DUELING REVIEW: How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu
Content warnings: Spoiler: Show
Jennie: When Janine suggested we review this book together, I hadn’t heard of it. But the blurb told me it was dystopian, and I have a weakness for dystopian novels even though they don’t always end up working for me. Though it’s billed as a novel, How High We Go in the Dark is more accurately a collection of stories, each with at least one small thread relating it to the other stories.
Janine: I think the correct term for this form is a novel-in-stories. Each chapter serves as both a self-contained short story and part of a larger narrative arc. I had hoped for a stronger throughline. There’s an overarching story about the emergence of a deadly and bizarre virus that turns into a global pandemic and humanity’s attempts to escape it but it’s not as gripping as it could have been. The book reads more like, as you say, a collection of short stories.
Contrary to an author quote in the blurb, it’s debatable whether the book is science fiction. Most of the short stories/chapters are examples of literary fabulism (the genre of writers like George Saunders, Italo Calvino, Donald Barthelme, and others). For me the book wasn’t all that successful in marrying these deliberately-askew fables with its larger narrative arc about the virus (more on that later). However, some of the stories were pretty strong in their own right. They are permeated with grief and several are humane and touching. All are first-person narratives peopled by Japanese-American or Japanese characters. Most take place in the San Francisco Bay Area but a few are set in other locations.
Jennie: The first story opens in 2030 with scientist Cliff Miyashiro arriving at a remote outpost in Siberia seeking answers about the death of his daughter, Clara, a dedicated climate scientist. Cliff is also a scientist (archeology and evolutionary genetics, in his case), and he is drawn into both Clara’s work and the mystery that was discovered because of it – the ancient remains of a little girl preserved in the now melting ice. The neanderthal, nicknamed Annie, represents a puzzling and exciting discovery. She is dressed in clothes that seem anomalous for the period she came from, decorated with shells from the Mediterranean; she also has mysterious dots tattooed on her body. Annie, it turns out, died of an unknown virus, and despite the protocols the scientific team follows (which they think are probably overkill, honestly) the virus escapes, and the world is changed forever.
Janine: I wasn’t prepared for surrealism when I read this first story, so the scientists’ lack of precautions threw me. The procedures they followed were not remotely appropriate. I’m certain that was intentional on the author’s part, meant to set the reader’s expectations for the surrealness of following stories/chapters. But it was still a discordant note.
Jennie: I think in my scientific ignorance I assumed that any virus would be dead? I don’t know – it didn’t really throw me terribly (but then again, I knew the virus would get loose already, so maybe I just didn’t question it because of that).
Janine: Apparently, it’s not impossible for an ancient virus to survive in permafrost. I didn’t know that when I read the book but I accepted it as the premise. Regardless of what the scientists thought about the virus, they are under quarantine—we were told that multiple times—but the scientists did very little containment (their lab is described as “a plastic sheet duct-taped from floor to ceiling”). I found it hard to believe that a research team that behaved so unscientifically would be authorized and/or given grants in the first place.
It wasn’t until the following story that I caught on to the fact that I was reading fabulism. The plague is even more mysterious and weird than the other findings near the arctic station–it turns the body’s internal organs to proto-versions of other organs (a heart might start morphing into a proto-kidney, for example).
Jennie: The second story, “City of Laughter” really drew me in – set several years later, it’s narrated by a former stand-up comedian named Skip. Skip has drifted through low-paying jobs before ending up at a euthanasia park (my interest was piqued by my admittedly macabre curiosity about the concept of euthanasia coasters which I had read about before). Skip is assigned a mouse costume to wear while entertaining the kids. The idea is to give them one last special day, before loading them onto a deadly euthanasia coaster. Staff occasionally have to stop “runners” – parents who change their minds at the last moment from – leaving with “biohazardous” children. After months at the park, Skip meets Dorrie and her five-year-old, Fitch. Fitch is a drug trial patient living in a cabin on site. Skip and Dorrie (and Fitch, who lives in plastic bubble to protect him from germs) form a relationship and for a brief time, a family.
I liked “City of Laughter” so much because for me it encapsulated some of the book’s central themes and strengths – grief, familial guilt, the difficulty of makes and maintaining connections, and the absurdity of pandemic life as depicted in the book.
Janine: An additional theme is the titular one. How high will the dark events wrought by the plague inspire the characters to go? Will they rise to the occasions they are presented with, and if so, what will it cost them? I agree “City of Laughter” was strong. Skip’s story hit the book’s themes with depth and nuance and took a turn that I wasn’t expecting.
