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In “Poetics,” Aristotle says that the best endings are surprising, yet inevitable. Can the same be said for a character? Joy Jones, the narrator of Laura van den Berg’s first novel, “Find Me,” is full of surprises. Joy drinks cough syrup to get stoned, writes lists to makes sense of the world and wears gardening gloves to stay warm. But van den Berg holds her in balance with a steady hand. By the end, Joy comes to land on an exact and inevitable point. It’s incredibly precise.
Told through Joy’s eyes, “Find Me” is an internal look at what it takes to survive. A disease is sweeping across the country that starts with memory loss and ends in death. When it’s discovered that Joy is immune, she joins a study that involves a long hospital stay in Kansas. Kept company by her roommate and the twins next door, Joy soon realizes that the hospital is more like a prison and it’s her past that holds the key to her future. With a cast of spirited characters and prose that is confident, glistening and raw, the story comes alive.
Van den Berg’s first collection of short stories, “What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us” was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Award. Her second, “The Isle of Youth,” won the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters and was a “Best Book of 2013″ by over a dozen venues, including NPR, the Boston Globe, and O, The Oprah Magazine.
“Find Me” is being compared to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go.” While it stands up to such fine company, I’d argue that van den Berg has a style, humor and grit that is all her own. Salon spoke to van den Berg by email.
A list about Joy Jones: She believes that the symmetry of her name has never suited her; laughter makes her feel brave; she used to get stoned on Robitussin; she has no talent for following rules; she leans on lists when she gets upset. How did you find her?
I worked on the book on and off for six years, so she’s a character who has become very dear to me. It feels important to say, however, that Joy did not arrive overnight—the process of excavating her character, of excavating traits like the ones you mentioned, was a long one.
I tend to be drawn to characters who are not rule followers, who behave in unexpected and unusual ways. In real life, we are often so bound by social convention, but at the same time we all have secret, inexplicable aspects of ourselves. The parts that nobody else sees. In fiction, we are not bound by social convention, so the things that mystify and unsettle are allowed to rise to the surface.
Is there part of Joy in you?
Here’s something a little more personal: In my teens, I was having a hard time and ended up in a therapy group of young women, some of whom had endured terrible childhood traumas. In some cases, these women had a sense of what had happened to them, but key information was missing.
The predominate thinking on the part of the therapists was that one must access and face these missing memories (often through hypnosis) in order to become well, but
there was also a real danger in that: Can you face what your memory has been keeping from you? What is the cost of remembering?
Their struggle was not my struggle—I’ve never been abused, I have no missing memories, I have a terrific family, etc.—but nevertheless witnessing these young women struggle with their memories was deeply haunting and it’s a time in my life that I will never forget.
Joy makes lists.
For Joy, the lists are more about finding systems to organize the world. The world of the hospital, the epidemic and its aftermath are of course strange for Joy, but her own history is equally mystifying.
On both the external and internal levels, there is a great deal she is trying to make sense of and the lists are her attempt—albeit a somewhat superficial one—of ordering the world. The lists got more esoteric in the last quarter of the book—i.e. “a list of things that get to live forever”—and I felt like that was Joy starting to release her previous ideas about what it means to have order.
In many disaster stories, those who survive are the burly, strong and well armed. Joy is small, hungry and armed only with garden gloves, yet she is a survivor. What does it take to survive?
True! She is not your typical survivor in some respects, but Joy is scrappy and smart and her childhood has actually prepared her well for the hospital and what happens after. She learned to notice; to listen; to endure; to hide; to run. She already knows what it means to be a trauma survivor, and that turns out to be a useful skill in the second book, “After.”
In “Find Me,” The epidemic is amplified by fear and civil unrest. As Dr. Bek, the doctor in charge of the wards at the hospital, points out it only takes the smallest change to turn our lives inside out. Are we so fragile?
Well, yes—and absolutely not, at the same time. On the one hand, the gap between “business as usual” and catastrophe can, at times, feel alarmingly small. On the other, given all that has gone and is going so terribly awry in our world, it’s a wonder we haven’t completely melted down already. We, and the societies we construct, are astonishingly vulnerable and astonishingly resilient.
The disease in your novel is terrifying as the spread and the reaction to it feels so plausible, especially in light of the recent outbreaks of measles. How did you come up with the shape of the sickness?
For a while, the sickness was rendered in a more realistic manner; it was more “Contagion”-esque. But the longer I worked on the book, the more the sickness edged into the surreal and that felt right to me. For one, it was in keeping with the “tilted world” I wanted to capture in “Find Me,” but also alleviated some of the practical concerns about representing the mysterious ways in which the sickness moves, the national response, and so on.
Ultimately this is less a book about examining the mechanics of a national collapse and recovery than it is about Joy’s interior journey, and the more surreal incarnations of the sickness felt like they were better serving Joy. And once the memory loss came into play, I understood how the larger story of the sickness and Joy’s story locked together.