Not Dark Yet by Berit Ellingsen (Two Dollar Radio, Nov. 2015) Reviewed by Bruno George

Not Dark Yet
by Berit Ellingsen
(Two Dollar Radio, Nov. 2015)

Reviewed by Bruno George

“Are you going to shoot them all?” a fellow soldier asks Brandon Minamoto, protagonist of Berit Ellingsen’s new novel Not Dark Yet. These words come in a flashback sequence, where Brandon is a sniper deployed on a “southern continent” in what might be a humanitarian intervention or police action. The spotter, Kepler, is asking Brandon whether he will shoot the child-guerillas they can see laying an IED in the road. Brandon’s tour of duty takes up only a few scant pages of Ellingsen’s novel, but his answer to the spotter is telling. Will he shoot all the children? Ellingsen writes: “‘No,’ he said, exhaled, and entered the space between one breath and the next.” The space Brandon enters is that of taking aim; and so his elliptic answer becomes all the more grave: “no” means “not all” means yes, he will shoot one or some.

Perhaps it is misleading to begin a review here. In the rest of the novel, Brandon is neither an ice-cold killer nor a resolute man of action. But this passage illustrates the difficulty of demonstrating the beauty contained in Not Dark Yet, a beauty of construction. It isn’t until later in the novel that Brandon’s stillness (“the space between one breath and the next”) is revealed as more than just a temporary military habit, taken on in basic training and shucked with demobilization. Brandon’s abiding passivity, in fact, makes the novel less a plotted progress than a rising series of arresting tableaux. The narration, too, often works by ellipsis and even a kind of focal misdirection. In the combat scene, whatever shots Brandon takes go unnarrated; also unnarrated are the cries of the wounded child-soldiers and the night in which they suffer and probably die. But war is the least of the horsemen in Not Dark Yet’s soft, subtle apocalypse; what wreaks havoc in this novel is climate change.

One might describe the novel as set in the “near future,” but it would be better to say its world is just a half-degree warmer, or its sea levels only a fraction of an inch higher. What obtains from this change? In the unnamed northern country of Not Dark Yet, experimental agronomists till the soil in winter, a land once snowed under now laid bare by a warming climate. But the novel’s world is otherwise indistinguishable from our own. Of the emergent disasters cataloged by the novel—“droughts, forest fires, crop failures . . . flooding, storms, loss of drinking water and arable land”—every one of them has already begun in our own world. Before Not Dark Yet even begins, futurity has undergone a swift and silent collapse: every environmental calamity we were once warned of, every baleful but distant eventuality, is already underway. Somehow, without anyone’s having noticed, “the troubling, uncertain future ha[s] become the volatile, menacing present.”

But Ellingsen has not written an On the Beach or On the Road; she presents no hellscape and no descent into atavism. Brandon and his friends and family live in a world of functioning cell phones and laptops and automobiles; they eat steak dinners with green salad and they prudently stint on the carbs; they inhabit a world of modern university campuses and convenient trams and nicely appointed condominiums. Cosseted or at least comfortable, they nonetheless subject themselves to the television news: “floods to the north, crop failures on the eastern continent, hurricanes on the western continent, drought on the entire southern continent, demonstrations, riots, war.” But as with recent wars and storms in our own world, these harbingers of catastrophe function almost as public secrets: known but unnoticed, publicly announced but not yet fully apprehended.

Had Ellingsen further heightened the catastrophe, she could have drawn on the eerie talents she has exhibited in previous writings. In a short story called “Vessel and Solsvart,” a man who is scarcely more than an animate corpse staggers through a post-apocalyptic world of burnt-out cities and boiling oceans; her prose is restrained but her vision excoriating. The stories in the collection Beneath the Liquid Skin, too, are far from realism. That Ellingsen has not further upped the ante much beyond our present-day reality in Not Dark Yet means that readers are deprived of a certain hypocritical pleasure, that of self-satisfiedly tutting over the ruin its characters have made of their fictional Earth. The German critic Walter Benjamin once wrote of the modern novel genre—disparagingly—that “what draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.” How much more warmly might fiction’s fire blaze when we read about deaths on a planetary scale. But that isn’t the novel Ellingsen has written; it’s not a spectacle of the world’s end, served up for our complacent delectation. Midway through the novel, Brandon has a dream about just this kind of hypocritical enjoyment: In an ocean-liners’ graveyard, ships arrive under their own power, still carrying passengers, and then slowly begin to sink in the gelid water. The dream’s sublime moment is a blinding white light; flashbulbs go off on one of the ships, where passengers crowd the rails, “eager to watch the sinking of the others while taking [o]n water themselves.”

