Stevie Smith's famous poem "Not Waving but Drowning" has been interpreted in many ways since its publication in 1957, and one of those interpretations deals with our ability to see the same thing multiple ways and what that says about our view of reality. It's not entirely clear whether Greg Hrbek had that poem in mind when he called his new book Not on Fire, but Burning. Regardless, it draws on a similar theme: In it, a family is faced with the unsettling possibility that their memories are not what they seem, and that their collective past includes a horrendous inconsistency: the existence of a daughter and sister that only one of them remembers.
Granted, this is the least of their worries. The Wakefields live in suburban New York, having fled California years earlier after a catastrophic event destroyed San Francisco. In a chilling twist on the dystopian formula, this catastrophe has never been explained. Was it a nuke? A meteor? Terrorists? Aliens? An inside job? This lingering uncertainty has transformed the country's very identity; states have been redrawn, the social order is a shadow of its former self, and a massive relocation camp for Arab-Americans has been created in the Dakota Territory.
From there, though, Not on Fire departs radically and refreshingly from the expected. Eleven-year-old Dorian Wakefield was only 3 when the mysterious, destructive events of "8-11" set America on a darker trajectory. He's haunted by vivid dreams of an older sister named Skyler, who would have been 18 when San Francisco was hit. The rest of the Wakefields have no recollection of Skyler — that is, until Dorian's father investigates an old family photo and finds an unnerving indication that their memories might not be what they seem. Meanwhile, Dorian must contend with a new kid in the neighborhood, Karim, an orphaned adoptee from the Dakota Territory — not an easy task, seeing as how Dorian has begun to feel the pull of the white supremacy that's risen to a horrific new prominence in America since 8-11.
Hrbek shifts deliriously between first-, second- and third-person points of view, not to mention past, present and future tense. At first this feels annoyingly gratuitous; gradually, though, this piecemeal perspective reveals a deeper purpose. Not on Fire toys with the edges of meta, slipping here and there into a dizzying self-awareness that underscores Hrbek's running commentary about the fractured nature of reality. At the same time, the story stays solidly rooted in a propulsive, suspenseful plot, full of lyrical dialogue and gorgeous language.
It isn't easy to unpack, but Hrbek rewards the effort with head-spinning subversions of what speculative fiction is expected to do. There are no clear answers or pat explanations. And as Dorian and Karim become drawn, each in their own way, toward violent extremism, the book takes time to meditate meaningfully on hate, fear, faith and what sets us on paths that we often feel powerless to depart.
There's only a smattering of pop-culture references in Not on Fire, but they're powerfully telling: Will, an elderly veteran of the Gulf War who adopts Karim as a way to cope with his own traumatic past, waxes nostalgic about the golden age of grunge — specifically bands like the Marvins, Black River and Dreamgarden. At first glance, it seems like a throwaway homage to the real-life grunge bands the Melvins, Green River and Soundgarden. Only as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Hrbek is signaling to the reader that this version of the world — its future as well as its past — is a few degrees off-kilter from the one we know. Later, an old paperback copy of Madeleine L'Engle's time-contorting classic A Swiftly Tilting Planet makes an appearance; it's another clue that Not on Fire is far from your typical post-disaster novel.
With Not on Fire, but Burning, Hrbek has crafted something audacious: A novel that operates simultaneously as apocalyptic alarmism, brain-bending quantum fiction, character-driven drama and gripping mystery. It's as poignant as it is perplexing and profound. There's a lot to swim in. Drowning is optional.
Jason Heller is a senior writer atThe A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.