Tuesday, July 23, 2024

“The Morningside,” Reviewed: When the Apocalypse Is Just Another Day

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Good old apocalypse: it’s always there when we need it, ready to give shape to our baggy existential crises. As the critic Frank Kermode once wrote, the end times are a “concord-fiction,” an event that conveniently straddles an “imaginatively recorded past and imaginatively predicted future, achieved on behalf of us, who remain ‘in the middest.’ ” Indeed, as our particular middest has grown more urgently chaotic, pop culture has been swamped with post-apocalyptic content. In books (“The Three-Body Problem”), video games (The Last of Us), television (“The Last of Us” and “3 Body Problem”), and movies (“Civil War”), we repeatedly imagine how to survive a world brought to a sudden halt by aliens or ecological disaster, zombies or political collapse. Such events are useful because they are revelatory: they break open the order of things and show us what’s inside.

But what if the apocalypse unfolds without revelation, like our ordinary lives, “in the middest”? Téa Obreht’s third novel, “The Morningside,” considers this possibility. It is not a post-apocalyptic novel but an undramatically mid-apocalyptic one, in which we find our narrator, an eleven-year-old refugee named Silvia, newly arrived in Island City, a stand-in for Manhattan. Sil and her mother come from an unnamed Balkan country, referred to only as Back Home, that has suffered a climate catastrophe and its attendant humanitarian crises. Island City is not much better off: tide-swamped and largely abandoned, its few inhabitants are largely “refuge seekers,” like Sil and her mom, who have been “recruited from abroad by the federal Repopulation Program.” Living alongside them are “the stalwart handful of locals hanging on in their shrinking neighborhoods, convinced that once the right person was voted into the mayor’s office and the tide pumps got working again, things would at least go back to the way they had always been.”

The city Sil finds herself in is a waterlogged husk of its former self, with whole neighborhoods rendered unlivable by rising sea levels, though some are traversable when the tide is low enough. Despite these conditions, Island City “had always come back. It couldn’t help itself, revived by the fire it kept managing to stoke in its most recent newcomers.” Some of that fire still glows in the Morningside, the decrepit, historic luxury apartment building where Sil and her mother join her great-aunt, Ena, who is the super there. Other tenants include a teen-age ghost (according to Ena) and a relentlessly difficult Board of Occupants, whose “defects of character sprang . . . from a fatal combination of wealth and age. They weren’t about to let a few hurricanes and a submerged industrial district stand between them and the prosperity their grandparents had so doggedly eked out.”

The most fascinating tenant is Bezi Duras, a reclusive painter, also from Back Home, who occupies the building’s opulent penthouse with her three enormous dogs. Sil becomes enthralled by Bezi, and keeps surreptitious tabs on the artist and her hounds as they depart every evening for mysterious walks. These walks become an obsession—an obsession fostered by Ena, who introduces Sil to a realm she had previously never known, a realm of family history and folk tale that her mother refuses to engage with. Through her aunt’s stories, Sil begins to believe in “a world underneath the world,” where Slavic creatures of myth, like the Vila, a demanding mountain spirit, walk among us, making fateful deals with mortals. Sil’s fixation on Bezi is further egged on by Mila, another young girl from Back Home, who dares Sil to follow Bezi into the abandoned city. There they stumble into an eerie scene that could be equally at home in a novel about urban decay or a book of haunting folk tales, where crones offer darkly enchanted gifts and feral children turn into sad-eyed dogs.

This fairy-tale register is just one of many modes of storytelling that seep into “The Morningside.” The book’s grimly familiar vision of the environmentally devastated near future places it alongside recent “cli-fi” by Claire Vaye Watkins and Lydia Millet. There’s a slightly choral quality to the text; in calls made by nostalgic listeners into a pirate radio station, the Drowned City Dispatch, we get hints of how others in this world might be telling stories of its slow death. There are also hints of other books it might have been: what we eventually learn about Bezi’s twilight missions unmasks a tale of government corruption and broken political promises, to no avail. Yet Obreht’s book remains focussed through the young eyes of Sil—and thus fixated, as many children would be, on the thrillingly dark magic that suffuses her city, rather than on the science or politics of environmental catastrophe. The narrative has the mysterious, intoxicating pull of classic children’s books like “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.” Sil’s story is an adventure that is at times so captivating that we can briefly forget that it’s an elegy.

But an elegy for what, exactly? For a lost sense of security; for a time where there could be “a year that was safer or calmer than the one before it.” The world of “The Morningside” is winding down, its hopeless efforts at renewal meant “not to build the city back up—but to hold the edges while it finishes falling.” Eventually, Sil’s mother opens the door to the past, telling her daughter what it was like Back Home before everything started to fall apart: “I wanted that for you—that life I had. . . . I realized that I’d brought you into life at a time when everyone else’s debts had come due. Only, the debtors weren’t around anymore to pay up. So it’d be you doing the paying.” Obreht doesn’t say exactly what those debts are—instead, she lets the diminished world of the novel, like the future our younger generations will face, speak for itself. It seems darkly appropriate that she wrote this novel while pregnant during the pandemic.

This vagueness perhaps suits the future better than the past. Obreht’s début novel, “The Tiger’s Wife,” wove together tales of mourning and enchantment in a fictionalized version of the Balkans in the mid-twentieth century. Her enthralling second novel, “Inland,” played with the figures and tropes of the outlaw American West. In both cases, the exuberant myth-making of her plots took precedence over the specifics of history, threatening to make the actual past feel abstract, further away than it really is. “The Morningside” seems to take place in the same semi-fictional universe as “The Tiger’s Wife”; Sil and her mother come from the city of Sarobor, which we last saw, in “The Tiger’s Wife,” on the eve of a siege during the Bosnian War. But where flights of invention made “The Tiger’s Wife” tilt toward allegory, the textures of “The Morningside”—a familiar city, a familiar crisis, a familiar complacency—make this future feel closer, shot through with an almost excruciating intimacy. Here, storytelling is not a way of relating to a mythical past but of growing up in the long middest, when the idea of home and the promise of safety are harder and harder to hold on to every day. ♦

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