Whenever I’m a passenger in a car, train, or bus, there’s a part of me that just wants to keep going, never reaching my destination, and continuing on the journey forever. As we pass through cities and towns, full of people and places I won’t know, the slowness makes me more contemplative—like I’m outside of time and a little outside of myself, comforted and lulled by the motion of travel. This feeling of distance runs throughout former Baltimorean Laura van den Berg’s beautifully written debut novel “Find Me” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) which follows a young woman trying to piece together her identity, as she attempts to find her birth mother and a place to call home.
In the dead of winter, at a hospital in a small town in Kansas, we begin to learn about our protagonist Joy Jones’ world. A memory-eating disease, referred to vaguely as “the sickness,” is plaguing the country. First it manifests on the body as small silver blisters, then the infected people lose their memories one by one, and they die within about a week. There’s no cure, and the hospital has an experimental treatment plan for people who haven’t yet contracted the sickness. But this mysterious plan never makes any tangible progress, and people continue to get sick. “After the nineteenth person went to the tenth floor [of the hospital to die], a death for every year of my life, I stopped remembering names,” Joy says of the other patients. Throughout the book, she goes back and forth between hopelessness and hopefulness, and by the time she’s in the hospital, many people in her life have already left her. Her mission throughout the novel is to find her mother, who abandoned her when she was a month old. She knows a handful of vague details about her mother, such as that “her first and only love is water,” and she eventually learns that her mother is the host of a TV show where she explores deep sea wrecks and, according to the Joy’s research online, lives in Florida. Through flashbacks, she talks about growing up in Boston, living with various foster parents and group homes, and her foster “brother” Marcus—who all, in various ways, shaped her.
Despite never having a reliable net of people that she can count on, she’s not bitter or callous or cold, and still tries to hold onto people. Though loss deeply affects her, and is seemingly endless, she is more appreciative of the short time she has with people, and she can’t or won’t forget them—which sets up a good contrast to the memory-eating sickness that surrounds her. In the hospital, she gets attached to twin boys Sam and Christopher and her roommate/lover Louis. After discovering that she’s immune to the sickness but that Louis is not, she struggles to remain positive: “Time changes when you know you’re running out. Now I want the slowness, the wet heavy thing, but the days are tumbling by.”
In this world, where everyone is forgetting everything and empathy for the dead and dying is consigned to a website (“WeAreSorryForYourLoss.com”) which offers perfunctory condolences, Joy is one of few who can remain strong and hopeful. This website, and the fact that Joy finds out most of what she knows of her mother via the internet, seems to address the way the internet has affected our interactions with one another in real life. You can shout whatever you want into the void of the web with little consequence. When we read things online, studies have shown, we actually scan them, which makes it harder to retain. And why should we remember, when we can pull it up again later?
But who are we without memory? All relationships dissolve here as people forget their names and their spouses and their work. In the inventory of her memory, Joy ties everyone together in relation to the places she knew them. It’s still winter when Joy escapes from the hospital (which is sterile, empty, “like we’re standing inside a flashlight”), and the foggy, cold landscape outside is symbolic of those gaps in memory, when memory falters. After she escapes, the novel shifts into a more surreal space. She winds up on buses that she thinks are heading south to Florida, but the drivers keep going off their designated route, taking her in the opposite direction. She improbably finds her foster brother Marcus on one bus, and they decide to make their way south together.
They stop for a while in Tennessee and stay in a place called the Mansion with a creepy, crotchety man named Nelson and a woman named Darcie, who is recovering from the sickness. This part feels like a dream or a bad trip, as they spend their days playing games like hide-and-seek. Joy partakes in one of Darcie’s “rituals,” through which she says she communicates with her dead mother, and it involves getting naked and taking GHB in the basement. After a few attempts, where she hears snippets of faint nursery rhymes and, once, the twins from the hospital, who seem to be bored in the afterlife. When she talks about her life before the Hospital, she mentions getting high on cough syrup, how it would make things fuzzy and soften reality, but the GHB “doesn’t blur the world, but vanishes it.”
After a few experiments with GHB, she uncovers a memory she’d repressed from her childhood. The Psychologist, as she calls him, the 30-something son of one set of foster parents, abused her when she was 8. Van den Berg switches to the third person here, which reflects the dissociative feelings drugs (and memory loss) can cause, and pads this horrific incident with sadly beautiful prose, pulling at the anxiety she felt as a kid in the situation. She recalls one particularly poignant memory of being at the beach with him, where she swims too far past the buoys, so the lifeguard “keeps bringing her in. She feels like a fish on a line.” These lost memories bring the entire novel together as she thinks about “why we stop remembering: there is a part of our story that we do not know how to tell to ourselves and we will away its existence for so long that finally our brain agrees to a trade: I will let you forget this, but you will never feel whole.”
What might initially seem like a tired trope, a “girl-finding-herself” story, becomes a multilayered story about all of that, with tangents about the internet and technology and how they, ironically, weaken our connections to others, while diving into ideas of memory that completely transcend sentimentality and nostalgia.
Laura van den Berg discusses her novel at the Ivy Bookshop Feb. 19.