Laura Van Den Berg, Find Me
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
2015, 280 pages, hardback, $26
If I had to distill my recommendation for Laura Van Den Berg’s novel, Find Me, into four syllables, they would be this: I <3 Joy Jones. Seriously.
The novel is told completely from first-person narrator Joy Jones’ perspective, in present tense form, creating an immediate sense of intimacy between protagonist and reader. The book begins with nineteen-year-old Joy’s stay in a foreboding hospital without clocks, hidden away in rural Kansas. She was selected for the Hospital because she is one of the few people to have been exposed to a contagious disease that has killed more than 400,000 Americans and to have not shown signs of infection. One of the first symptoms of the disease is losing one’s own memory. Joy calls the outbreak “an epidemic of forgetting” where, for the sick, “the once solid world dissolves like a brick of sugar left out in the rain.”
At the Hospital, Joy has an overwhelming amount of spare time to do nothing but think. The medical staff forbids patients from leaving until after their ten-month commitments are up. The reader watches on as Joy tries to make sense of her enigmatic surroundings as well as her solitary life prior to the hospital. We learn that Joy was abandoned as an infant and has been raised in foster care and in and out of group homes. She’s been working the graveyard shift at a convenience store and nursing a cough syrup habit for the past two years.
Joy is a girl so real that I forget she’s a work of Van Den Berg’s imagination. Joy is interested in boys and craves connection, yet she is also full of secrets. There are chunks of her own past she’s blocked out of consciousness. She tries to inject order into her life by making lists and taking personal inventories. She wonders what it means to be lost and what it means to be found, as well as what it means to matter. Can one be lost if no one is looking for you? “Is there any greater mystery than the separateness of each person?” These are questions she asks herself. Yet, despite her melancholy state, she retains an undeniable drive to survive.
Early in the novel, we learn that Joy’s aunt reached out to Joy as she was dying from the disease, leaving Joy with a photograph of her birth mother. Joy obsessively wonders about her mother and eventually sets out on a quest to find her. Though some of the coincidences on Joy’s journey seem farfetched, I’m willing to forgive them because of my deep interest in observing how Joy will navigate the collisions between her past and present.
It would be easy for me to skip over discussing the language in this novel, if only because its success is implied by how well I feel I’ve come to know Joy. And yet, it would be a disservice. Most sentences are elegant, yet plain on their own, though when put together, the paragraphs take on rhythmic and melodic tones with a focus on the dreamy and macabre. Take the following passage as an example:
“The bus skids on the ice. I see another deer, but this one is dead, spread out on the roadside, its middle split open. The guts are a dark purple mush, the borders of the flesh bright red with blood. It looks like something in the wet middle of the deer is still moving, and I watch a snake slither out from the intestines and down the side of the road.”
“…I run through stands of trees that have been turned into white skeletons by winter, the branches grabbing at my sweatshirt sleeves…I slide down on my back and the rocks sticking out of the snow like horns scrape skin off my spine.”
She describes hairdryers as “gun-shaped” and windows as “coffin-shaped” and compares walking on frozen leaves as crunching “tiny bones.”
Her sinister eye reminds me of characters in Shirley Jackson’s works, particularly Jackson’s gothic novel, We Have Always Lived in The Castle, which is narrated by a young woman who lives in a world a few degrees off from our own. She lives with secrets and a town dead set against her. The power of a group is true in Jackson’s dark short story “The Lottery” as well. We see similar tones in Find Me, such as in the first paragraph of Book One:
On our third month in the Hospital, the pilgrims begin to appear. They gather outside the doors, faces tipped to the sky, while our Floor Group watches at the end of the fifth-floor hallway. The windows have bars on the outside and we have to tilt our heads to get a good view. Sometimes the pilgrims wave and we wave back. Or they hold hands and sing and we hear their voices through the glass. Some stand outside for hours, others for days. We don’t understand what they could want from us.”
Despite the bleak state of the world, Joy still preserves hope. She, herself, perhaps wouldn’t word it this way, but her will to survive and to embark on a brave hunt—ultimately within herself—are proof. How appropriate that, when dedicating the book, Van Den Berg writes “To P., for never being afraid of the search.” P. and Joy have that in common.
My writing professor Jennifer duBois once said, literary fiction is character fiction. This mantra has stuck with me. What makes or breaks a novel, for me, is how deeply I care about/am interested in/am intrigued by the characters. Weeks after first reading Find Me, I still find myself reflecting on Joy and the various narratives she constructed, whether consciously or not, for the sake of her own psychological survival.
If you haven’t fallen in can’t-sleep-can’t-eat love with Joy Jones yet, allow me to leave you with one of her beautiful realizations:
Now it’s like this: you look at yourself in the mirror and watch your reflection take off a mask. You look hard at all the wrongness in the new face, you look hard at the ways that wrongness has shaped it, and you have to decide if this new face is something you can live with.
If you decide no, you dissolve into yourself. If you decide yes, a small thing inside you is set free.”