“Vigil Harbor” by Julia Glass is a dystopian novel set in 2034
Over the past two years of sanitizing grocery stores and anti-social distancing, anxious lockdowns and reverse reopenings, who among us hasn’t wondered, when will this end? How is this going to end? Will be this end?
And also, for those of us who don’t float the River Denial: if we somehow manage to survive the endless mutations of Covid, how long before climate change, terrorism and /or does war end life as we once knew and loved it?
In her seventh novel, Julia Glass, winner of the National Book Award for her first, June three—creates addictive, accessible art from these unanswered questions, going where no author has gone before: into the new and brave post-pandemic, climate-changed and terrorized America of 2034.
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A lesser author could have modeled this cautionary tale on the disaster movie, using a high-profile metropolis as a backdrop, its iconic skyscrapers and postcard landscapes featuring sensational scenes of mass destruction. Not if Glass, whose quiet, inner explorations of the human condition have always been more Fantastic trip that infernal tower; more psychological and relational than spectacular or apocalyptic.
In Port Vigilante, Glass’ characteristic interiority unfolds in the apocryphal fishing village of the book’s title. The bucolic setting and the repeated use of the word soothing port seem, at first glance, to predict a story as gentle as a wave at low tide lapping against a barnacled pier. “The harbor itself looks like a long blue parcel hugged under a muscular arm against the Massachusetts coast.”
But then Glass lowers the boom that is the book’s message and meaning: the intractable calamities that human frailty plus nature’s wrath have wrought, and humans’ responses to those calamities. “The shore here is rugged rocky, nothing like the ancient silken sand aprons…much of that sand recently eroded by driving rains and swallowed by storms that no longer repay the ground they borrow.” “As a quasi-island, Vigil Harbor hasn’t suffered as much from the waves of contagion as other landlocked towns.”
Although the novel is peppered with Glass’ distinctive dry wit, lesbian protagonist Petra and his wife, Carly, celebrate their wedding at City Hall with “lunch at a favorite French restaurant we affectionately call The Overprix ( rhymes with dicks)”—its dystopian message resounds everywhere like a blaring foghorn. Sand swallowed by storms. Waves of contagion. In case you were wondering, Glass shows us that life in 2034 is a female dog, not a beach.
The novel opens with a chapter named, as most are, for one of eight characters from whose perspective the story is told. Brecht, a college dropout who returned to Vigil Harbor from New York after a terrorist attack, recalled: “…The suicide bomber drove his little death truck into the farmers market and filled that sky with flash and then of smoke. Smoke, but also flying fragments of so many things, things that shouldn’t have been, shattered.
Brecht finds his hometown struggling with a “radical discontent virus”. “You can have an emotional outbreak, I’ve heard. Or maybe it was the latent stress of home repairs after [climate-change-induced Hurricane] Cunégonde.…”
Having established the novel’s terrain—a near-future America in which the very fabric of human memory is laced with flickering threads of trauma—Glass populates the village, and delivers it, with inhabitants who speak to us in the first person, each bearer of bad news from 2034.
Mike, whose marriage was one of Vigil Harbour’s many marital causalities, ponders his options after the abandonment. “New York has lost much of its shine… No malicious attack has matched the scale of 9/11, and for a while after the global crop of deaths from the first virus outbreaks, I was among the optimists gullible who thought that calculated acts of violence might well – like the fruit of passion – be a thing of the past.
Margo, whose husband ran away with Mike’s wife, tries to build her recovery plan. “Today: the first grocery safari I’ve done since The Decamping. It looked, paradoxically, like one of the countless masked and gloved expeditions I would do in Early Pandemic.… This time I was buying one, but McCoy’s Grocery was just as much like a minefield, in contact with other people. a source of terror again.
Brecht’s father-in-law, famed architect Austin Kepner, who specialized in homes built to survive the brutal, normal new climate, has a passionate affair with the mysterious Issa, previously Petra’s passionate lover. In the character of Issa, Glass briefly and bravely plunges her pen into the well of magical realism.
“You will be my voice,” Issa tells Austin. “You know important people. I am… I am not that.
“So what are you?” I said lightly, trying to calm her down. “A mermaid?”
“Don’t laugh at me,” she replied, pulling away.
In a heated email exchange with Julia (“call me Julie”) Glass, she explained the provenance of her new book. “What made me speculate about what our lives might look like a decade from now is a confluence of local weather, national politics, and extreme deprivation, loss, and fear brought on by disaster. of public health.”
Glass continued: “I live in a town along the Atlantic seaboard which is well above the sea, so we were spared the floods which submerged seaside communities in New England and hit New York in 2012 with Hurricane Sandy. Then in 2015, Massachusetts went through Snowmageddon, a natural cataclysm followed by a man-made disaster: the 2016 election. I decided that my novel should take place in a community like mine, vulnerable but protected, caring of his future but also blissful.
Glass tells me she started the novel ten years ago. “When I thought I’d end Vigil Harbor,” she says, “the pandemic hit. On a selfish level, I was upset that this global tragedy had made my novel obsolete and irrelevant. But then I understood that the pandemic would give a richer texture to a story of people trying to hold on to hope in what might seem like a hopeless time.
In the penultimate chapter of the novel, Brecht returns to lower New York, the scene of the terrorist attack he survived, to dine at the apartment of Steve, his father’s friend, “the type who took care of me the day my memory saved me”. just a few crumbs. While Steve is cooking and chatting, Brecht heads for a window.
“The central scene is a view of Union Square, a view in which the gap is clear between the surviving old dowager trees along the east side of the park and, to the west, the brand new junior trees which must have been planted for replace those who died from the explosion.
Steve notices Brecht’s silence and joins him at the window.
Brecht says, “I think I was just standing here and saw the smoke.”
“You did. Which was stupid of me. To show you.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I actually had this memory, like I took it with me, of standing at a window seeing the smoke. I didn’t know where the window was… It was like a room that had lost its sound. puzzle. I look at the table, the basket of bread. “I’m hungry and it smells really good here.”
By ending the novel this way, illuminating the gap between old and new; between human evil and human good, between alienating trauma and the inviting scent of a home-cooked meal in the making – Glass makes a characteristically deliberate and methodical auteur choice to carry out his mission.
“I want to entertain readers,” she told me, “but if I’ve done something right, they’ll also feel recognized and comforted, maybe even galvanized to act differently, more generously, in their own life.”
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