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Strap in for highs and lows with the pandemic novel 'How High We Go in the Dark'

William Morrow
William Morrow

How High We Go in the Dark, Sequoia Nagamatsu's debut novel about a climate change virus in 2030 that alters humanity centuries into the future, could hit all too hard for those grieving the loss of loved ones to coronavirus, as well as the loss of their former lives pre-pandemic.

The book has drawn comparisons to Emily St. John Mandel's pandemic tale Station Eleven, but at least the latter is mostly about a performance troupe thriving in the hopeful post-apocalypse. Nagamatsu's collection of interlinked stories unflinchingly inhabits the ripple effects of a 30,000-year-old Arctic plague, released from melting permafrost: an aimless young man works at a euthanasia theme park for terminally ill kids, placing them on the roller coaster that will kill them before the plague does; a test subject pig gains sentience, only to realize its true purpose as an organ donor; people connect in VR online chat rooms to make suicide pacts. Make no mistake, this is a book about death.

But it's not a singular nor reductive depiction of death. It's the cynicism of how death gives way to flourishing commerce — hotels where clients can stage macabre final moments with their loved ones' corpses for closure, bitcoin whose value rises and falls with death tolls, social media profiles that allow digital ghosts to live past their failed flesh-and-blood bodies.

This is balanced by thoughtful explorations of how the survivors process death and loss through art — a muralist decorates every inch of a generation ship's walls with portraits of those lost to the plague; an artisan forgoes cremation in favor of liquidation, transforming bodies into dynamic ice sculptures. Even the bleakest stories conjure up a memorable image, and often that visual involves reaching upward: to the stars, to a memory, or even just stretching your arms skyward at the roller coaster's peak, whether or not you know how the ride ends.

Nagamatsu (Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone) has been working on this ambitious book in one form or another since 2011, with his initial story drafts focusing more on familial estrangement and grief. Tracing the lifespan of the Arctic plague via interrelated vignettes certainly gives How High a very A Visit from the Goon Squad vibe, but it's vital to crack the surface of its timely narrative context and focus more on the emotional underpinnings. Like Jennifer Egan's novel, it deserves to be read in order, as the connections between various lives over the subsequent generations are often subtle, from a minor character in one story undergoing a career change in the next, to a few potential forays into alternate universes.

The novel's title comes from one of the weaker stories, "Through the Garden of Memory," which follows a comatose plague patient into a liminal space where he interacts with other victims who he can at first sense only by voice and touch in the semi-darkness. Eventually they gain the ability to witness each other's lives leading up to their shared infection, and work against their self-preservation instincts to build a human pyramid toward — well, it's not exactly up, but certainly some way out of this void. Perhaps it's the anything-goes rules of this dream state, but this more out-there story lacks the affecting specificity of the accounts that precede and follow it.

By contrast, a story like "The Used-To-Be Party" is so achingly poignant because of its hyper-specific and relatable form: a social media posting from a lonely man to the neighbors that his late wife knew intimately but to whom he is virtually a stranger. His invitation to a block party for those spared (but also not) by the plague pulses with mingled grief and hope, but also carries the sentiment repeated by many of the novel's characters: I should have been the one who died. It doesn't take a pandemic to tap into that survivor's guilt, but it does make the feeling that much more universal.

As thoughtfully as the author depicts the way humans cope with fear and grief during the plague, the final section of the book seems to brush them aside to tell a larger, cosmic tale. The story was compelling without it.

If you regard How High We Go in the Dark as an emotional roller coaster, then you might agree that it peaks narratively about two-thirds through the collection, with those daring stories providing the reading equivalent of a slow ramp-up and stomach-dropping plunge. That necessarily means that subsequent stories may fail to elicit the same thrill. Yet, the ride needs its downs to balance its ups in order for the reader to feel as if they've experienced the complete arc, as if they've gotten their money's worth, as if they can get off the ride and decide whether to get back on again.

Natalie Zutter is a Brooklyn-based playwright and pop culture critic whose work has appeared on Tor.com, Den of Geek, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @nataliezutter.

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Natalie Zutter