Find Me by Laura van den Berg
FSG, 2015; 278 pp
Reviewed by Zach VandeZande
There’s something about memory and its connection to our biological existence that remains deeply unnerving. This only becomes truer as we age, as memory slips away from us, as studies continue to show that the thing that lies to us the most is our amygdala. What are we without our connections to others, and where do we keep proof of that connection except in our memories? This is why my grandfather’s anger with the world and his lost place in it as he slipped away sticks with me still, why for many of us the deepest fear is not the dying but the forgetting and the being forgotten. And this is also why the debilitating memory disease at the heart of Laura van den Berg’s Find Me is so discomfiting, and why it has such a shattering, propulsive impact on Joy, the main character of the book.
The book has a number of questions on its mind, most of them having to do with the intersection of memory, identity, and trauma. As an orphan, Joy bounced from temporary situation to temporary situation, leaving the adult woman clinging to whatever small meaning she has in a state of cough-syrup fueled non-agency. When she finds herself possibly immune, or at least resistant, to a catastrophic pandemic that leaves its victims memoryless and dying and the rest of the nation in a state of disorder, distrust, and decay, and when it comes on the heels of a scrap of knowledge about her birth mother, Joy has no choice but to go along with being exiled in a hospital for ten months with other patients who might hold a cure.
Of course things are not as they seem, and of course the doctors in charge of the hospital have their own agenda, but the conspiracies that van den Berg is interested in chasing in the first half of Find Me are less sinister and more contemplative and bleakly hopeful. The same is true of her apocalyptic world outside the hospital, where Joy searches for the mother she learned about while hospitalized. In some ways, the haphazard, crumbling world of Find Me will feel very familiar to readers who’ve spent the last decade or so immersed in books and pop culture and think pieces and summer blockbusters and et cetera, but van den Berg finds power in the specificity of her vignettes, like a lost bus ride through Centralia, PA, or a falling-down mansion with a tunnel to nowhere in the basement.
Joy is a harder case to make. As a character, she’s complex, a tabula rasa by choice, erasing things about herself even as they’re written, which is why some of the moments towards the end of the novel feel more toothless than they should. Joy’s quest to find her mother, or to at least find some knowledge about herself, has a seminal urgency that she herself lacks in places. I’m reminded of the muted construction of Grand Budapest Hotel, which I found myself appreciating for its skillful attention to character and storytelling, but not loving the way I’ve loved Anderson’s earlier work (yes, I’m a sap). Van den Berg has taken a big risk with Joy, and on an intellectual level it succeeds wildly, but her flatness—her deliberate, carefully constructed, still waters flatness—it kept me at bay in a way I didn’t want.
Ultimately, though, this is a book more concerned with its blurred, messy ideas (here, I mean that van den Berg has the grace to leave things as they often are: amorphous, unconfirmed, only filled with meaning because of the people doing the filling), and it moves toward its beautiful conclusion with a kind of dream logic. And it would be a failure on my part to not mention the writing, which is effortless and assured and just a pleasure to read from moment to moment.
In Laura van den Berg’s two story collections, she showed her readers characters who were reckless in the face of grief or abandonment but ultimately found something like peace. Find Me is the natural outgrowth of those stories, and, judging by the press it’s been getting, will likely be the tipping point for an exciting new voice. The attention is well deserved: van den Berg’s fiction is asking the right questions, and is smart enough to not provide us easy answers.