How High We Go In The Dark – Treading Water in a Cave

Catching up on the year’s previous releases is a double edged sword. It feels good to read something that so many people have already weighed in on, but said novel carries the baggage of having to live up to expectations. While I didn’t read any reviews of this next book until after I had finished it, the critical acclaim was unmissable. However, How High We Go In The Dark, by Sequoia Nagamatsu, does not meet the hype and quickly reveals its repetitive and incurious exploration of humanity as it wades through the misery generated by a horrendous plague.

How High We Go In The Dark is a collection of stories as an arctic plague ravishes the old and the young. It starts with the excavation of a 30,000 year old corpse and a father continuing the work of his recently dead daughter. From there on, it is an ambitious, though ambiguous, jaunt through the 21st century as new normals are adapted to again and again. A euthanizing theme park to lull its children patrons into sleep before stopping their hearts. A scientist who has paternal tendencies to the talking pig who’s organs must be harvested to prolong lives. A robotic dog that houses the voice of one’s dead wife or mother. The stories are myriad and often follow someone as they cope with the death of a loved one in a world that is capitalizing on that grief through a growing funerary industry. Will humanity ever truly accept death?

I am coming hot off finishing this book; I have a lot of feelings about it, and most of them are frustrating. The first two stories captured my attention in a big way. Nagamatsu cleverly dealt with feelings of isolation and removal from one’s loved ones in weird and absurd settings. The arctic research center was mundane, filled with repeat viewings of stale movies and curt conversations as the father tried to continue his dead daughter’s work. The task at hand was itself too big to comprehend as the virus starts to reveal itself amongst the scientists. The awful dread that it could no longer be contained was captured, if not eloquently, then at least truthfully.

The real heartwrenching story, though, was its successor, as it followed a struggling comedian employed by a theme park designed to euthanize dying children. Never have I cried so early in a book as I did reading the last sentences of the chapter City of Laughter. Nagamatsu really nailed the feeling of an observer slowly realizing their own complicity, and fully accepting it as they enmesh themselves more and more within the life of their wards. His romance with the mother of a child dying from the plague while also being treated for possible cures was sad, painful, and honest. Mixed with the emotions of dealing with disappointed professionalized parents really made the story into a brew that will remain on the tip of my tongue for a long time.

Unfortunately, after the opening stories, I never really felt the same for the rest of the book. Each tale had a point of severance, a lingering doubt that filled the story’s protagonist’s mind. A lost or fading loved one, a disappointed parent or lover, a co-worker that slowly distanced themselves from a rot at the core dominated every story. These failed relationships then collided with the character’s perceived escape route, a new person to project their failings onto. A chance at redemption, to learn anew what they have forgotten. Once I found this pattern, it was hard not to see it. Every character became someone I wanted to scream at, because they all seemed to know they were the problem. That they could spend the time to work on their own shit, but chose instead to work on “saving humanity.” Whether it was a doctor falling head over heels for their patient in search of a cure while their marriage fell apart, a father replacing their dead son with a talking pig, or a funeral home worker replacing his dying mother with a chatty co-worker, they all had the same rhythm. It didn’t help that I read the entire book in a day, but I doubt it would have helped me to space it out.

The repetitive nature of the stories was not aided by the fact that most of the characters felt similar, regardless of their gender or circumstances (most were men). They all approached their problems with a similar degree of avoidance and often wrote letters to those they felt they wronged after their death. Rarely was there any form of conciliation between the various parties, the last word usually left with the one who has to bear the grief they’d spent their entire lives avoiding.

One of the recurring motifs through the stories is the return of death to everyday life and the small ways people are forced to deal with it. In some cases, this felt incredibly strong and dealt with in tangible and human ways. But more often, I felt pulled out by some of the remembrances. Granted, I have not dealt with much close death in my life, but I was not pulled into these characters’ lives and emotions. I didn’t feel the empathy or compassion as they dodged and weaved through their grief. It certainly was not helped by the fact that the growing funerary industry was barely touched. Sure, the characters were involved, but there wasn’t a deep exploration into rituals, observations or what “death” was to them. It was just sort of “oh, what if there was bitcoin, but for funerals?” or “what if skyscrapers became mausoleums?” and it left a sour taste in my mouth. I just wasn’t sure what Nagamatsu was trying to reveal about death other than our complete and utter abhorrence of it and the many ways it tangles itself within our lives.

I know this is a long and winding road of a review, but I walked away from this book with so many unanswered questions, and not the good introspective kind. I felt let down by most of the stories, even though I appreciated the unique Asian-American perspectives that Nagamatsu provided within them. The opening salvo prepared me for a series of heartbreaks that proved to be shadows of what was promised. I didn’t even get into the pop-cultural references that stung harder than they usually do, or how the last chapter felt like it completely undercut anything that I could have walked away from this book with. It had an odd mixture of Silicon Valley techno-optimism mixed with a despairing loss of agency that didn’t feel thematic. I came into the book with zero expectations beyond its enormous fountain of compassion, and I stepped away from it merely confused about who it was compassionate towards. Looking back, I think I was set up for an exploration of the complexities of grief, and how it manifests on a personal and societal level, and its lack of delivery left me hollow and embittered.

Rating: How High We Go In the Dark – 5.5/10

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An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.

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