The reviews are divided on Laura Van Den Berg’s first novel, Find Me. While the masses on Goodreads were unimpressed, Salon triumphantly declared Van Den Berg the best young writer in America, and the literati offered high praise. I’m torn between the two camps.
Find Me is the tale of a hospital, and the woman living within it. That woman, Joy, stands in opposition to her name. Before a man knocked on her door in a virus-shielding space suit, offering her a ride on a bus to the hospital, she chugged Robitussin and watched the world fall apart around her, as a mysterious illness ate away at people’s minds and their memories. Joy seems immune to the sickness, and takes the ride to the hospital, where she is studied and coddled and kept sequestered from the real world, or what has become of it.
The patients remember and recite random facts, assuring themselves and the nurses of their health. Pilgrims make way to the hospital, standing in front of its entrance and wondering about its search for a cure. There is routine, and there are disastrous breaks to that routine.
And then, Find Me isn’t the tale of a hospital at all. I didn’t read anything about the book before beginning, so I was surprised, but Joy leaves the hospital and delves more deeply into her history, swimming through memories as she journeys through surreal landscapes, looking for a mother she knows is hers but has never met. The book is cleaved into these two stories–one of stasis, and one of journey.
This isn’t a book about the big answers, but it is a book about the knife-stab into the gut of small ones. In a time when so many authors are writing about collective memory, like in J. and The Buried Giant, Van Den Berg has chosen to sweep all that aside. She’s drilling down to how memory serves us each or acts as a tormentor, a friend or foe, and how sometimes forgetting is the only thing that keeps us alive.
Some have compared this book to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and while I don’t think all these big build-ups serve Van Den Berg (as readers then pick up Find Me with wild expectations), I do think she manages to create a female character that is first, a vivid, broken, whole character, and second a woman. This is something Atwood excels at, making women people first, and what the world perceives they should be, second. Joy is surprising at every turn, often disappointing in her sheer humanness, feeling so solid I could touch her.
On the reverse of this, if you aren’t wooed by Van Den Berg’s even, enchanting prose, which zips you seamlessly into a foggy frame of world just two or three days of sleep removed from our own, if you are a big plot eater hoping to sit down to a big plotty dinner, then you might get a tad frustrated here. Find Me doesn’t tie up all its ends, it takes the ties out of the shoelaces and goes barefoot. It ties up ends you didn’t know it had. It walks right into Donnie Darko territory. I’m talking bunnies. I’m talking sexual abuse. Luckily, those two plot points never meet. But be prepared for the tragic, the weird, and most of all, the lack of a storybook ending.
- Laura van den Berg is the best young writer in America (salon.com)
- Kathleen C. Stone interviews Laura van den Berg: An Interview with Laura van den Berg on her novel “Find Me” (lareviewofbooks.org)
- INTERVIEW: Laura van den Berg, author of Find Me (electricliterature.com)