There seem to be two dominant schools of thought as to how the Covid pandemic is going to affect literature, from an artistic rather than an economic point of view. Will readers want to avoid anything disease and pandemic-related, opting instead for escapism from the defining event of this generation or will writers be obligated to engage with it in one form or another? How High We Go In The Dark falls emphatically into the latter category, despite ranging pretty high in terms of speculative flights of fancy.
But it’s perhaps unfair to label it a ‘Covid novel’ as the Sequoia Nagamatsu goes to great pains to emphasise that this is a work that was 10 years in the making. And indeed, it’s no quick cash-in by any means. While not a big book, it’s dense with ideas and is often engrossing in the depth of emotion it offers the reader. There’s definitely more than a few heart-tugging moments, although equally there are points where it occasionally overreaches into mawkish sentimentality. Equally, while a great many of the social and technological concepts it posits as being consequences of a global, lethal pandemic are fascinating and well thought out, some fail to hit home quite as well.
This is probably as much to do with the novel’s structure as much as anything else. It’s been compared to Cloud Atlas and it’s certainly reminiscent of David Mitchell’s early works, although a case could possibly be made for it being a close-ish relative of some of Ray Bradbury’s themed short story collections. It’s made up of a number interlocking short stories set in this world of global pandemic and with many characters recurring, often in slightly surprising ways. This is a strength as much as a weakness, of course, and some of the stories are highly affecting. And the variety helps provide some relief when the novel goes into really very dark, even despairing, territory, offering the reader flashes of hope among the darkness.
There’s a literal seed of undying optimism and hope at the heart of the book
For this is a novel that’s very much about death, far more than it’s purely about disease or pandemic. It explores — and in some depth — not just our individual reactions to death, but also just how much our human society is built around our preoccupation with our own mortality. Thus we’re given theme parks for terminally ill children to spend their final hours, elegy hotels where loved ones can ‘holiday’ with the dead and dying and VR worlds where people can seek out ‘suicide partners’ for when it all gets too much.
And if all that sounds a bit grim, as I said, there are flashes of hope among all the mortality. Family, birth, new life are all also major themes. There’s a literal seed of undying optimism and hope at the heart of the book too.
But the structure does ultimately work against the novel slightly. While it might superficially resemble the reconstructionist narratives of David Mitchell, How High We Go In The Dark doesn’t quite have the same tight tying up of the narrative that Mitchell imposed on his work. Not that it doesn’t have a resolution of sorts but it’s one of such a metaphysical and literally cosmic kind that it doesn’t somehow do justice to the earthy humanity of a great many of the stories that preceded it and while interesting it left this reader at least feeling slightly unsatisfied.
Nevertheless, Nagamatsu has crafted an ingenious and often highly emotionally affecting work and one that will leave you chewing over many of its fascinating and far-reaching ideas for weeks and months to come. They have also peopled this complex, and often very dark, reality with an impressively large cast of believably and humanly flawed characters. It’s a memorable and deeply compassionate work and as we attempt to reform our lives from our own pandemic experience, it’s one that’s very timely indeed.