This month’s books newsletter has one foot out the door. It exists somewhere in the uneasy space between deciding to get as far away from home as you possibly can, or barricading yourself inside. “Refuge is always a temporary construction,” Ryan Chapman writes in a review of two recent novels centered around surreal home invasion scenarios, in which outsiders come crashing into tranquil domestic spheres bearing strange tidings from the outside world. As an urbanite-turned-smalltown-homeowner, Chapman is on edge about his new isolation, aware of how easy it would be for an outsider to break the perimeter, and the two novels, Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World and Willem Frederik Hermans’ An Untouched House, are so unsettling that they have him “convinced barbarians would arrive at any moment and burn it to the ground.” But in the end “the house is just a house,” and Chapman identifies his newfound “ease with naked uncertainty” as more of a wisdom gained with age than a symptom of home ownership.
“Domestic spaces are often perceived as spaces of familiarity and intimacy,” Chia-Chia Lin says in an interview with Alex Madison about her debut novel The Unpassing, “but in my experience, the domestic space also contains unknown depths. The home is a place as wild as any in the world.” Lin talks about how home and wilderness tend to bleed into each other — the boundary between the two is not so clear cut. Moreover, it’s not easy for Lin’s immigrant characters to feel grounded by the easy dichotomy of home vs. everywhere else, or to take for granted their home’s permanence:
Throughout the entire novel, the mother keeps saying she wants to go back to Taiwan. I don’t think of her as a very self-aware character, and at some point I realized that she wouldn’t actually go back. She would leave Anchorage, but maybe not know where else to go. So she ends up in Seattle, a place that is ironically not so far from the place she wanted to leave. The mother has retreated, but she hasn’t returned home. It’s possible she realizes she doesn’t really have a home.
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The distinction between here and there, between outside and inside, collapses utterly in the worldview of the conspiracy theorists whom Anna Merlan writes about in Republic of Lies. In an interview with Rebecca McCarthy, Merlan says,
One thing that happened a lot within conspiracy communities that I was talking to was this belief that people were out there by themselves trying to investigate this great wrongdoing or that only a small group of people really cared. I saw a lot of conspiracy communities that got kind of torn apart by internal controversies and rivalries and accusations of being a plant and a shill and a government agent.
They feel isolated, but also infiltrated; alone yet attacked by something undetectable from far away. Altogether, a fairly accurate take on the modern condition. In a review of two recent books and an HBO show about the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, Linda Kinstler writes, “How does one recognize catastrophe, when it comes? … If it is an invisible catastrophe, how can you know when you are near it, and when you are far away?” Historian Kate Brown, author of Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future, says we can only prepare for future calamity by cutting through the propaganda that is still hiding the calamities of the past. As Kinstler puts it, “we must understand that we are already living with our mistakes” if we are to avoid making new ones.
I started off talking about how this month’s books newsletter has one foot out the door, and I’ve ended up talking about Chernobyl? You can arrive just about anywhere, after you take that first step. For example, Lara Prior-Palmer’s casual google search for outdoor adventure led to her becoming the first female and youngest ever winner of the world’s longest, most dangerous horse race. Prior-Palmer tries to understand how it happened, what drove her to search out something so far away from home:
Why do humans put so much thought into some decisions yet plunge into others like penguins into freezing ocean? Are we met with a sudden urge to avoid the direct path to middle age and subsequent visions of growing old in a lonely world of cats? I certainly have a fear of falling into the routines of my elders — their eggshell worlds of dangers and do-nots. But maybe I had a simpler desire to settle something unsaid, away from home. Or a longing to be wild and snort about like a horse.
No single reason seems satisfactory. I want to hand myself over to something, but I can’t tell what creates that need to leap nor what decides its timing.