A REVIEW OF LAUREN CARTER'S
BY JENNIFER QUIST
The Rusty Toque | Reviews | Fiction | Issue 6 | May 30, 2014
In some descriptions–including a blurb on its back cover–Lauren Carter’s 2013 debut novel, Swarm, is called dystopian fiction. Compared to its older cousins–books from the high school canon like 1984–Carter’s dystopia stands out for its grimy grey-toned account of an incremental, listless social decline. It’s not a vision of a new world violently warped out of the old one into an outlandish nightmare–broken Statues of Liberty jutting out of the beach. Instead, it’s a plausible prognostication of how our world could be gradually unraveled and carted away, one looted run of household copper wire at a time.
The book is not a high school story. It’s tender and under-stated where other dystopian novels can be histrionic and polemical. While it’s not genre fiction, it does share something its high school cousins. At their cores, these stories each spin around an enormous, moral-laden “therefore …” Dystopian fiction is typically fabular and Swarm is no exception. The book enfolds a didactic element – a warning, a threat.
It wasn’t until I finished reading Carter’s book, got over the satisfied smugness of living in the country with my own garden plot and hand-cranked wheat grinder, and began researching further that I discovered her website and a post entitled “We Need to Talk.” This is where Carter explains that Swarm is meant to provoke discussions about the looming economic crisis already dubbed “peak oil.” Warnings about global petroleum economics–these were the lessons I had been delicately fed along with the story.
Chances are slim I would have finished the novel if it read like an extended editorial. Instead, it’s a personal story–one with a candid first person narrator fumbling with universal, relatable questions of gender, family, loss, and her role in social evolution. The narrative deals more with ovaries than oil rigs. And that’s the point–not oil itself but the industrialized First World culture built around it, the one which orients our understandings of love and forever and everything.
In Carter’s own words,
What would it mean to be a young person, told you could have it all, suddenly cast adrift … coming down from a hundred years of the oil-fueled capitalist trip, wouldn’t we still want what we want and strive to get it? And, in a very human way, wouldn’t we desire those things we always have – love, family, community, connection–but be faced with confusion about how to live?
The fact that the struggles of the narrator, Sandy, arise from problems in our current petroleum industry landed only lightly on my reading experience. That’s what kept me unguarded and happy to continue reading. Despite Carter’s tone on her website, the book’s activism is subtle, artful, and not unpalatable.
The novel opens in the near-future–a time where there are still tacky banalities like jeans with sparkly butt-pockets and dollar stores stocked with diverted wasabi peas. But it’s not quite the world we’d recognize. People in their twenties are no longer Dylans and Kaitlyns but Marvins and Margos. Chicken gizzards are important sources of dietary protein for (gasp) white Anglophones, and the middle class is starting to understand that their clothing and household goods are now irreplaceable and must, as Sandy says, last for the rest of their lives.
The city where half the story takes place could be a dirty, decaying version of any one we know. In several places, it’s compared to the Roman Empire in the days of its decline. Through a series of rash decisions and unfortunate inertia, Sandy goes from the bleak ennui of mass unemployment to the desperation of life as a fugitive. She flees the city and winds up on an island where she and two men–her partner, Marvin, and an older father figure, Thomson–have set aside their incompatible ideals about justice and compassion in favour of the pursuit food and shelter, survival.
On the island, traditional gender roles are back. They’re clear and distinct. The characters accept this as inevitable and necessary. Marvin fishes, Sandy gardens, cooks, and nurses a terminally ill Thomson. The one glaring omission in Sandy’s lady-lifestyle is mothering. The household lacks a child–a deficit Sandy feels with overwhelming keenness.
If the story is a moral fable then the requisite animal characters are the bees implied in the title. They are first encountered in the city, in a hive outside a soup kitchen in “the Dark Zone.” They reappear on the island. Both hives are tended by Thomson, an ad hoc apiarist frustrated by infestations of tiny black mites. Sandy’s interest in the hives ebbs and flows while Marvin consistently sneers at them, as if they’re the hallmark of hopeless superstition.
Naturally, the bees act as a parallel for the collective behaviour of the humans in the story. But it’s not merely a bald-faced analogy drawn along gender lines. This isn’t simply a story about women working frantically to make the world function while men idly blather about ideology and wait to kill each other.