Jennie: Some of the stories and themes begin to feel repetitive by the middle of the book – Nagamatsu really hammers home the concept of the enormous funerary industry that is built up in the wake of so much death, and the (often tasteless) ways in which this omnipresent industry is advertised. It’s not that this wasn’t interesting; it’s just that I imagine there are so many other ways in which life would change after a significant amount of the population is wiped out. Economies would be affected, various industries would experience a shortage of workers, the supply chain would be disrupted, etc.
One of the problems with creating a world in which such a catastrophic event occurs, is that there are myriad implications to consider. It’s not that all of those considerations need to be depicted on the page, but the focus on one made me conversely think of the others that were being ignored (like, can you imagine all the abandoned pets?).
Janine: My take on this is that the outsize focus on funerary industries, too, is a very deliberate distortion, there to create the funhouse mirror effect that is a key ingredient in much of surrealism. Some of the funerary inventions (hotels for the dead, or a giant urn shared among an entire neighborhood) aren’t things I’d find believable in any real-world context. IMO they, and like them, the world, are not intended to be.
Jennie: I didn’t find them entirely believable but I also don’t know how the world would be changed by such a huge pandemic (ironic, I know).
Janine: The story plots also get pretty fantastical. In one, a group of comatose patients suddenly find themselves in a pitch dark, empty space they can’t escape (wearing their all-time favorite outfits instead of hospital gowns) and decide to form a human pyramid to see if there’s anything at the top. In another, a grieving researcher who lost a child grows substitute organs for human patients in pigs; when one of the pigs begins to talk, the doctor starts to make the pig an emotional substitute for the child he lost. There’s a later story set on a spaceship (not a spoiler, since it’s mentioned in the blurb) where two women are woken from cryogenic sleep to paint murals, not for any kind of essential task.
I agree about the repetitiveness. The first five or so stories/chapters were good but then I began to anticipate a certain formula. A new and surreal death industry, type of research or physical symptom would be introduced, a difficult situation would arise around it, and the two would merge into a story where the narrator struggled to reach out to others in some way. Most of the later stories weren’t distinct enough.
Jennie: Several characters manifest a sort of “failure to launch” that seems unrelated to the pandemic. In “Elegy Hotel,” Dennis works at a San Francisco hotel where families can gather with their deceased loved one for one last party, before the crematoriums on the bottom level do their work. Dennis has always been a screw up, in contrast to his scientist brother, Bryan. Bryan wants Dennis to help take care of their cancer-ridden mother, but Dennis resists and puts off making a decision. His friend and co-worker, Val, struggles to move Dennis out of his self-imposed torpor. Dennis is recognizably human but frustrating to read about.
Janine: Interestingly, though “Elegy Hotel” is narrated by Dennis, it was also about Val. There’s a mystery about what is in her past, and the moment when it comes to light is powerful. I felt as you did about Dennis in “Elegy Hotel,” but small and unexpected connections occur between stories (a new story’s protagonist encounters characters we already know, usually without understanding what we know of them). Dennis appeared or was referenced in four stories and while I found him frustrating in his own story, I thought his larger arc (from story to story) was touching.
Jennie: Perhaps because of the repetition of themes, some of the stories in the middle sagged a bit for me. “Songs of Your Decay” and “Before You Melt into the Sea” cover similar ground, with narrators who fall a little in love with dying plague patients and then deal with their corpses after they die (the former works at a forensic body farm; the latter creates ice sculptures out of the dead). “Grave Friends,” featuring a protagonist who comes home to her small neighborhood in Japan after “fleeing” to America for five years, covers a lot of the same ground of family obligation and alienation. “Pig Son” is an early tear-jerker (I’m one of those people who can read more easily about dying kids than about anything bad happening to an animal). “The Used-to-Be Party” is short and elegant – a letter from a widower inviting what’s left of his neighbors to a party – again trying to make connections. “Melancholy Nights at a Tokyo Virtual Café” was just too downbeat for me – the narrator is homeless and semi-suicidal, and spends his nights in virtual reality chatrooms with others considering suicide.
Janine: “Songs of Your Decay” was slow but one scene packed a punch. “Before You Melt into the Sea” bored me, possibly because its most major events are set in the past. “Pig Son” was one of my favorites and it made me cry too. I agree that “The Used-to-Be Party” was elegant but I wish the narrator’s story ended there—there were only a couple of times when I felt the prior narrator cameos detracted from rather than enhanced an earlier story and that was case with this person. “Melancholy Nights at a Tokyo Virtual Café” was downbeat, I agree, and not a favorite of mine either, but I liked its ending.
