Before reading this novel, I saw two very different reviews of it. One, in Salon, favorably compared Find Me to Station Eleven and The Handmaid’s Tale. The other, from NPR, found it to be lacking and unworthy of such comparison. My opinion is that while the first half of the story does make it seem as if the novel has the potential to rank up there with esteemed dystopian fiction, the second half disappoints. Laura van den Berg is a seasoned and well regarded writer of short stories, and this first attempt at a novel felt uneven, as if there were a couple of different ways she could have gone with her story and rather than choose one, she tried to do it all.
In the first half of the novel, we are introduced to our narrator Joy Jones of Boston. She is 19 and alone in the world. As a newborn, Joy was abandoned in the dead of winter outside a Boston hospital. She spent her youth in and out of foster care and institutions, where she was abused in ways that are not fully revealed until later in the story. She now lives in a windowless basement apartment, works at a grocery store, and self-medicates with Robitussin. A “sickness” has struck the US which unleashes “an epidemic of forgetting.” Those who contract this mystery illness break out in silver blisters and then experience loss of memory and coordination before falling into a coma and dying. The illness is highly contagious and acts rapidly. Joy is one of a small number of people who seem to have some sort of immunity and have been recruited for a study at a remote hospital in Kansas. At the hospital, Joy is confined along with about 100 others; they are not free to come and go, they are subject to a monotonous daily regimen of medical and psychological testing, and the medical personnel remain mostly anonymous behind their hazmat suits.
Human memory and its impact on our psychological/emotional development is the recurrent theme through this novel. Those who fall prey to the illness forget everything; they no longer remember loved ones or words for common things. It’s like very advanced stages of Alzheimers or dementia. At the hospital, Joy and the others are encouraged to strengthen their brains by committing lists of information to memory. But underlying all of this is the question of repressed memory — what about the things of your past that you wish to forget, that you need to forget in order to go on? This seems to be the theme that dominates the second half of the novel, once Joy is out of the hospital and on her quest. And this is where things get, well, trippy. Much of what she describes going on sounds like something out of a dream or nightmare — getting on a bus thinking you’re going south only to find yourself in Pennsylvania, or walking down a dark street and being accosted by a gang dressed like mimes or clowns or something. As Joy travels, it seems that whenever she needs money or a particular person, there they are! I was expecting to find that none of this trip was actually happening, that this was all the work of Joy’s brain and perhaps she was suffering from the sickness or had imagined the whole business and was in a psych ward somewhere. That might have been preferable to the ending that I got.
With stories like Station Eleven or Parable of the Sower or The Handmaid’s Tale, the main characters learn something about themselves and their world, they grow, and they take some decisive action at the end. We don’t necessarily know how it all turns out, but the endings bring reader satisfaction. A quest has been completed. We don’t get this with Find Me. It didn’t seem to me as if Joy had experienced an epiphany, or made some discovery about herself or the wider world. I’m not clear what the big point is supposed to be. Is it ok to repress bad memories? Or should you force people to confront what they’d rather forget? Joy has repressed a lot, and she meets someone who, when forced to “recover” her memory, seems to go a bit crazy. And yet Joy is on a quest for confrontation herself, which we never get to see. Overall, I found this to be a frustrating read.