Not Dark Yet is ultimately a Robinsonade, its Crusoe, Brandon, willingly isolated in a cabin in the woods. Even the novel’s first line harkens back to Crusoe the world-traveler: “Sometimes, in Brandon Minamoto’s dreams, he found a globe or a map of the world with a continent he hadn’t seen before.” But unlike Crusoe, Brandon doesn’t save himself and his isolate world through deep-sea salvaging and strict accounting. Standing before his cabin for the very first time, Brandon has a yielding, melting, anonymous experience that sharply separates him from Defoe’s energetic and autonomous Crusoe: “He closed his eyes and there was no body, and no world either, only the simple, singular nothingness he recognized as himself.”

If Crusoe endeavors and perseveres on his island, the lesser characters of Not Dark Yet also make efforts to take command of their warming planet’s fate, but Brandon is witness to their serial failures: the farmers’ experimental winter crops are destroyed in a flood; the space exploration program is cancelled; the militant environmentalists undertake a propaganda of the deed, but on the eve of their attack Brandon withdraws from their group, less for ideological reasons than by dint of his passive temperament. The novel is structured a bit like Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, with its experiments in different ways of being, except that Brandon tries on ways of not being: in the army, he practices a soldier’s self-extinguishment in duty; in a visit to a monastery, he identifies with the story of a Buddhist monk’s auto-mortification;* in epileptic seizures, he feels a magnetic union with the earth’s telluric pull ; and, in a late sequence, he yields himself up to the ocean: “The motion surged him forward, and there was no resisting or refusing being engulfed.”

In the French novelist Michel Tournier’s Robinsonade—entitled Friday—Crusoe is a philosophical man. Cast up on shore all alone, he considers, as Heidegger might, that to exist is to be thrown into the outside: “sistere ex,” says Tournier’s Crusoe, “That which is outside exists. That which is within does not.” His island, named Speranza, is a natural world fundamentally separate from and outside of himself. He finds Speranza’s externality maddeningly seductive, and he negates it: “Lying with his arms outstretched, his loins in turmoil, he embraced that great body scorched all day by the sun . . . His sex burrowed like a plowshare into the earth.”Tournier’s Crusoe is the obverse of Ellingsen’s: a conqueror. For Brandon, the natural world is not alien, but continuous with the self, albeit in spooky and unsettling and dangerous ways.

The interior that Tournier’s Crusoe finds so nonexistent is exactly where Brandon keeps situating himself: he and the militants are “inside the night”; with his lover Kaye he is “inside their now mutual, monumental secret”; alone in his cabin, “he welcomed the stillness and sat inside it”. Likewise, in a strikingly parallel scene to Crusoe’s penetration of the island, Brandon lies down on the earth; the motifs here are not tropic sun and conquering sex, but merger and deliquescence and mortification: “He lay down . . . and breathed in the fragrance of decomposition and soil, letting the earth’s moisture seep into his clothes, while earthworms, slugs, and beetles crawled over his face and hands.” This death-like stillness is Brandon’s answer to the militants; immediately upon parting from them, he merges with dirt and worms and slugs, and it is hard not to read the scene allegorically: against militant deeds, Brandon, and maybe the novel, prefer to yield to what is, even if that is death.

Having a “singular nothingness” as a protagonist, the novel is not without its longueurs. Brandon loves and betrays a boyfriend, he joins and leaves a militant group, he chases his ambition to be an astronaut and then sees that ambition come to naught, all with a certain weightless languor. Whenever he parts from someone—a candidate in the astronaut tryouts, a fellow militant, or his partner or his lover—he displays not the least anxiety about when he will see them again, and so in parting he makes no reassuring gestures of sentiment or sociability. In turn, reading about Brandon’s interactions is sometimes a struggle with that weightlessness; something keeps slipping away. At the level of propositions, the novel is rich with complex social life; a scientist character provides up-to-date theories of altruism, affect, and evolution: “empathy, the ability to care for another being, preceded humans, was older than humanity itself. It was a trait shared by many mammals.” But at his most sociable, isolate Brandon consorts mainly with ghosts, with the diminishing traces of the other people: “the residue of the other candidates’ presences and voices, the sights and smells of the past week, played themselves out in his mind and slowly faded.”

Like Robinson Crusoe, Ellingsen’s Not Dark Yet plunges its hero into the ocean. Typically passive, Brandon reflects that a death by drowning is not a frenzy of action—frantic waving—but extinction, suffocation. The shore Ellingsen then casts him up on is our own; the coming storm is here, and it won’t be outflanked or outthought. Nonetheless, the novel’s diminuendo in the final chapter offers some hope, in the upsurge of a clear spring and in the fall of dusk: “Outside, the fields lay black and empty, with no one to till them. The gray light of day dimmed to a blue dusk and settled into distant, pale stars.” Not dark yet.

 

Bruno George works for Asymptote. Under another name, his writing has appeared in Conjunctions, Birkensnake, and elsewhere.

 

* In the chapter on mummification, Ellingsen seems to deliberately introduce a slippage between twenty-first century Brandon and a long-dead Buddhist monk referred to only as “he.” The reader does not see until later that this abstemious being with the “glow inside himself” is not Brandon.