REVIEW: Find Me by Laura van den Berg

Joy Jones makes lists. Lists of rules, of patients, of facts about Kansas. She is a woman who sometimes has trouble navigating the minefields of her own past, and yet, she is our guide through a cataclysmic “epidemic of forgetting.” In Laura van den Berg’s gorgeously contemplative debut novel, Find Me, America is in the thick of a near-apocalypse brought about by widespread memory loss and eventual death. “To be looked for is to matter,” Joy tells us. Her list-making forges pathways through the prose like a trail of breadcrumbs, a preparation or a warning, as though someday soon, we all may need to double back and find ourselves.

Joy is immune to the disease and is shipped off to a hospital in Kansas with her kindred would-be survivors. They submit to tests and exams in the hopes of finding a cure. They check the website, scanning the names of the dead for loved ones that may have survived. The hospital is a change from Joy’s job in Somerville at the Stop & Shop, where she numbs herself with cough syrup and hides away from the world in a basement apartment, the first of many subterranean images in a book populated by basements, homemade tunnels, and deep-sea diving.

This is a disease that encourages digging, and Joy is digging for her own origin story, sifting through memories of group homes and foster families, carefully tiptoeing around traumatic gaps in her personal history. There is an entire year of her life blocked from view, a miniature epidemic of forgetting. When life at the hospital breaks down, Joy escapes on a quest to the Florida Keys, searching for the mother who abandoned her at birth. The second half of the novel unfolds on her path through the American South, a literal memory lane.

Joy’s journey from Kansas to Florida is not unlike Dorothy’s adventure to Oz, her internal mazes often projected onto a surreal, unfriendly, and dangerous landscape. But in van den Berg’s universe, no one is in Kansas anymore, so to speak. In this and other ways, Find Me is a distinctly American book, spotted with pilgrims and protesters dressed in black, concerned with questions of national identity. The plague is confined within the states, and Joy’s journey has glimmers of a cautionary travelogue. When her bus passes through Centralia, a condemned mining town, the landscape is as frightening as any post-apocalyptic vision, toxic and ruined. “This is not damage done by the sickness,” van den Berg writes. “This we did all on our own.” It’s impossible to read this book and not consider other epidemics of forgetting, the kind that happen every day. A sort of institutionalized memory loss, or a convenient omission. Joy wonders, “does anyone care about history anymore?” But the shadow of her question is, did we ever?

The survivors in this book are historians by default, but Find Me asks how we can all be better historians for each other, caretakers of each others’ stories.

Van den Berg’s prose is honest and searching, an inquisitive tonic for a destroyed world. Questions plant themselves between paragraphs, unanswered, and curiosity steams through her book like a freight train of hope. Self-discovery has seldom felt like such an optimistic and essential pursuit as it does in the hands of Joy, for hers is washed in a painful desire to connect. “Is there any greater mystery than the separateness of each person?” van den Berg writes. In Find Me, to be looked for is to matter, but to be seen is to exist. Her story sticks somewhere inside, impossible to forget.

Find Me

by Laura Van Den Berg

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