Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Since there are plenty of reader reviews out there that describe the plot of Future Home of the Living God, I won’t rehash it. I’d rather reflect on the sad state of affairs that has caused Louise Erdrich to have to write a dystopian novel.
In brief, this is a another tale of society collapsing and all the nice humans having to adapt to a new order. It seems that women aren’t having viable babies anymore, and the U.S. government has apparently been taken over by some kind of religious movement that wants to get a handle on the baby problem by rounding up all the pregnant women and nursing them to delivery, when they’ll most likely die along with their babies. Our protagonist, Cedar, is a pregnant woman, and the book is a diary she’s writing to her future child.
Many reviewers complain that the conceit is derivative, and I guess it is. I thought right away of Children of Men. A lot of people compare the book to The Handmaid’s Tale, and I’m wondering if Erdrich is wanting to carve out a little section of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian territory so she can keep having a career. I mean, let’s face it. It’s hard to find an audience for literary fiction, and Erdrich might well have drained her well of the stuff she’s best known for (and that got her a career in the first place), like The Beet Queen and Love Medicine way back when.
What saddens me is that it feels like the market has compelled her to stick her toe in the dystopian waters now, and it must have worked because the novel got a lot of attention last year. (It’s in the top 30 of three different genre fiction lists on Amazon.) Louis Erdrich is back, baby.
Maybe dystopian lit is so popular because the times we live in feel – I don’t know – endy. It’s easy to imagine a lot of ways the center cannot hold, plus it’s fun for writers to create scenarios about how we’ll have to live in the aftermath of whatever crisis puts us over the edge. But I don’t read a lot of dystopian novels because they are all pretty much the same to my eyes. Everything’s gone to shit and our protagonist is trying to get to a safe place. Usually doesn’t make it.
But I give Future Home of the Living God four stars because Erdrich is such a good writer that you almost forget you’re reading a genre novel. Instead you’re absorbed by Cedar’s consciousness, and in a weird way you are her future baby. She’s talking to you. And it’s both scary and comforting, because she’s doing everything she can to bring you into the world safely – alive – and to keep you with her, and the world she describes, though it’s so awful, is also beautiful still, with trees and snow and friends. You’re actually looking forward to being born, even if everything has turned to shit before your arrival.
It’s a hard choice for writers to have to make. Do I write a thriller because people love thrillers? Do I really have to go zombie? Can’t I just keep writing about what it’s like to be half-Ojibwe in modern America? People used to like that stuff.
The long and the short of it? Future Home of the Living God is a pretty good book, even something of a page turner. But it’s not Louise Erdrich’s best book by any means, because she’s so much better than the genre.