Shades of Atwood and Vonnegut in Louise Erdrich’s Dystopian Novel

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Shades of Atwood and Vonnegut in Louise Erdrich’s Dystopian Novel
Credit Patricia Wall/The New York Times

“Show me a plague, and I’ll show you the world!” Larry Kramer wrote in his epic historical fantasia “The American People, Volume 1” (2015), which was in part about the prehistory of AIDS.

Louise Erdrich’s quietly apocalyptic new novel, “Future Home of the Living God,” isn’t about a plague, exactly. But something sinister is happening to our blue planet. Evolution appears to be running in reverse. Animals can’t breed properly, and humans also have trouble reproducing.

Big lizard-birds fill the skies. Saber-toothed cats make meals of dogs. The United States government appears to have collapsed, but hardy Post Office employees (“neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night”) somehow make their rounds in armored personnel carriers.

In shades of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” pregnant women are rounded up so that their births can be observed. Nonpregnant women are seized, too, and forced to carry to term frozen embryos from the old world’s in vitro fertilization clinics.

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We witness this societal meltdown through the journal entries of Cedar Hawk Songmaker (née Mary Potts), who is part Ojibwe Indian but was raised by Volvo-driving liberal parents in Minneapolis.

Cedar is 26 and pregnant — she resembles the Land O’Lakes butter maiden, we are told — and must hide from spies and drones and dust-like observational motes.

“Future Home of the Living God” — the title comes from a roadside church sign — is a feverish and somewhat feeble novel. Erdrich’s heart isn’t really in her dystopian visions, and this novel’s scenes of chases and escapes are hokey and feel derived from films.

Erdrich has written better about pregnancy — see “The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Memoir of Early Motherhood” (1995) — and used the diary form to more striking effect in her 2010 novel “Shadow Tag.”

Cedar is a seeker, a convert to Catholicism with a more-than-vestigial interest in Native American spirituality. To read this novel is to wade through a great many solemnities on the order of:

“Perhaps we are experiencing a reverse incarnation. A process where the spirit of the divine becomes lost in human physical nature. Perhaps the spark of divinity, which we experience as consciousness, is being reabsorbed into the boundless creativity of seething opportunistic life.”

That, and ladybugs are now the size of cats.

The funny thing about this not-very-good novel is that there are so many good small things in it. Erdrich is such a gifted and (when she wants to be) earthy writer; her sentences can flash with wit and feeling, sunbursts of her imagination.

There’s a terrific sex scene that takes place backstage at a church preparing for a Christmas play. The man and woman try on various outfits, making love while dressed as angels and Wise Men and Herod and gay shepherds.

And witness this moment, when Cedar watches her adoptive mother, a determined vegetarian, forced to eat a hot dog because it is an important gift:

“Sera has often held forth on the 39 different deadly carcinogens contained in cheap hot dogs such as the one she is holding now. The nitrates are implicated in esophageal and stomach cancer, the red dyes in systemic foul-ups, the binding agents are bad as warfarin, and among the preservatives there is formaldehyde. And then there is the meat itself. Animal scourings. Neural and spinal material likely to contain the prions that transmit Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Hog lips, snout, anus, penile sheaths, jowls, inner ears.”

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Shades of Atwood and Vonnegut in Louise Erdrich’s Dystopian Novel
Louise Erdrich Credit Hilary Abe

Cedar’s mother is a Buddhist, but alas she does not ask the giver of the hot dog to make her one with everything. Cedar does report a bumper sticker that reads, “Come the Rapture Can I Have Your Car?”

Even when Erdrich is not in top form, her books are readable, in the sense that even when Emmylou Harris sings second-rate material it sounds pretty good.

De-evolution. We have approached this idea in fiction before, notably in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Galápagos” (1985). In that novel, human beings develop smaller brains — our big ones were leading us to destroy the world — as well as flippers and beaks.

Vonnegut’s narrator, Leon Trout, spoke to the benefits of these rollbacks. “It is hard to imagine anybody’s torturing anybody nowadays. How could you even capture somebody you wanted to torture with just your flippers and your mouth?”

Erdrich picks up on this idea as well. “Stupidity is a good strategy for survival,” Cedar writes in her diary. “Our level of intelligence could be a maladaptation, a wrong turn, an aberration.”

No doubt there is more stupidity in the world now than there was even a year ago. It is hard to view this development, at the moment, at any rate, as a species-wide survival strategy. Cedar says: “We’re climbing back down the swimming-pool ladder into the primordial soup.”

By the end of this novel, things have deteriorated everywhere. Yet a whole society has flourished in tunnels and caves under St. Paul. And the region’s Native Americans have begun to reclaim their ancestral land.

They are prepared to conduct, in a turnabout on the Orwellian language governments have employed on them, “compassionate removal of non-tribal people.”

Signs and portents, auguries and premonitions. Erdrich’s novel is packed with them, push notices from an onrushing nightmare. One character says, in this novel’s most pungent snippet of dialogue, “We ain’t on no GPS, and Siri’s dead.”

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