FEATURING A FUTURE so bright it’s sunburnt, Joyelle McSweeney’s exploration of a dystopian land not too dissimilar from our own overwhelms without wearing out its welcome; its overwhelming is part of the point. If anything, the perfect description for the book would either be one of its chapter titles, “An Optic Parable,” or, perhaps, Tron as written by Allen Ginsberg.
The book’s central conceit concerns its eponymous heroine, who, with a name fit for any number of laundry detergents, falls from grace and government-mandated reason as she discovers that the world presented (“the Nation”) isn’t the world in deed. Overrun—or, more precisely, run over—with an endless barrage of television programs (“filetapes”) and fork-tongued doublespeak from her employer (a high-ranking government official), Flet finds herself steadily turning investigator, wondering if E-Day (a massive disaster that resulted in the quarantining of a large part of the Nation) actually happened. It’s a pure sci-fi thriller on the surface, but McSweeney is much more interested in exploring the nebulous mechanics of a society committed to ignorance than offering traditional whodunit thrills.
McSweeney engages these questions with a breathless, lyric style, and, as such, Flet: A Novel’s invocation is pure poetics. As the plot rides shotgun, warily, the lush and frightening language takes front seat, the words frothing at the mouth to get on the page, to uproot previous sentences and find new meaning, destroy old ideas in favor of new images. There are no certainties, only allusions. The effect, however, is palpable, leaving the reader as disoriented and enthralled as Flet herself. Consider “the fat fangs of the deadbolt [that] swing into the lock” or a building whose “corridors are the green of undeveloped film.” This vision of the future is rife with ideas and situations, limited only by the sense of geographical encroachment that ensnares this post-disaster society. (Interestingly, and in stark juxtaposition to most end-of-days-themed work, humanity has survived the apocalypse largely intact; instead of regressing into primitive beings, they have evolved into über-consumers.) The orchestration is symphonic, free-associative, and hypnotic—long stretches of text rely solely on the cadence of words:
Insufferable catalog: Nose cone of the shuttle. Fishbones sunk in the rows to swim the spent soil black. Choke fish turning mammal. Fin turning manual. Refuse fish. Man turning mamma. Mad dog barking at her capsule-horizon, it comes back constantly, hypofangs glinting with light thrown by the various satellites. Thrones natural, manmade.
In a sense, this book represents an accumulation of grammar, of astounding images and searing ideas, but all blown through a single megaphone so that it sounds the same: loud, immediately arresting, and, ultimately, headache-inducing. This is not a diss. If Flet represents a world gone haywire, perhaps its greatest achievement is how convincingly it captures the chaos. And what there is of plot, of intrigue and partial romance, fear of contamination and surgery-room skullduggery, keeps you coming back for more, if only to find that for the reader, as for the heroine, there is no peace but sleep, and of that, never enough.
Calling this a novel is a bold move, though perhaps inaccurate. It functions more precisely as a series of narratively-connected prose poems, often eschewing meaning in favor of idea, offering questions in place of answers, and using dislocated sceneries and situations for connective tissue. As a result, characters are often left in the periphery, outshone as individuals by the bright lights of industry and commerce. Nevertheless, when the situation allows, McSweeney offers surprising sweetness, losing neither novelistic punch nor poetic music:
Flet nods and meets Mick in the middle of the carpet. They kiss, then cant like two clocks meeting six hours apart. They kiss again. Mick steps back holding her hand awkwardly.
In this futurescape, the only thing truly destroyed is personal identity. Just like Flet’s name, every individual in the book has more in common with the commercial than the corporeal. In fact, the descriptions of logos and facades hold more personality and curiosity than those of any of the book’s characters. As Flet ventures off the allowed map, she finds a host of abandoned institutions, all emblazoned with their membership to this modern age:
The half-shadow of a Pegasus burnt into a stucco wall, the other half dematerialized into the sky. The severed sun of Pepsi rising or sinking into its neat peel of cloud. These fragmented logos wink at Flet as she drives by them, no sooner glimpsed than appearing in the mirror as their obverse.
Likewise, the Nation consists largely of hive-minded industry—of anonymous workers dedicated to overproduction, to creating massive amounts of mass communication that ultimately render questions weightless. McSweeney asks what it takes to make us willfully ignorant. The answer: unlimited, directed entertainment; everything turned up to 11. Maps are remastered according to the mysterious fallout from E-Day, filetapes edited to occlude or invent events. Alcohol consumption and gasoline dependency are encouraged, along with meals at “commercial restaurants.” A world forlorn, wooly with disinformation, where history is malleable and the idea of a city condemned is not the stuff of headlines but habit:
In contrast to their cheerful literalism, Nation’s filetapes form a model of human history too huge and erratic to be held in any one human mind, yet incorrigibly human-scaled in the units of its composition. New events are added all the time; others bound back from some forgotten chunk of space debris. Some events are taped, retaped, edited, reversed, revised, time-elapsed, slowed, recreated, re-enacted, computer modeled, fictionalized, redacted, existing in a stalled frieze in file after file that only requires the contemplating eye to spring to life: Washington crossing the Delaware. A pink-suited Jackie Kennedy. Other events recorded in filetape never occurred at all, or occurred as gaps in the record having no interface on technological or literate time, no documentation more permanent that the rattle of the larynx, the flexing of the eardrum, a flash against the back wall of the eye…. There is no longer any authoritative version.
No easy answers here; in fact, no answers at all. In the end, if E-Day were discovered to be a lie, would it even matter? The Nation is a mash-up of mundane, everyday miseries—food, drink, television, and clothing—but it keeps the citizens occupied as merrily wasting automatons. The threat of truth is immaterial, for what good is truth without context? The real threat is independence, but there’s no way to hear above the din of the filetapes. Everything in the Nation exists to ensure that extinction follows. In the words of an unnamed geographer in the novel:
Do not misunderstand me: Ours is not an Orwellian enterprise, the fossil record of previous maps is not destroyed or altered in any way. It doesn’t need to be. Who would order a defunct map? As obsolescence’s children, ourselves, our job is to oversee the obsolescence of charts and documents.
This is a challenging book, both in presentation and ideas. McSweeney vividly shows us the hearkening of the world-to-be, one strung out at breakneck pace, too fast to ever slow. Just like the language it employs, too much will never suffice; as Flet hauntingly suggests, the human experience alone is not enough. As the unnamed geographer puts it, “Where are we, when we are no longer recorded?”