Jennie: I felt sort of basic for being so gutted by “Pig Son” – perhaps it was a bit manipulative? But it was very effective.
I agree about the mentions of the prior narrator – there was a later story where Dennis is referenced that felt very shoehorned in. It worked better for me when the connections were more subtle.
Janine: Maybe because I’m a vegan and once worked in a biology research lab that relied on the blood plasma of sacrificed rats, I didn’t feel that way about “Pig Son”. Animals’ lives have value; they experience physical and emotional pain. Pigs are particularly bright and affectionate animals. Many people ignore these facts and I was glad to read a story that centered on them.
You haven’t mentioned “Through the Garden of Memory,” the story with the comatose patients who form human pyramids, but that was one of my top two. It was haunting, spare, gentle, and sweet, and perfectly encapsulated the book’s title, How High We Go in the Dark, on both the literal and thematic levels.
Jennie: I did like it a lot – it was the first story that gave me a sense of the surreal nature of the book. I really didn’t pick up on the fabulism very early, for some reason. Perhaps it had to do with Nagamatsu’s prose style, which was somewhat matter-of-fact.
“A Gallery, a Century, a Cry a Millennium” engaged me after a few stories that didn’t –a narrator and her granddaughter board a spaceship. Doing so means spending perhaps thousands of years in suspended animation (a subset of the passengers are awakened periodically to check new planets for suitability), and leaving everyone and everything you know behind. Though it is still contemplative, this story felt comparatively action-packed and almost exciting.
Janine: This was my favorite of the stories and my husband’s favorite too. It felt really distinct from the rest, and it pushed the longer, overarching plot forward in a big way. By that point I was hungry for that and primed to enjoy it.
Jennie: The final story wraps things up and explains some of the mysteries that pop up throughout the book. I’m guessing this resolution is one a reader either loves or hates; it does represent a bit of a pivot, but it worked for me.
Janine: Did you see any of it coming? There was a lot that I didn’t guess but I did know some of it in advance. I thought this story wasn’t bad (it had a lot of significance to the overarching plot too) but I wish it had surprised me completely.
Jennie: I really didn’t. I mean, I understood as soon as I started reading it (I’d been wondering about the necklace!) but I wasn’t spoiled and again I think I mostly viewed the book as realistic in spite of the earlier fantastical touches.
Janine: Surrealist short stories are a great form and I have loved some. I have loved science fiction and dystopian books too. But I feel these forms didn’t work well together in the novel-in-stories format.
For literary fabulism to work, readers only have to buy a short story as a distortion of reality, a fable, perhaps even a confusing allegory. This means recognizing the unreal elements as unreal, making a pact to enter a distorted world. You’re not even going to pretend to yourself that it’s real, you’re just going to take it as a given, like you do when you dream, and accept that it’s real to the characters in it. In a dream things are senseless but our emotional responses are very real to us.
With most science fiction and dystopian novels, the reader also knows that the story is not real (that’s true of any work of fiction), but the world generally operates with a greater degree of internal logic. We may know the story is made up, but we want to be riveted not by the absurdity or our emotional responses to it, but by how dramatic that scenario would be in real life—how much would be at stake for the world, for humanity. We want to respond emotionally to that.
This book tries…I don’t want to say it tries to have it both ways, because I think in many ways the surrealness dominates. But that was frustrating to me. I wanted to know what would happen to humanity because of the virus, whether a cure would be found or if the plague would push humankind in a big new direction. These questions do get answered, but for much of the book that part of the plot felt like an afterthought. And the overarching plot develops within the short stories so I couldn’t switch disbelief-suspension gears for it.
Jennie: Again, I think I was a lot more credulous to the events in the stories, which I guess suggests that the overarching story worked for me.
It felt to me like this whole, huge, ambitious story was really just a framework to examine some very basic human themes: grief, loss and the need we have for connection (and the ways in which we find making those connections difficult).
Janine: On that last I agree.
Jennie: In that sense it was relatively successful for me.
Still, How High We Go in the Dark ended up being a mixed bag – the stories that worked really worked and the few that didn’t work as well (because they felt too repetitive or a bit too downbeat for me) brought my grade down a bit. I’ll give it a B+/B.
Janine: Though the book wasn’t quite a mindfuck for me, it wasn’t far enough from one. How High We Go in the Dark is inventive and ambitious; the author certainly tried to do something different. But though pieces of it were effective, I think it didn’t form a successful whole. I’m giving it a C/C+.