At first, I fell into this lazy reading of story and mistook the elderly, ailing Thomson for a drone. He contributes little to the households he lives in yet he’s handled with deference. But in this fable, he’s not a drone bee but the hive itself–the remnants of what was good in the former, decrepit social structure. He’s crumbling but still precious to the other characters. The black spots in the phlegm he expels reveal him as an old, mite-infested, undermined institution that must be left behind, however grudgingly, in order for rest of the characters to go on.
The story runs into the problem–one recurring in literature lately--of a female protagonist who’s insightful and articulate in her inner life but clumsy and ineffective when the time comes to act on her physical and social surroundings. Strictly speaking, there’s nothing wrong with this kind of character. In illustrating the disconnections between inner and outer lives for women bullied by men and left only with access to passive aggressive means of power, Sandy is a success.
However, I’m unsure of this character’s authenticity in Sandy’s particular situation. Our grandmothers lived in times of strict gender roles but the narrowing of their fields made these women experts in them. Sandy would have made better sense if she’d been more like historical women--if she didn’t let the last of the tomatoes and zucchinis rot on the ground. Women can be fundamentally stifled and conflicted without sabotaging their domestic routines. Sandy isn’t one of the story’s queen bees but seeing her function competently as a worker bee may have made her story ring truer.
None of this is to say Sandy’s character isn’t otherwise compelling. In Sandy, Carter strikes an achingly real chord when she plays on the tension between grown women who are mothers and those who are not. Sandy’s perspective on motherhood is wistful, naïve, and vaguely disgusted with the raw, gory weariness of her postpartum depressed neighbour, Shannon. What Sandy sees in Shannon as selfishness is experienced by Shannon as self-preservation. As an adult, Sandy still understands motherhood as she must have grasped it as a child–in terms of what the relationship can provide for her. Unlike Shannon, she does not know what motherhood costs–that it costs everything.
While Sandy, the worker bee, is blundering away at survival in the collapsing colony of her life with Marvin and Thomson, the queen bees of the story–the vulgar and worldly Margo, the saintly Phoenix, the bleeding mother Shannon, the absent angel Mona–all challenge the extent of their powers and end up ruining themselves. It’s a risk acknowledged in the narrative. When a beehive is in trouble, Thomson explains, nascent queen bees take a gamble. They form swarms–clouds of airborne worker bees--and strike out to establish new colonies. At the centre of the swarm, herding the mass of the bees from its heart, is the new young queen. If successful, the swarming hive saves itself. Otherwise, a swarm is the finale at the end of a bee-civilization.
Of all the queen bees in the story, only one is successful in effecting the kind of cleansing social renewal for which everyone else in the novel is fighting. She succeeds not with the violence Marvin preaches or by endlessly propping up the finest of the failing pillars of the old social order, like Thomson does. Her strength–the source of this queen’s forward motion–is hope. In the face of social change, “Without hope,” Sandy says, “you just drowned.”
The new queen is young, small and spends most of the novel invisible except for a footprint and a swatch of torn fabric. Sandy speaks to her as she narrates the story, naming her Melissa and imagining her as an adopted daughter. She believes she is feeding and nurturing Melissa while Marvin is undermining and menacing her.
When Sandy finds evidence that the new queen, the unseen little girl, may be on the move, she says, “I felt the same frenetic energy as the bees, intent on going elsewhere now that I thought I knew where [she was].” And what propels Sandy to haplessly fight for and protect the new little queen is “simply, love.”
Don’t mistake this for something maudlin. Love and hope are not conjured here as vapid hippy fantasies. They aren’t simple, pat-answers wrapping up a story that has no substantial solution for the problem of how to fix the world. It takes insight and courage for an author to stare down the inhumanity of our oil-soaked economies and name hope and love as the roots of all remedies for it. It’s not an approach seen in other places where global economics are written about–on protest placards or in shrill eco-journalism pieces. Love and hope presented with the depth and delicate touch of literary fiction–to avert a crisis as huge as “peak oil” could become, we might as well try everything.
JENNIFER QUIST's debut novel, Love Letters of the Angels of Death, was released in 2013 by Linda Leith Publishing. Based in central Alberta, she's a writer, poet, speaker, lapsed sociologist, and raiser of boys.