Remember when I was nervous about getting myself in trouble because I hated Ron Rash’s “The Ascent“? No? Well, it doesn’t matter, just know that I was. I’m even more nervous now. Because I’m going to be snide. And scathing. In fact, I couldn’t decide which scathing/snide approach to take, so I’ll give you a choice:
1) I’m appalled.
2) This is Stephen King without a character to care about.
3) This is Jim Shepard without all the careful research and emotional impact on a central character.
4) When literary fiction people sneer at science fiction, this is why.
5) Wasn’t this a Star Trek:TNG episode?
Ok, enough (I love Star Trek:TNG btw, but that was a really dumb episode).
This story was from the same McSweeney’s assignment as “The Netherlands Lives With Water” – write a story that happens 25 years in the future, and we’ll send you to the location to prepare. So of course Wells Tower chose to go to… Arizona?
Following Libya’s lead, the US has, 25 years from now, created an artificial inland ocean to reduce the increase in sea level due to global warming. It works for Libya (in the story) but things go wrong in Arizona, and the lake turns red and viscous due to microbes that love the concentrated salt levels. Having owned an aquarium, I can testify to the existence of “pink slime” (which is actually algae, I was told). But that’s fresh water. I have no trouble believing in the existence of such salt-water critters, however.
Rodney and Cora Booth move to this garden spot, which started out in a land boom but went bust a decade ago. She’s an artist, and wants to photograph the area. That seems to me like a one-year visit, maybe, not a permanent move, but what do I know, it wasn’t me that McSweeney’s commissioned to write this story. They’re an older couple. She’s 43 and just finished menopause which is a little early but reasonable. He has some kind of part time job with an insurance company that he can do over the internet.
They find the people there are all fat half-wits. And ugly. Most of the people left long ago, but those that are left, including their neighbors and real estate agents, the Nevins, are just plain strange. The Nevins invite them over for dinner right away: mussels harvested from the lake. And swimming. In the red lake. Now, forgive me, but don’t these people have any sense at all? The Booths, I mean. The Nevins have been there a while, so they’re already affected by whatever it is that’s making people fat and stupid and ugly, but the Booths, wouldn’t they take one look at this – Mrs. Nevin is nursing an infant though she’s probably 60 years old, and Mr. Nevin can barely speak at times – and run in the other direction? Or at least worry? Or say, gee, thanks, but I think I’ll just eat some canned soup and you enjoy those mussels all you want, and have a nice swim while I sit here and try not to breathe in the water vapor? Nope.
So everyone in the town is turning into apes (there’s a riotous scene, intentionally or not, of two teenage boys grooming each other), and Rodney starts to turn into an ape. He can’t eat enough no matter how much he eats. He fantasizes about the Nevin’s teenage daughter, who’s, as I’ve already said, fat and ugly, but he doesn’t care. He fucks dirt. Literally. Then he breaks into the Nevins house and gnaws on a ham, pees on the floor, and snuggles up to the Nevin girl. Mr. Nevin shows up to interrupt, and the next day is hospitalized for an aneurysm. Nevin dies, and Rodney hits on his wife. That’s about it, really. Cora never shows any effects of whatever it is, and never comments on her husband turning into an ape, though she is annoyed he wants more sex than he’s wanted in years. She kind of disappears from the story.
One thing I should say on the bright side: it doesn’t go all cliché, with the newcomers discovering what’s going on and trying to get the authorities to help but finding the townspeople opposing them, Dean Koontz style. In fact, nobody in the story seems to care about anything except eating and sex, which I guess is what happens when you become more animal than human. But there’s no real resolution at all. There’s no real conflict, in fact. People just turn into apes, and that’s that. I guess we’re supposed to be horrified, but frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
One of the headscratching points for me is that this lake is an economic failure, so why is the project still going? Nobody’s paying any attention to the red water? Or they’re just saying it’s fine, and the people who still live there, well, that’s their problem? Nobody’s noticing what’s happening to them? They don’t have brothers or cousins or children elsewhere who are saying, “What’s happened to Mikey?” It just seems absurd. I guess the people stupid enough to stay and live there are beyond caring about. So why write a story about them?
I’m also not crazy about the narration jumping around so much. There are a couple of places where this bothered me in particular, enough to mark the margins with a question mark. It wasn’t even the narrative shifts per se, it was more that the information seemed presented in somewhat repetitive fashion: Rodney sees the remaining locals, then the omniscient narrator explains the locals a few pages later, and shifts right into Nevis’ POV. When I start to notice narrative shifts, they must be pretty dramatic. It just doesn’t feel like a story – it feels like it ended because there was nowhere else to go with it. And it feels pretty absurd. Maybe it’s supposed to be absurdist? But it doesn’t feel that absurd (gee, you can’t please some people, can you?).
In his Contributor Notes, Tower says this story was based on a news item that some scientists were kicking this idea about inland seas around. I’m not sure how hard they were kicking it, but it didn’t fall in line here. In fact, he goes on to explain that his first version, straight manmade-sea-gone-bad without the monkeyshines, was deemed not urgent enough in a science fiction way. So he said, “How about if the bacteria in the lake are, like supercharging everybody’s Darwinistic faculties.You know, making them act like monkeys?” And some damn fool thought this was a great idea.
I want to read more of his work – he’s one of the NY Top 20 Under 40 people, and he’s won two Pushcarts. Like I said – I’m appalled.