Released: June 2014
What causes an entire civilisation to vanish overnight?
Dr Hank Hannah thinks he knows the answer. An anthropology professor specialising in the Clovis people, America’s first human inhabitants, he has staked his reputation on the controversial theory that the Clovis (known for their hunters’ deadly spearheads) first wiped out 35 mammal species and were then forced to abandon a way of life that had become entirely unsustainable. This, Hank contends, is a pattern in mankind’s evolution: technological advances followed by relentless consumption and then an inevitable collapse. He writes from a post-apocalyptic future in which his hypothesis appears, once again, to have been confirmed, although the nature of the disaster, and its causes, are only revealed in the final chapters of this debut work by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Adam Johnson.
As narrator, Hank is at times deeply troubling; he spends most of the early part of the novel lusting after one of his graduate students, a young African American woman whom he describes as ‘the ultimate female specimen’ of ‘a proto-typical Clovis woman’. Still, as the narrative progresses his occasional moments of self-awareness become more and more frequent, although the treatment of his abandonment issues and other mental health problems is at times rather heavy-handed. The lengthy build-up to the global disaster that Hank, many years in the future, is attempting to record for posterity could well have been condensed to make room for a more thorough exploration of human behaviour in the wake of such a cataclysmic event. Johnson addresses these issues with extraordinary and often chilling insight in the final chapters, which are by far the most compelling and could, had they been expanded, have added much greater weight and complexity to a novel that presents itself as the story of an apocalypse but could almost, for the first two thirds at least, be mistaken for the self-indulgent autobiography of a washed-up academic.
Nonetheless, Johnson handles with some skill the unreliability of his narrator, inserting among Hank’s pseudo-philosophical musings an implicit critique of the racism and sexism of institutions of all kinds, ranging from the South Dakotan police to the academic community itself. All in all, this is an often frustrating but ultimately absorbing account of a thrilling discovery with unforeseeable consequences; in this regard, Johnson suggests, the characters of Parasites Like Us may be closer to their ancestors than they know.
Narrators are likewise of paramount importance in Emporium, Johnson’s first collection of short stories, in which characters from widely different backgrounds reveal themselves to be similarly preoccupied with the fundamental problems of human existence, especially with the difficulty of forming meaningful connections with others. The anthology opens with ‘Teen Sniper’, narrated by Tim, a fifteen-year-old boy working as an LAPD sniper and struggling with the psychological consequences of his work. This story sets out the themes to which Johnson will return throughout the collection: the fear of isolation and ostracism, which exists in tension with the fear that empathy will only make you vulnerable and thus open you up to further pain.
Killing is used similarly by the narrator of ‘Your Own Backyard’ (a police officer turned zoo security guard) as an escape from his problems, in this case his strained relationship and his nine-year-old son. Each of these slices of life culminates with a realisation, a movement towards some greater understanding of the world, some tinged with hope and others dark and unsettling. Throughout Emporium Johnson shows himself to be an adept writer of short stories, a form that requires even greater focus and control than longer fiction, and it is to be hoped that his talent for capturing the flaws and idiosyncrasies of such a wide variety of characters, which is deployed here with greater success than in Parasites Like Us, leads him to conduct further experiments in this genre.