[The 3rd Thing; 2023]
Post-apocalypse narratives often seem more interested in the far-off future than in the cataclysms and breakdowns they describe. It’s always, Who survives? What’s next? Will they garden or vote? At bottom an optimistic genre, these texts usually offer a hearty—if somewhat ambivalent—yes! That’s what makes Alissa Hattman’s new novel so strange. As post-apocalyptic as they come, Sift refuses to imagine a return to agriculture and self-government. The world truly and finally ends. This fact stands like a jetty in the text, immovable, as the narrator’s memories of loves and hurts and journeys splash up against it.
Sift is composed of three temporalities, all of them overlapping and told together in short sections: the epic journey of the time after the fall, the frightened stasis of the time before, and the timelessness of several prose-poetic interludes dedicated to the non-human world. Throughout the novel, the narrator relates her experiences intimately but sparely, offering only the briefest impressions of the events depicted. Though the stories of her post-world journey are full of all the action, suspense, and magic of a mythopoetic epic, they are told not as the sagas they might have been, but as facts for the narrator’s own emotional and existential processing.
The narrator and her companion Lamellae travel the wastes of their gone world in a magical vehicle, one capable of transforming itself from a car into a dune buggy, a helicopter, a lantern or a pickaxe according to the characters’ needs and emotional states. The narrator is named after a genus of moss—Tortula—and even has a clump of it blooming from a crack in her forehead. Lamellae transforms by the end of the book from a single being (The Driver) into a many-layered entity of various ages, genders, and voices. As the emotional freight of the story reaches one early climax, the characters crash into a huge mountain and must tunnel through its solid rock to reach the end of their journey, aided along the way only by their magical pickaxe and lantern. Extracted from the rest of the book, these plot points and character attributes operate according to the logic of legend and myth. There’s nothing realist about this post-world thread of the narrative. It’s neither magical-realist nor surrealist. Its ambitions are deeper and older than that.
As much as Sift is an epic sojourn, it is still more a story of personal healing, atonement, and coming to terms with traumatic events. The narrator’s mother occupies this other layer of the book. Though hardly a traditional epistolary novel, Sift is in large part addressed to her. “I write to you from the present, Mother. We sit together, you and I, here in this letter,” writes Tortula. Though Tortula enjoys the peace and pleasure of her dead mother’s company, she finds in it also a chance to heal the ancient wounds that had driven them apart in life.
Much of what Hattman’s narrator knows, and her mother knew, is never disclosed in the novel. Hattman’s reader must piece together their feud from clues and inferences—as from a conversation overheard between two people close to one another. In the time before, it seems, when everything was ending, the narrator’s mother had been an organizer of some kind. The two of them went to rallies and events together. Despite their best efforts to create a better future in the face of war and general destruction, things got worse, and eventually, Tortula’s mother disappeared. She left, apparently, with a band of rowdy men, but was she kidnapped? Did she go voluntarily?
Tortula offers little exposition beyond her own hurt. It seems relevant to her mother’s disappearance, though, that Tortula and her mother had earlier been the victims of some violence at the hands of some men. Whether these were the same men her mother disappeared with remains an open question, though despite its ambiguity (or perhaps because of it) the effect of this violence is deep and long-lasting. Tortula remembers the traumatic event in pieces:
Do you remember, Mother? The puddles in the shag carpet of our basement? The puddles, the men.
The men arrived and they stayed. When I told the people our story, they said that did not happen. When I went to others, I was ignored. Prove it, they said. I brought in the photos of your ribs, your back. I wrote out all the details. I told the story again—the men, the men, the basement puddles. The people said, We are sorry about your story, but so much time has passed. What can we do about it now?
What happened in that basement is never clarified, but this is not because the narrator has forgotten it. Rather, Tortula’s letters form a kind of anti-account. Details, she seems to say—the stuff from which all stories are made—are ineffective at preventing violence, incapable of securing justice. The question, “What can we do about it now?” is especially significant here, at the end of the world. When all are dead, there can be neither judges nor criminals. In place of the satisfaction of blaming her various aggressors and seeing them punished, Tortula wants only to share her pain with one who knows it already, who witnessed it, and whom she came to see as in some ways responsible for it: her mother.
Tortula participated in this cycle of neglect. She abandoned her mother as well, at the end of her life when, sick and broken, she finally returned from wherever she’d gone with the men. Tortula writes: “Of course, they hurt you too. So you hurt me by doing nothing and later I hurt you by doing nothing and on and on and on and—” Tortula would end this cycle now, before it’s too late, but how? Her mother is dead. Surprisingly, wonderfully, Tortula responds not with despair but by reaching into herself and apologizing to the other within. Tortula tells her mother, “What I mean by you, is the feeling of connection that I remember.” Her mother’s ghost is a feeling, then, rather than an apparition. It is that feeling she forgives, and it is of that feeling that she asks to be forgiven.
“[Y]our feelings do not create the world,” Lamellae will argue; “The world is what it is and how you feel about it has little consequence”—but the novel’s entire relationship to reality and meaning insists on the creative power of such feelings. When the magical helicopter crashes into that apparently impassable mountain, it is because the narrator remembers being assaulted by the men in the basement. When the narrator fears she’ll lose The Driver for good in the passageways of the mountain, she single-handedly chops through the rock to bring them both to sunlight. Her fear and love produce her action; her action is no more than the manifestation of her interior dimensions. No, she cannot actually address her mother, who is dead, or make her speak, any more than she can re-enter the world that has ended, but her feelings for those things are real. Sift is beautifully anti-nihilistic: Even at the very end of everything, there is still the possibility, so long as there’s even one person left, of making amends, of loving and caring.
Sift goes further, imagining that that loving and caring might also come from beyond the human world. Tortula ends her apocalyptic text not in fear of the darkness to come but with a hope that, even if it isn’t human, some life will remain—those cacti and frogs and clouds—and that they might remember us:
Our discoveries are fleeting, paper-thin—they will not be remembered like this. But maybe by moss, by water running down the stone walls inside of mountains, maybe in gypsum on the bottom of oceans that are gone and the ones that will come after, wave upon wave of chalk dust.
In Hattman’s post-apocalyptic future, the greatest—and perhaps final—human hope is not for our continuation. It’s that we might be remembered in the rock, that we might survive in something else, as Tortula’s mother’s ghost survives, as a feeling.
Tom DeBeauchamp’s writing can be found at DIAGRAM, SmokeLong, BigOther, The Rupture, and elsewhere. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
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