Fascinating: two gifted women storytellers, feeding on cataclysm. The American Laura Van den Berg, in Find Me, looks to the future, more or less; she imagines a plague that decimates an otherwise familiar United States. The German Jenny Erpenbeck (East German; it matters) broods on the past. The End of Days clears five alternative routes through the last tormented century of her homeland. In both cases, the results are winning. Indeed Erpenbeck’s novel, brief yet multivolume, bids fair to be ranked a masterpiece. Aside from the works’ intrinsic value, however, there’s this: Though they come out of widely divergent cultures—indeed, transoceanic—both stand as vivid exceptions to the namby-pamby stuff often labeled “women’s fiction.”
Such notions, and the damage they do, were the subject of a widely discussed 2012 essay for the New York Times by the novelist Meg Wolitzer. She complained about readers, men in particular, who “see most fiction by women as one soft, undifferentiated mass that has little to do with them.” Worse, “the top tier of literary fiction…tends to feel peculiarly, disproportionately male.” Novels by men, Wolitzer argued, were promoted as big events addressing big subjects—cataclysms—while most of the time you could spot a woman’s novel by its warm and fuzzy cover: a “little girl in a field of wildflowers,” say.
If a man should spot a flowery field in one of these two new novels, though, he’d be well advised to cut and run. If Van den Berg’s “sickness” doesn’t get him, he could fall prey to any number of catastrophes looming in Erpenbeck. Indeed, The End of Days, in one of its five “books,” details its own sickness, the “Spanish flu” that ravaged the world following the First World War. Then, too, neither author averts her gaze from how devastation on a large scale does damage on the small: the squabbles across the table, the deepening chill in the bedroom. So, too, their few magical devices, such as when a woman in Find Me disappears downcellar and reappears on the second floor, unsettle rather than soothe; such moments never feel twee. All in all, these two texts crash through preconceived limitations of gender. They give us women’s fiction that runs with the wolves.
Van den Berg’s novel is her first, after two books of stories. The debut, from 2009, has a title that suggests the novel’s apocalyptic subject: What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. Both these stories and those in Isle of Youth (2013) took place in a recognizable reality, contemporary and largely American, and featured dramas of hard knocks that most of us have suffered in one form or another. Isle of Youth, though, exercised a greater stretch; one story went to Antarctica, for instance, and wound up getting placed in two of the year’s prize anthologies. One of those was Best American Mysteries, and thoughVan den Berg has no shortage of other awards, that selection reveals something about her as a writer. From the first, she’s shown a flair for secrets and surprises; one story may introduce a group seeking the Loch Ness monster, another a larcenous young magician’s assistant. Fiction’s interiority, its essential raw material, here gets mined for nuggets of personality that wedge beneath surfaces people would prefer to keep smooth. Characters wriggle and shift, seeking better, even as what makes them uncomfortable comes from within.
Find Me impresses immediately for how it sustains these qualities. The novel’s sickness may destroy the memories of hundreds of thousands of Americans, and after that kill them (indeed, it’s compared to “the 1918 influenza”), but this doesn’t keep the author from thoroughly excavating her protagonists, especially their more fetid stretches, or from developing suspense. Van den Berg’s prose led me to fill the margins of my review copy with paired question marks and exclamations, even when all she had to work with was a few dozen folks in a locked hospital building, which is the setting for the book’s entire first half.
