Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Review of Afterland by Lauren Beukes

The market for fiction today is saturated far beyond anything humanity has ever seen. For casual readers who do not invest time in selecting their next read, this is likely not a big deal. But for bibliophiles, it represents a number of challenges. One of these is reading books that are not 100% the same as another book (no two grains of sand yadda yadda yadda), but which hold a LARGE number of elements or devices in common. The market for post-apocalyptic fiction the past ten years, for example, seems to have had not only its surface filled out, but all the gaps, niches, and interstices filled in as well. It’s impossible to be novel. With this knowledge in hand, what then does Lauren Beukes have to add with Afterland (2020)? Answer: maybe everything…

The premise of Afterland is quite straightforward: a strange cancer emerges in the near-future to kill 99% of males on Earth. But it is the aftermath of this situation which the novel focuses on, something which Beukes accomplishes through the points of view of three characters. The first are mother and son, Cole and Miles, told separately. When the reader first meets them they are on the run, trying to escape police given that all boys must be kept in special facilities for research purposes. Miles therefore travels as ‘Millie’, a fourteen-year old girl as the pair travel cross-country to Miami to catch a boat to South Africa. The third point-of-view is Billie, Cole’s sister. Awakening in a car crash at start of the novel and badly injured, she burns with hate for Cole, who was seemingly the cause of the crash. Believing Cole tried to murder her, Billie sets off on a vengeance mission to track down her sister and do her justice, and try to get a piece of the profit in the process.

With such a premise, and given the context of the culture wars going on today, yes, feminism plays a role in Afterland. But where that movement has shifted from something relatively coherent roughly a century ago to the prism of meanings as of 2020, the question becomes: which ray of feminism does Beukes use to shine a light? The answer seems two: individual responsibility and the universality of humanity. These two some of the lesser known rays of feminism (at least if social media is taken as an authority), they tend toward ignoring many of the rays promulgating ‘victimhood’ and ‘oppression’. The females in Afterland spend little complaining about their location in the broader matrix of society, and instead get on with it, making a place for themselves that they attempt to control according to their own terms given the situation in the wider world.

For some female characters in the novel, this is the comfort of religion or the comfort of chaos, and for others it is trying to maintain a sense of family despite the absence of males or belief in the power to overcome, and for others still it is materialism, hedonism, and other vices. In short, the behaviors and their end goals are nothing uniquely gender-related, rather more deeply human.

It’s at this point we should look at Beukes’ decision to have her two female main characters possess male names: Cole and Billie. Behaving more like stereotypical brothers than stereotypical sisters, Beukes retains their humanity by (voila) having them act and behave like humans, i.e. not stereotypes. Their actions, desires, behavior, etc., which cover the spectrum of morality, cannot therefore be attributed to one gender/identity over another. Billie, for example, gets caught up in a mafia-esque gang that, surprise-surprise, feels real. A square peg not shoved into a circular hole (i.e. a man’s typical role is not forced upon the women of the story), instead Beukes uses the setting as motivator for the outfit’s actions, not gender, something which feels more realistic. Another way of looking at this is: if men disappeared, would the organizations and roles they exist within today disappear? In a day and age when the contrast between expectations for social justice and the realities of human existence clash ever harder, this perspective presented by the book comes across as incredibly relevant.

Afterland is thus not Orwellian in any ostensible way. There is not a system (often read as “conspiracy”) in place to influence the situation, rather those who are in the situation retain relative control of their destiny as we do in the West today. This is an important distinction when considering character agency. Both Cole and Billie, despite their difference in values, inherently believe they have the power to get what they want. The socio-political structure, despite its changes after the death of 99% of men, is still something they have the power to act within in an attempt to meet their needs. Rather than giving up, they both attempt to do something. Granted, there is a major juxtaposition when looking at the direction Cole and Billie’s interests face, nevertheless each feel self-empowered.

And it’s these juxtapositions in which Beukes strikes another key point, as tried and true as it may be: in the times, be they what they may—those of Afterland or 21st century Western existence as examples, what are your interests, your values? And how do they reflect on your role in society as a person?

Technique-wise, Beukes set a major writing challenge for herself in Afterland: how to tell a story from three viewpoints, two of which spend the majority of the novel together, with the individual timelines chopped into pieces and carefully reorganized into an overarching narrative. What some might call balls scattered on a snooker table after break, slowly coalesces into a flowing sequence of cause and effect that sees the final black potted in satisfactory fashion. One of the reasons for this satisfaction is the manner in which Beukes resolves the personal conflict between Billie and Cole. Gray (versus black or white), it speaks to their true humanity, all the while giving the secondary characters their black and white due. This representation feels so much more realistic, and therefore relevant, compared to, for example, the all-female society of Joan Slonczewski's A Door into Ocean.

In the end, Afterland adds little to nothing to the current market of fiction in terms of premise, setting, plot, etc. But where it does find strong relevance and reason to read, perhaps even necessity to read given the ongoing culture wars, is in its character portrayals and socio-political commentary. In a day and age when identity politics have become a powderkeg, Afterland first destroys the matrix of identity (or at least the largest proportion of it) by removing men, and then asks the reader to evaluate the new situation. Are aggression, malevolence, and other negative aspects of character something predominantly male or more universally human? More importantly, what of the individual, which in the book’s case means: what of the individual woman? What responsibility does she have to manifest her own agency in the world, regardless the state of shit it may be in? Overall, I would put Afterland up as comparable to McCarthy’s The Road. It's also my top read of 2020 thus far...

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