by Joshua Loveday
Louise Erdrich’s latest novel lay forgotten for years in the memory of an old Macintosh. Recovered and finished, polished and published, the novel is a departure from her previous works. Usually a literary wordsmith who combines contemporary and historical fiction, FUTURE HOME OF THE LIVING GOD is more speculative fiction about an unnerving future of evolutionary decline. Possibly triggered by humanity’s destruction of its own environment, the planet warms—snow ceases to fall—and plants and animals begin regressing with successive births, e.g. winged reptiles, saber-toothed cats, dragonflies with enormous wingspans.
Written in the form of a diary to her unborn child, the narrator, Cedar Hawk Songmaker, navigates a world where human babies are no longer born healthy. An authoritarian patriarchy with religious justifications for its oppressive actions attempts to control female fertility and “save” humanity by rounding up fertile and pregnant women. Cedar goes into hiding with the father of her child, who ultimately betrays her. She ends up a prisoner in a hospital, escapes with the help of her mother, but is recaptured.
Interlaced with fearful musings about what her child will look like once it is born, Cedar speculates on the cause of the degeneration. “Perhaps the spark of divinity, which we experience as consciousness, is being reabsorbed into the boundless creativity of seething opportunistic life.” She relies on both her birth mother and adopted mother for help, contrasting the differences in her relationships with the two. Themes of existential angst also pervade the novel, including a reference to Dostoyevsky. Cedar muses: “I don’t know why it is given to us to be so mortal and to feel so much. It is a cruel trick, and glorious.” Even her step-father Eddy keeps a journal where “every page contains a reason not to kill yourself.”
Ultimately, Cedar’s future is bleak and uncertain, with the ending leaving us wondering about her fate—typical of postmodern literature. Yet she optimistically writes: “I was an ocean shooting sparks of light . . . I took a breath, and I was surprised. The ocean also took a breath . . . I realized that thousands of candles cast this glow and the gorgeous music that I heard was the thousands of spirits and human beings singing, the soul is not in the body, the body is in the soul.”
This is not Erdrich’s best work, though some of the prose typically left me marveling at her mastery of language. The spasmodic events in the novel leave me unsated. If you are reading Erdrich for the first time, begin with LOVE MEDICINE or TRACKS or THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB. Don’t judge Erdrich’s work on this one alone. She is truly one of the best American writers of the last fifty years.