“The Hospital” holds a group under quarantine, people exposed yet uncontaminated—though the first pages of Find Me establish that a good half of the original patients have succumbed as well. It’s winter, and the windows don’t reveal much, yet over the novel’s first half, tensions within the facility mount as it becomes ever more obvious that, outside, the worst of the epidemic has passed. Still, inside, Dr. Bek and his staff remain zipped up in “Level A hazmat suits,” dedicated to their investigations. Inmates occupy themselves primarily with the hospital’s “two secrets to life”:
1. Don’t get sick.
2. Don’t get driven insane by empty time.
These to-the-point commandments also reveal something of the narrator protagonist, tough-mouthed (indeed, funny at times) but often fretting over the rightness of her mind. This woman is young, insecure, and still bears a childish name, Joy. As for her so-called “family” name, that soon gets ripped away, exposing a central mystery. Joy was raised as an orphan, in and out of foster homes, but here in the hospital, during one stretch of “empty time,” she turns on a TV and sees her mother. A journey is implicit in the mother’s first name, Beatrice, the same as set Dante on his voyage to Paradise, but her last name dangles a threat, a baited hook: Lurry. Joy can’t resist, in any case, and soon enough she’s no longer a lab rat. She breaks free, just as her story breaks free from mere coming-of-age. Rather, it’s mythic, a quest. Joy spends the novel’s second half chasing a phantom identity across an America populated largely by ghosts.
Van den Berg negotiates these intermediate steps—learning about Lurry, escaping the hospital, and catching rides on some improbable postapocalyptic Greyhound—with nary a hitch in her storytelling gallop. In the margins of my copy, more excited marks clustered, as the narrative switched among recollection, speculation, and surprise. Integral to the momentum is that tonal balance of pained and matter-of-fact, reinforced by canny biplay between external and internal:
In Shawnee, we pick up a man wearing glasses so large and dark I think he must be blind. He sits next to me, even though the bus is still empty, and I consider the questions I could ask him, as a test. Do I look like I’ve always had this haircut? Do I look like I have a mother? Do I look like I have all my memories? Do I look scared?
The rhetoric shows restraint, it’s conversational, though descriptions occasionally rise to some startling effect: “A rail yard with tracks like thick veins in the ground and smokestacks netted in tiny orange lights.”
All in all, especially considering how much ground it covers, Find Me must be applauded as a step up for this still-young talent. That said, the last third or so suffers a certain meandering. During a prolonged sleepover at the home of a couple of other survivors, Joy’s hunt for her mother loses a good deal of intensity, and the closing passages read less like a mature self-assessment than an esoteric prayer-code. On the other hand, by then Joy can be said to have already reconstructed a family. She’s turned up another damaged child out of one of her earlier homes, a boy she considers a brother.
For Jenny Erpenbeck, too, identity is an unstable element, too much for the easy fixes of simpleminded fiction, “women’s” or otherwise. Her fourth book to appear in English, a novel more or less, whips up two or three romances but no happily-ever-after. Its five overlapping stories advance by increments over the previous century, each one sketching a different life and death for the same Eastern European woman—and then rethinking each “end of days.” In a brief “Intermezzo” following each “Book,” a playful authorial figure raises what-ifs (“But things might also have gone quite differently … ”), and so makes destiny blink; the woman survives. In the finale, this “Lisa Fahrenwald” (she’s named just once, two-thirds of the way in) succumbs in relative comfort, in an old-age home. Her past reveals its worst only in twilit shards of recollection. Nonetheless, the chapter makes it clear that this incarnation, too, like the other four, required her and her loved ones to shuck some former self. Nearly everyone uses an alias, and often the new moniker sticks.
At the same time, the ground beneath their feet keeps shifting. In the second of these lives, a girl grows into adolescent cool, in the empire of Austro-Hungary, but then sees her glamorous Vienna shrink, defeated, to a minor capital. It’s ravaged first by inflation and then by the flu, and once the illness carries off her best friend, the protagonist embraces a desperate teenage solution:
To dissolve the borders, that’s all she wanted. Why was it not possible to love her friend and also her friend’s beloved…? Why was she not permitted to plunge into love as into a river…? Why did her mother call her a whore? Why wasn’t she allowed to tell anyone that her grandmother was Jewish?…Why were there differences, why this hierarchy of worth? Or was it only her own deficiencies making everything fall apart? In any case, it was high time for her to subtract herself from the world.
