- Of Time and Memory: The Fiction of Laura Van den Berg and Jenny Erpenbeck
By Laura Van den Berg.
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2015.
By Jenny Erpenbeck.
New Directions, 2014. 239p.
Fascinating: two gifted women story-tellers, feeding on cataclysm. The American Laura Van den Berg, in Find Me, looks to the future, more or less; she imagines a plague that decimates an otherwise familiar United States. The German Jenny Erpenbeck (East German; it matters) broods on the past. The End of Days clears five alternative routes through the last tormented century of her homeland. In both cases, the results are winning. Indeed Erpen-beck’s novel, brief yet multivolume, bids fair to be ranked a masterpiece. Aside from the works’ intrinsic value, however, there’s this: Though they come out of widely divergent cultures—indeed, transoceanic—both stand as vivid exceptions to the namby-pamby stuff often labeled “women’s fiction.”
Such notions, and the damage they do, were the subject of a widely discussed 2012 essay for the New York Times by the novelist Meg Wolitzer. She complained about readers, men in particular, who “see most fiction by women as one soft, undifferentiated mass that has little to do with them.” Worse, “the top tier of literary fiction...tends to feel peculiarly, disproportionately male.” Novels by men, Wolitzer argued, were promoted as big events addressing big subjects—cataclysms—while most of the time you could spot a woman’s novel by its warm and fuzzy cover: a “little girl in a field of wild-flowers,” say.
If a man should spot a flowery field in one of these two new novels, though, he’d be well advised to cut and run. If Van den Berg’s “sickness” doesn’t get him, he could fall prey to any number of catastrophes looming in Erpen-beck. Indeed, The End of Days, in one of its five “books,” details its own sickness, the “Spanish flu” that ravaged the world following the First World War. Then, too, neither author averts her [End Page 193] gaze from how devastation on a large scale does damage on the small: the squabbles across the table, the deepening chill in the bedroom. So, too, their few magical devices, such as when a woman in Find Me disappears downcellar and reappears on the second floor, unsettle rather than soothe; such moments never feel twee. All in all, these two texts crash through preconceived limitations of gender. They give us women’s fiction that runs with the wolves.
Van den Berg’s novel is her first, after two books of stories. The debut, from 2009, has a title that suggests the novel’s apocalyptic subject: What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. Both these stories and those in Isle of Youth (2013) took place in a recognizable reality, contemporary and largely American, and featured dramas of hard knocks that most of us have suffered in one form or another. Isle of Youth, though, exercised a greater stretch; one story went to Antarctica, for instance, and wound up getting placed in two of the year’s prize anthologies. One of those was Best American Mysteries, and though Van den Berg has no shortage of other awards, that selection reveals something about her as a writer. From the first, she’s shown a flair for secrets and surprises; one story may introduce a group seeking the Loch Ness monster, another a larcenous young magician’s assistant. Fiction’s interiority, its essential raw material, here gets mined for nuggets of personality that wedge beneath surfaces people would prefer to keep smooth. Characters wriggle and shift, seeking better, even as what makes them uncomfortable comes from within.
Find Me impresses immediately for how it sustains these qualities. The novel’s sickness may destroy the memories of hundreds of thousands of Americans, and after that kill them (indeed, it’s compared to “the 1918 influenza”), but this doesn’t keep the author from thoroughly excavating her protagonists, especially their more fetid stretches, or from developing suspense. Van den Berg’s...