Book World: Review of 'Far North' by Marcel Theroux

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By Lydia Millet
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 6, 2009


By Marcel Theroux

Farrar Straus Giroux. 314 pp. $25

"Far North" may well be the first great cautionary fable of climate change. Marcel Theroux's homespun tale about a solitary frontier survivor conjures up a monolithic world that's ominous and deeply memorable. He depicts a bleak Earth transformed, perhaps a century or two from now, by global warming and a society reduced to a mostly empty, radioactive husk; the remnant peoples are violent, ignorant and few and far between. Against the gray backdrop of abandoned towns, poisoned cities and occasional wildlife, a tough, hardy frontierswoman named Makepeace struggles to eke out a living on the strange and swiftly changing land.

Makepeace, who carries guns and isn't afraid to use them, is strong, disfigured and, fortunately, often mistaken for a man. She has only a fractured understanding of her culture's history and of the reasons behind the near-obliteration of the human race. When she encounters others who might be sources of information, their knowledge is often even scantier than her own.

The back story, as far as Makepeace knows it, is this: Leaving their degenerate and declining cities before the final collapse, a new generation of American pioneers peopled a warming and therefore newly arable Siberia. Her family was part of one of these settler communities, her father an idealist with dreams of a promised land. But as disaster overtook the world and refugees from the former temperate zones swamped the small cities and towns of the newly fertile North, governments collapsed into vigilantism, and populations crashed. Makepeace lost her family, and in fact her whole town, in a series of all-too-commonplace tragedies, and when the book begins she has learned how to fend for herself among the ruins, growing her own food and making her own bullets. One final loss drives her to the brink of suicide until she's saved by a miraculous sight: an airplane crossing the sky.

If "Far North" gets off to a bit of a slow start, its caution is forgivable: In depicting a devastated planet, Theroux clearly wanted to avoid the expository shorthand of much speculative and science fiction by easing into his world. And that restraint pays off; we stay close to Makepeace through the cruelty of her physical hardships, the falling away of all companions and the perpetual solitude that would be unbearable to read from a more melodramatic writer. Makepeace's end-of-the-world diary has substance and snatches of lovely sadness, as when she sees the migration of tropical animals into the now-green, formerly snowy wastes of Siberia:

"I seemed to come across them every other day: a parrot once -- a flash of bright green the color of pondweed, and its unmistakable beak. Another time a plum tree. And once -- I swear -- a monkey, its pink face fringed with a tiny lion's mane, chattering its bared teeth at me from a silver birch."

What makes "Far North" so credible is precisely the elusiveness of its revelations, the imperfection of Makepeace's understanding of her world, of the complex physical and social revolutions that brought her people to this post-apocalyptic pass. In the chaos of a dying civilization, nothing is lost so easily as the knowledge of history. And no detail in the story rings quite so true to contemporary American life as the fact that Makepeace, who begins and ends this tale scrounging in the rubble for ancient books to preserve for posterity, also has zero interest in reading them.

Millet's new story collection, "Love in Infant Monkeys," will be published in October.

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