Suicidal thoughts, especially in the young, fit these mood swings: one sentence philosophic and far-reaching, the next intensely personal. Yet Erpenbeck brings off such dappled effects everywhere. When she describes reactions to this girl’s suicide, particularly in her younger sister, she works in a far chillier perspective (“In 1944 in a small forest of birch trees, a notebook filled with handwritten diary entries will fall to the ground….”), yet leaves a catch in your throat. The manipulation of pace and tone, poetic in its brevity, creates a trapdoor that drops us into an ineradicable loneliness.
That such technical mastery comes across in a second language says a lot for the work of Susan Bernofsky, the translator. She finds on-the-money equivalents for a variety of idioms, from the gloomy teenager’s slang to the code of the Stalinist bureaucrats who, in the subsequent incarnation, condemn her. In that book, set in a commune out beyond Tashkent, the pastiche of language would become pandemonium in lesser hands. The woman sits writing an autobiography for the Soviet authorities, writing and rewriting, attempting to justify citizenship and, with it, a stay of execution. She’s past exhaustion, and memories whirl through pillow talk, Party meetings, and previous interrogations. All these recur as the chapter unfolds: a paragraph here, half a page there. More challenging yet, this life goes beyond life, in the text’s most magical touch, as well as its most concentrated burst of poetry, a couple of pages spent conversing with the dead:
During the day, the living hack away at the ore-rich clay, …and at night they set these fires. And in these fires, all the sentences the dead spoke back when they themselves were still alive are incinerated….Why are you here? she asks a person she knows once uttered the words: We see each other quite clearly in the course of these exchanges…. I’m glad, she hears a woman’s voice saying—hears without ears, just as she sees without eyes—I’m glad, she hears the voice saying, that my tears finally abandoned me along with my eyes….
End of Days makes all this work, in a “heteroglossia” that would dazzle Mikhail Bakhtin himself (indeed, as Erpenbeck must know, Bakhtin also suffered the chill of Stalin’s suspicions). In a fitting touch, in the intermezzo that follows this book, the author at last reveals her character’s name.
Yet in a couple of other chapters, Lisa hardly appears onstage. In the first we’re with her parents, their sense of who they are shattered by her death as an infant, and the penultimate longer section begins with the grown woman’s funeral. This is an official affair, she died an esteemed literary figure of postwar East Germany, and after that, her son steps up as a principal figure—her son, plus the stranger who shows up among the mourners, claiming to be the young man’s father. Such a serendipity of reversals, a Meryl Streep-like range of players turned inside-out—one winding up in Greenwich Village, another in the Gulag—also makes an intriguing counterpoint to Erpenbeck’s most recent work, Visitation (2010). An even shorter novel (End of Days is her first book to run more than 200 pages), Visitation limited itself to a single locale, a small stretch of forest in East Germany. Yet, as in the new volume, the people who made their homes in that forest embodied an entire turbulent century’s assortment of fates, and Visitation, too, was called a “masterpiece,” in the Quarterly Conversation.
Such lofty ambition and accomplishment, in publications back to back, may soon lift Erpenbeck to a greater level of success in the US. She may become one of those few challenging Europeans who enjoy wider American readership: the next Karl Ove Knausgaard. If this turns out to be the case, I’d be the first to celebrate, but for now I’d simply point out that the pleasure in End of Days often proves the same as in Van den Berg’s Find Me. Erpenbeck, too, proves adept at tension and climax and a tale well told. She, too, can prickle the back hairs, delivering the unexpected while, at the same time, rendering it inevitable. It seems telling and pertinent that neither of these women are shy about sex. Love affairs matter to each story (more specifically, to four of Erpenbeck’s five), and their descriptions always strike the necessary tricky balance. They never feel like a hardware-store diagram, all nuts and bolts, and never fade from sight under a fog of euphemism. They’ve got the sweat, the sighing, and I have to wonder—“women’s fiction?” We guys should be so lucky.