Celebrated short story writer and author, Laura van den Berg’s debut novel Find Me contemplates memory, loss, and identity in the same stunning prose we’ve come to know and value in her previous two collections.
In the hospital where Joy Jones was abandoned as a child, the nurses grew tired of a nameless baby so they named her Joy. Van den Berg writes: “The symmetry of the name has never suited me.” As an adult, Joy lives in a windowless basement apartment and works the overnight shift at a grocery store, numbing it all away by drinking cherry-flavored cough syrup. But joylessness isn’t the only paradox clinging to Joy. She is immune to a deadly epidemic that has swept the nation. One that begins with silver blisters on the skin and ends in memory loss and death. And while Joy’s memory is never at risk from the disease, there is a period of her life she can’t remember, a time when she was eight and living in a foster home that is shrouded in mystery. “One day I was nine years old…. It was like waking up from, or into, a dream.”
This dreamlike gap in Joy’s memory from childhood provides a texture to Find Me that permeates the novel. When she goes away to a hospital where a small group of doctors is hoping to source a cure for the epidemic, little is offered in the way of strict explanations, but little is needed. It is enough to know that no one can come or go, and if you begin to show symptoms of the disease you are relegated to a different floor of the building and never heard from again. Outside the hospital, “pilgrims” arrive, standing in the Kansas snowfall watching the building as patients, namely Joy, stare back out.
Still, van den Berg offers just enough: patients are assigned menial tasks to keep busy, as well as counseling meetings with Dr. Bek (the only practioner in the hospital called by name). They celebrate birthdays, enjoy twice weekly Internet sessions, and watch television. It is during a television session that Joy discovers her mother is alive and living in Florida. Soon after this discovery, news reports indicate the epidemic may be abating, and Joy decides to leave the hospital and embark on a road trip in hopes of finding her mother.
The second half of Find Me maintains the same dreamlike quality as the first, becoming increasingly surreal as Joy heads toward Florida. A long stay at a backcountry “Mansion” in Tennessee feels ghostlike and illusory. Joy’s best friend never takes off his rabbit mask and one of the Mansion’s occupants wears angel wings. Strange games of hide and seek are played, and a mysterious basement tunnel allows Darcie, the angel-wing girl, to speak to her dead mother. Joy still battles with the memories she lost as a child, exploring the impact this gap has on her life within her new trajectory. When Darcie asks Joy who is in the picture she carries (it is a photo of her mother from childhood), Joy responds: “I’m still figuring that out.” In learning about her mother at the hospital Joy has discovered something about herself, and is trying unearth its meaning; to fully understand how it affects her.
Joy’s path toward Florida is non-urgent, and much of Find Me keeps pace in this way, especially outside of the hospital. This offers Joy space to balance the damage she incurred as a child with the potential for her new future. Find Me isn’t a commentary on the fluidity or reliability of memory, but is more a rumination on how memories act as anchors to the present. To know where you came from is part of where you’re going; our past dictates what we understand about the present. Like Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Find Me asks questions about how fully developed a person can be if there is a part (a memory, or piece of information), or person (a mother), missing from her past. Van den Berg writes: “A theory on why we stop remembering: there is a part of our story that we do not know how to tell to ourselves and we will away its existence for so long that finally our brain agrees to a trade: I will let you forget this, but you will never feel whole.”
Laura van den Berg brings a thoughtful and quiet look to an apocalyptic landscape that aligns itself with titles like Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars. It is her characters, and not the epidemic that owns the stage. Find Me is written in a style that is entirely van den Berg’s own. Her work marries surreal elements with the real world in a restrained way, producing moments in the novel where the two feel fully joined. Van den Berg’s talents as a writer are observed in her minimal and direct prose, the interiority of her characters, and the limitlessness of her imagination.
Publication date: February 14, 2015
Reviewed by Kim Winternheimer