Paulette Jiles’ dystopic new novel, “Lighthouse Island,” projects a future that may hit a little close to home for farmers and those dependent on their work: a Midwest racked by ceaseless drought.
Jiles grew up in Salem, Mo., and that background seems to have influenced the landscape both here and in her first novel, “Enemy Women,” a Civil War-era chronicle of an Ozarks family. But “Lighthouse Island” tills new literary ground for the author, who lives in San Antonio and whose three previous novels delivered meticulously researched elegies to the places of the past.
Her latest stretches that timeline far into a future deliberately unmoored from time and place. Characters allude to the “Urban Wars,” a mysterious conflict that forced cartographers to destroy old maps and historians to stop numbering the years as they passed. Much of the novel takes place in “Gerrymander Eight,” a massive urban district stretching from the former Kansas City to Detroit.
Fans of dystopian literature will recognize some of its classical tropes here: televised executions; a resourceful, silver-tongued heroine on the run; an elite ruling class that swims in pristine pools while the poor subsist on a pint of cloudy water a day. There’s the promise of a distant sanctuary untouched by war and drought as well: Lighthouse Island, a coastal Pacific colony lionized in anesthetic television commercials as a place of peace and plenty.
Lighthouse Island becomes protagonist Nadia Stepan’s Moscow, the faint hope at the backbone of her quest. Like Margaret Atwood’s Offred (in “The Handmaid’s Tale”), Nadia is a shrewd observer and chronicler of the broken world around her. Like Suzanne Collins’ Katniss (“The Hunger Games”), she proves unflaggingly brave and skillful under fire.
Nadia’s weapons, however, are those of charm and deceit. She eludes capture through quick wit and confidence, seamlessly transitioning between invented aliases and identities as she inches closer to her destination.
Perhaps because of those fluctuations, the novel suffers from an occasionally unsteady psychic distance. We feel securely entrenched in Nadia’s perspective in one moment only to shrink to an arm’s-length omniscience in the next, grasping a single thought from a new character’s point of view before darting back to Nadia again.
The effect is disorienting, but that’s only a minor concern for a novel driven more by landscape and language than character. Jiles’ lyrical prose hangs as a weighted contrast to the scarcity of the drought, and her lush, drunken images seem particularly attuned to visual detail.
Inside the Ritz Carlton, the “pool water glistened like a lipid, the reflections from the television shone and ran and drowned.” Outside, printer toner drips from electronic waste heaps into elaborate marble swirls, and mountain peaks loom like “white lamps in the moving, queasy clouds.”
Jiles knows when to exercise restraint, and she punctuates looser, more lyrical passages with stark images and arresting prose. When Nadia ventures outside of urban territory, the language takes on a harsh, haunting beauty: “The mountains rose straight up all around them in a still and silent wrath, hackled with dead fern.”
One of dystopian literature’s basic functions is to reflect current trends in a fun house mirror, distorting recognizable shapes into grotesqueries. In Jiles’ novel, tyrants wield power in the form of weaponized bureaucracies, suffused with the kind of absurd corporatespeak that wouldn’t feel out of place in a George Saunders story: Auxiliary Advisement Panels, Awareness Awareness Months, Urban Geospatial Utilization Institutes.
Serious lawbreakers are sent to the “dryers,” traveling execution chambers that dehydrate already-parched occupants into so much human jerky. The drying vans might be chilling if they didn’t arrive disguised as party buses, escorted by actors with brittle smiles promising free pedicures or wine tastings for those who hop on board.
Even superficial elements of plot and character are stretched to near parody. Early in the novel, she refers to an imbecilic politician, “Stormond Thrum.” Jiles sketches our future with the comically skewed proportions of the hyperreal, reflecting a warped society as ridiculous as it is dangerous.
Against that slick backdrop of consumption and vicious ladder-climbing, however, she frames quiet moments of human dignity and compassion. Quarantined female prisoners listen in raptured silence as Nadia recites poetry from memory.
A group of coastal misfits gathers to share stories and sketch their vision of a new communal society. Nadia forges a tender romance with upper-crust official James Orotov, a wheelchair-bound demolitions expert who sacrifices his career and reputation to protect her.
To Jiles, storytelling seems to lie at the core of human connection. Characters find hope in fables, comfort in the tales of daring heroes and noble quests broadcast by an underground radio station. Nadia and James recite poetry together on a cold roof and their passion ignites in the dark.
Though post-modern authors have attempted to dismantle romantic notions of narrative, “Lighthouse Island” makes a bewitching case for their preservation. In a parched, austere world, stories are all we have to sate us.
William Morrow, $26.99