The Mercy Journals
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016
Softcover, 231 pages
Claudia Casper is a Vancouver writer, who, over the last twenty years or so, has been making a name for herself with a series of well-regarded novels beginning with The Reconstruction (1996) followed by The Continuation of Love By Other Means (2003) and culminating (thus far) with her 2016 meditation on post-climate-change-induced- apocalypse life, The Mercy Journals. Born in Toronto, an only child, the complexity of her familial situation eventually grew to encompass ten half-siblings, an observation which might be without significance for this post were it not for the psychological acuity with which her characters are portrayed. (More about this later.) One suspects that this facility may have been honed in the trenches.
The organizing framework of the story, as the title suggests, is a series of journal entries made over a period of approximately 2 months during the spring of 2047 by the protagonist Allen Levy Quincy. However, as we are informed at the outset, the journals were not discovered until 2072, twenty-five years after the last entry, and so, a complex chronology is proposed. The overarching perspective is of a reader, who, by the dictates of time and space, must exist in a post-2072 future, presented with a narrative, which within the confines of the story is long since past, but in real time, actually represents a real reader’s near future. Although this complexity demands some focus, and is, indeed, occasionally disorienting, it does provide an atmospheric distance, forcing the perspective above quotidian concerns and beyond individual lives: whatever the outcome, it has long since been decided. One can’t help but speculate that this stance may reflect (consciously or otherwise) the recent turn in the climate-change narrative, the finality with which the scientific community has now declared that whatever the outcome, the advent of critical climate change has been long since decided — a shocking thought for a culture for whom all things (and in particular anti-climate change efforts) have been treated as endlessly negotiable.
The details of the demise of life as we know it and the establishment of Allen’s “post nation state world” are delivered efficiently, sparingly, and without fanfare. The crisis itself is not the focus of this story. Suffice to say that a chillingly familiar litany of premonitory events (rising oceans, drought, fires, new viruses, political instability, wars, failing economies) and the equally familiar inadequacy of the political response, led to the great “die off,” — “three and a half to four billion people, dead of starvation, thirst, illness, and war, all because of a change in the weather.” It was, as Allen explains, not so much the big things, that, in the end, precipitated the collapse. Progress was made in many of the areas that loom in the popular imagination as key climate change issues — fossil fuel extraction and use, airplane emissions, deforestation, and the acidification of oceans. However, as is true in any complex system whose remarkable built-in reserves of function have been exhausted, once the tipping point is reached, the inter-dependency of all components becomes glaringly apparent, and a cascading array of critical failures can be initiated by a minute alteration in any one of an almost infinite number of factors. Thus, as Allen chronicles, an overwhelmed international governing body found that “the small things got away from them” — plankton, bacteria, viruses, disruption of critical biochemical processes in the soil and food chain — all leading to “nation-states collaps[ing] almost as fast as species became extinct,” and in an historical blink of an eye, the dominion of humans was over.
Returning to the essentials of the story, as mentioned earlier, we first meet the 58-year-old Allen Levy Quincy, in extremis, the first journal entry (March 9, 2047) a will of sorts, in which he enumerates the physical accoutrements of his spartan, post-apocalyptic existence in Canton #3 (formerly Seattle) although no beneficiaries are named. Sober for 18 years, he has recently returned to heavy drinking and is experiencing a death wish which materializes in the form of hallucinatory party worms, who beseech him to join them. He has taken up journal writing in an attempt to re-stabilize. In his world, life is grey, its possibilities severely curtailed, the sunshine dangerous, food and heat scarce, travel difficult, energy consumption severely rationed and strictly regulated. A one child per couple reproductive sanction is in place. Angry mobs (climate vigilantes) have been known to inflict murderous justice on anyone found violating survival protocols laid out by the One World emergency global governing body. Spending is prioritized to provide essential health care and food to “as many people as possible,” and scientific research is restricted to that which impacts immediate survival. Allen, a Royal Military College of Kingston alumnus, and veteran of the conflict in Afghanistan, served in Mexico as political unrest intensified and conflict over water resources escalated. Eerily, the Mexican “wall” is imagined pre-Donald Trump. Allen has seen things no man should and fallout from his PTSD has cost him his marriage. When we first meet him he is essentially alone, his ex-wife dead of a new hanta virus variant, and two grown sons scattered, whereabouts unknown. In a passably effective attempt to alleviate his psychological distress, Allen has shut down emotionally and created a minimalist life for himself, “a kind of monk’s existence minus the religion.” He works a menial job as a parking attendant, lives alone, focuses on remaining sober and experiencing the simple physical details of his life, his one extravagance a pair of pet goldfish. As he explains it,
I shrank my life to an existence so small nothing important could penetrate.
Having worked so hard to establish this uneasy equilibrium, Allen finds it quickly torn asunder by the entry into his life of two powerful but opposing forces: Ruby Blades, of the scarlet sandals, a new and at first glance, unlikely love interest, and his younger brother Leo. Together, they are about to move his story forward. As her name, the colour of her shoes and her appetites suggest, Ruby is a force of nature and will preside over Allen’s gradual emotional re-awakening, his coming to terms with his past, and his re-engagement with life. Leo, on the other hand, is an essentially negative force — a narcissistic, egocentric super-consumer, an enthusiastic proponent of the high-rolling habits and attitudes which contributed so significantly to the crisis. He chafes mightily under his new, restricted lifestyle and finds no value in the idea of individual sacrifice for the greater good. From this point on, Allen’s actions will be primarily guided by the generative aspects of Ruby’s influence, or the need to resist Leo’s destructiveness.
