Book Review: 'Find Me' by Laura van den Berg Reviewer Jason Heller says Laura Van Den Berg's first novel has a stellar setup — mysterious young woman, post-disease-apocalypse — but drifts listlessly, never quite living up to its premise.
NPR logo 'Find Me' Gets Lost Along The Way

Review

'Find Me' Gets Lost Along The Way

America's recent tussle with Ebola — and the current resurgence of measles — has made pandemics a major issue, and a major fear. Not that you'd know it from Laura Van Den Berg's Find Me. In it, a haunted young woman named Joy winds up in a hospital in rural Kansas, following the onset of a mysterious, fatal disease, one that erases people's memories. She's untouched by the disease, and the doctor at the hospital is attempting to find a cure by experimenting on Joy and the other patients — make that inmates — of the Hospital, which is capitalized throughout the book as a way of underscoring its monolithic, Kafkaesque presence. The patients, however, keep dying. It's a stellar setup, if short on imagination, but Van Den Berg curiously avoids fully engaging with the meat of her themes.

Van Den Berg has two acclaimed short-story collections under her belt, most recently the award-winning The Isle of Youth. Find Me is her first foray into novel-length fiction, and while she dazzlingly expands her scope, she mostly skims the surface of her premise.

At first, Joy's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest-meets-Kafka existence in the Hospital is alternately gripping and touching. An aimless, cough syrup-addicted orphan who works at a convenience store, she's finding a perverse sense of purpose at the Hospital. She may be the key to a cure for the strange disease that's decimated the American population and pushed the nation to the brink of anarchy. After things go predictably wrong — thanks in part to the secretive Dr. Bek, who seems unintentionally cartoonish — Joy escapes and begins a trek across the country.

Joy's episodic journey takes on the air of a typical dystopian road trip: She encounters quirky characters, an eerie breakdown of social order, and new rules by which she must learn to live. But her quest — to find the mother she never knew — never feels particularly urgent, nor does any part of Find Me. Joy is an absorbing, insightful narrator capable of poetic feats of observation, but her numb, deadpan angst is a heel-dragging burden. ("No one will ever write a Wikipedia page for me," she says at one point.)

Laura van den Berg is also the author of The Isle of Youth and What Will the World Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. Paul Yoon/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux hide caption

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Paul Yoon/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Laura van den Berg is also the author of The Isle of Youth and What Will the World Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.

Paul Yoon/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux

To her credit, Van Den Berg's prose has a chiming clarity that helps anchor the story when Joy's journey flirts with magic realism. First her estranged foster brother Marcus, a deformed, mask-wearing man-child whom she hasn't seen since they were little, impossibly pops up out of nowhere; this deus ex machina is vaguely explained away as some kind of latent psychic ability that never impacts the rest of the book. Then Joy and Marcus happen upon the Mansion, a complement to the Hospital in which all kinds of fabulist things happen. They're gorgeously wrought, but they leave Joy treading water.

As Find Me drifts, listless and lukewarm, towards its conclusions, the epiphanies fall like soft rain. So do the clichés. Joy doesn't shower for days in order to keep the smell of a lover on her; the Christian survivors claim God has sent the plague to America. And too many lines are clumsy, blatant summaries of the book's supposed profundity, from "What is a memory but the telling of a story?" to "Is there any greater mystery than the separateness of each person?" to "To be looked for is to matter." They're clever, but they ultimately feel empty. The book does little to differentiate itself from the dozens of other literary post-apocalypse novels that have appeared recently, except in its lack of success.

Find Me's biggest misstep, though, is failing to take its main idea in its teeth. The book is about the loss of memory, yet the ramifications of such a monumental thing — personally and societally — are barely brushed upon. Instead, Joy's own trauma-suppressed memories resurface whenever it's convenient for the plot, and without much of a statement being made besides the fuzzy notion that maybe America subconsciously willed this disease into existence, and for the most maudlin reason.

On top of that, the book concludes with a shrug of an ending that's frustratingly flat rather than ambitiously ambiguous. Despite its flashes of poignant beauty, Find Me is a tepid, noncommittal dabbling in ideas, dreams, and fears that demand a lot more depth. And for a book about forgetting, it's far too forgettable.