn’t care for the title or the cover design. How many “Cabin Fever” books and movies are there? In this case, I felt the title short-changed the book terribly, while the cover image of a water-filled ditch through a treeless landscape was no indication whatsoever of either the author’s Michigan cabin or his suburban Illinois home. But friends had read the book, friends whose reading tastes I respect, so I took it home and discovered it to be modern meditations on Thoreau.

Tom Fate reads Thoreau through the lens of his own experience (as all of us generally do read everything that comes our way) and also contemplates and questions his own life through the lens of Thoreau’s writings. As he is determined to take the time to see his surroundings, sometimes it is the smallest things that lift his prose to lyrical heights.
A long, black file [of ants] marches across the soft wood like a sprawling prehistoric sentence. Each jointed body is an unpronounced letter, or an unspoken word, on its way to an idea hidden somewhere deep in the green mind of the woods. I follow the ants with my eyes until they hit their end mark, a dead sweat bee, where they heap up into a writhing mass of legs and mandibles.
Fate’s family cabin is down in the very southwest corner of Michigan’s mitten. In his essay titled “Coyotes at the Mall,” the author muses on the human love-fear relationship for wild things, ending with what an Amtrak line from Chicago to New Buffalo could mean for his family’s “wilderness” cabin.
...I had never thought that Chicago would stretch north around the lake this far. Or that this little cabin we cobbled together here in the woods might someday be part of a Chicago suburb. But I think it’s possible, which is ironic, and depressing, and a bit amusing. Particularly now, as I walk through the woods, watching and wondering when the new neighbors will arrive, when the coyotes will move in.
The larger world encroaches, and time hurries on....

Life is fleeting, as spring itself

Turning next to a novel, Station Eleven, by Canadian writer Emily St. John Mandel, a National Book Award Finalist, I found myself in post-apocalyptic fictional Michigan, rather than the state I know and love as it moves into the uncertainty always characteristic of time not-yet. Actors, musicians, people in business...jump cuts backward and forward in time...a world pandemic...Shakespeare and fresh-killed venison. A synopsis would hardly convey the magic of Mandel’s story. Did I perhaps read it differently, coming to it from Fate’s essays? Looking in it for Michigan?

Traverse City is mentioned, a place called New Petoskey, but then there are the post-apocalyptic settlements of St. Deborah on the Water and, farther to the south, Severn City, where by Year Fifteen after the collapse of civilization three hundred people are living. It is Severn City airport the Traveling Symphony has set out to reach, hoping to reconnect with two of their former members left behind in earlier years. 

Where precisely are we?

In a fictional world, geographical precision is not required, but we are south of Traverse City and north of Chicago, not far from Lake Michigan (inland is uncharted and dangerous wilderness), so it’s possible to imagine post-apocalyptic Severn City occupying the same region as Tom Fate’s family cabin. Only now there are no state lines, no country borders, and no laws. No electricity and no gasoline. Cars are rusted hulks, coffins for skeletons of people who died in the pandemic. The Traveling Symphony’s caravans are pulled by horses. Whether in settlements or on the road, the protein human beings consume comes from hunting.

And yet, and yet – what comes through most forcefully in this beautiful, lyrical novel is how the author cherishes the world and everything and everyone in it. Details of life and artifact are set forth with equal love. Here is one example:
The signs for the airport led them away from the lake, out of downtown, up into residential streets of wood-frame houses. A few of the roofs had collapsed up here, most under the weight of fallen trees. In the morning light there was beauty in the decrepitude, sunlight catching in the flowers that had sprung up through the gravel of long-overgrown driveways, mossy front porches turned brilliant green, a white blossoming bush alive with butterflies. This dazzling world.
That passage alone, however, could give you the wrong idea. You might think Emily St. John Mandel despises civilization and technology. But you would be wrong. Here is another passage to set the record straight:
In the en suite bathroom, Kirsten closed her eyes for just a second as she flipped the light switch. Naturally nothing happened, but as always in these moments she found herself straining to remember what it had been like when this motion had worked: walk into a room, flip a switch and the room floods with light. ... She ran her fingertips over a blue-and-white china box on the bathroom counter, admired the rows of Q-tips inside....
And another, from an earlier time, only days after the collapse:
On silent afternoons in his brother’s apartment, Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt. No one delivers fuel to the gas stations or the airports. Cars are stranded. Airplanes cannot fly. Trucks remain at their points of origin. Food never reaches the cities; grocery stores close. Businesses are locked and then looted. No one comes to work at the power plants or the substations, no one removes fallen trees from electrical lines. Jeevan was standing by the window when the lights went out.
Clouds and cool mornings are beautiful, too

It is so easy to get caught up in all that’s wrong with our world. Easy to fear the future. Easy to resent the swift passage of time, though impossible to make time hold still. What does the future hold for our beloved Michigan, our precious Great Lakes, our still-young country?

“I have walked all my life through this tarnished world,” writes the character Kristen in her graphic novel, Station Eleven, from which the author’s larger novel takes its name. Tarnished but precious, it is the only world we have. Must we not cherish it?

Emily St. John Mandel’s novel of tragedy, death, and destruction paradoxically gives back to us, in this flawless novel, the beauty of the flawed world before our eyes.

Best buds


Deborah said...

I'm amazed that you were able to capture Sarah and Kona with this photo! Amazing photo.

P. J. Grath said...

It was pretty amazing to me, too, Deborah. I didn't even have treats! Just told them both to sit, and they did! Then the nose kiss, unplanned. :)

Dawn said...

Both sound like great books. And of course I love the photo.

P. J. Grath said...

Visited a friend downstate the other day and started to recommend STATION ELEVEN to her. She had read it and absolutely loved it, too.