By Paulette Jiles
Morrow. 400 pp. $26.99
After three works of historical fiction, Paulette Jiles leaps forward in her intriguing new novel to a dystopian, “infinitely repeating present.” Dates, place names and maps have been eliminated. Earth is one vast city, perpetually hot and dusty. Rain stopped a century ago, water is strictly rationed and the remaining infrastructure can’t pump it higher than four floors, so upper stories are abandoned and eventually destroyed.
Jiles paints a rich, creepily persuasive portrait of a diminished society clinging to the vestiges of a higher civilization, right down to the dwindling supply of computers that only a few members of the techie elite know how to use. Her intrepid heroine, Nadia Stepan, is not of this elite. Abandoned by her parents at age 4, she’s raised in an orphanage on an allocation of one quart of water per day. Higher-ups get as much as five quarts; displease your boss and you’ll be cut to a pint; get into real trouble and you’re sent to “the dryers.” If you’re attractive enough, you might be chosen for the live broadcasts of public executions, designed to keep the populace passive.
In this system, where “solitude [is] the same as hostility,” Nadia’s fondness for being alone makes her a suspect misfit. Yet the Child Welfare staffers who hover over her don’t care about her peculiar preference for books over the omnipresent TV: “So few people read that it was of no concern.” They’re mistaken; Jiles depicts literature as a vehicle of understanding and rebellion. Reading gives Nadia a vision of the past that has been erased from the official record, a lost time when people could choose their jobs and live where they wanted — though it also delivers the cautionary tale of a “spendthrift and wasteful” way of life that “devoured the world and left nothing but a dry husk.”
All those stories that Nadia absorbs give her a useful tool when she inevitably falls afoul of the authorities and winds up on the run. She’s an amazingly resourceful liar; one of the novel’s great pleasures is watching Nadia confound detection time after time by inventing identities on the fly, wriggling out of tight spots and swashbuckling into forbidden locations. At one point, she bluffs her way into a high-rise building for the elite and emerges on the 50th floor to confront unimaginable abundance: “People swimming in a pool full of water.” “Lighthouse Island” is not an overtly political book, but the shock we share with Nadia at this moment indicts a society where the 1 percent takes for granted water that the majority is literally dying for.
James Orotov, a techie who uses a wheelchair and lives in the building Nadia invades, falls speedily in love with this poetry-quoting dreamer. He helps her search for Lighthouse Island, the rural utopia where she thinks she’ll find her parents.
Nadia’s picaresque odyssey reveals that the common folk are not necessarily the cowed zombies that the agencies have worked so hard to create. A forensics officer who catches Nadia in one of her less successful lies lets her go, telling her, “Twenty-five years ago it wasn’t like this. . . . Nobody even thought of executing people live on television.” The collective mood is changing, and so is the climate. It actually begins to rain.
The final chapters are a bit muddled. It’s awfully late for the elaborate maneuvers and half-dozen new characters Jiles requires to establish her optimistic vision of a better world in formation. Yet it’s an inspiring vision, warmed by the author’s faith that human nature will not forever be satisfied by canned ideas and coercive entertainment.
Would a bunch of hardened prisoners really sit spellbound as Nadia recites a poem by Anna Akhmatova? Perhaps not, but anyone who loves literature will be moved by Jiles’s insistence that it can reach anyone and change the world.
Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940,” which will be reissued in May.
By Paulette Jiles
Morrow. 400 pp. $26.99