As a result of Ruby’s influence, and his brother’s prodding, Allen, in the company of Leo, and Leo’s stepson Griffin, attempts a return to the family cabin, far north on what was once Vancouver Island, Canada, partly in the hopes that he might find his sons there. Journal #2, began in late April, 2047, deals with this quest to return to an Eden of sorts, and its repercussions. We rejoin Allen as he clings precariously to life after having been attacked by a cougar. This brutal encounter with nature has a profound effect as he experiences (possibly as a result of incipient infection) a mystical communion of sorts and, rather counter-intuitively, develops a protective fixation on the animal. Eventually reaching the cabin, the party discovers it inhabited, not by Allen’s sons but by the young and pregnant Parker Leclerc. The four settle in to attempt to homestead and enjoy a somewhat uneasy survivalist idyll. There is trouble in paradise, however, as the mental landscape remains precarious, with Allen pursuing interactions with the cougar, and Leo seemingly increasingly unhinged, his egocentricity and law of the jungle mentality the death knell for communal life. The conflicts eventually escalate to an hallucinatory, climactic scene in which Allen murders his brother, and then, abandoning Parker and Griffin to their newly cleansed Eden, attempts a return to his canton and Ruby.
Although I am informed by people who know that quibbles can be had with the details of the downfall of the capitalist industrial complex as depicted in the story, the overall scenario is at least convincingly plausible. Plausible enough, and familiar enough, to establish a tone of unsettling imminence and dread in the minds of readers. As mentioned earlier, the focus of the story is not the horror (or spectacle) of the collapse, but an exploration of cause, perhaps buried deep in the human psyche, and the possibility of some way forward, into the ever after. With these thoughts in mind, there is much to admire in Casper’s writing. A particular strength is the compelling veracity with which she depicts personality through dialogue and observation. Her characters are utterly believable, and interact in utterly believable ways. Dialogue flows naturally from character. The relationship between the brothers, Allen and Leo, is particularly insightful, and while, in the end, they come to represent archetypal characters, at no point do they lose their intense and particular humanity. Harking back to her own complex family situation, one can intuit that she has been a keen and astute observer of intricate human interactions, and this serves her well in her writing. The representations, as well, of hallucinatory experiences (which can so easily go awry) are psychologically adroit, and handled with convincing technical aplomb.
Leo’s abrupt arrival in Allen’s life illuminates a deep sibling rivalry which has existed between the brothers since childhood, a conflict whose origins were situated, Allen believes, in an early family tragedy, in real or perceived parental favouritism, and which has evolved into visceral resentment on Leo’s part. It renders their dialogue taut with subliminal tensions as their emotional meters flicker erratically across the love/hate interface. The brothers are almost symmetrically opposed in their habits and sensibilities: Allen stoic, self-sacrificing, monkish, and Leo hedonistic, narcissistic, self-serving and extravagant. As Allen says, “Leo was not someone I would have ever known if he wasn’t my brother.” Their first interaction in the story, in which Leo is discovered subverting environmental laws to his benefit requiring Allen to save him from an angry mob, is typical of their relationship — Leo’s egocentrism forcing Allen into conflict over loyalties — save his brother, or save the planet? Although Allen acknowledges the power of the blood connection, his distrust of his brother’s innately opportunistic nature runs deep, and his understanding of the destructive, irrational nature of Leo’s resentment is clear-sighted. In a sense, Leo is Allen’s evil twin, society’s shadow self, entitlement juxtaposed with Allen’s sacrifice, the true significance of which only becomes apparent in the second part of this tale (Journal #2) as the story seeks to transcend individual lives and resonate on a more fundamental, archetypal level.
For those readers alert to literary nuances, the quest by Allen and Leo to return to the wilderness of their childhood reverberates with Eden-like associations, complete with a new Adam and Eve of sorts (Griffin and Parker) and ideals about a life lived in harmony with the natural world. “Nirvana,” the name of their childhood sanctuary, encourages a widening of conceptual parameters to include Eastern thought, and possibly Jungian psychology and the idea of archetypal reckonings. In any case, as the quest for Nirvana and the shift, in Journal #2, of the narrative away from the city and the ways of man to the wilderness make obvious, the story is now centred in a mythic or psychological domain .
It also becomes obvious that Casper has gone to considerable trouble to set up the allegorical roles which Allen and Leo will assume, and to narrow the mythic focus to the old testament story of Cain and Abel. The deliberate parallels to the biblical story found in Allen and Leo’s relationship are the keys to the true nature of this tale and a source of hope for the reader which might otherwise seem to be absent. Allusions to the story of Cain and Abel, and of the world’s first experience of sibling rivalry and murder, increase in the second journal. A longstanding chill between the brothers arising from Leo’s belief that their parents favoured Allen, sets up a general parallel which is reinforced with multiple references to Allen as the good brother (Abel) and Leo, the jealous, self-centred one (Cain). This general correspondence is made explicit in an exchange between Allen and Leo, as Allen prods his younger brother about his intentions:
What are you up to Leo?
Hey I’m your brother. Something’s going on.
But are you my keeper?
— an obvious echo of Cain’s testy rejoinder to God on being questioned regarding his brother’s whereabouts:
I know not. Am I my brother’s keeper? (King James Bible Gen. 4.9)
If any further evidence is required, it is noteworthy that Allen, in the final climactic fraternal confrontation, references the biblical mark of Cain, when he recounts seeing “a mark across his [Leo’s] temple” and, later, after having dispatched his brother, leaves us with the final words, “I am marked, but I have survived.”
Having deduced a clear and deliberate parallel between the old testament account of Cain and Abel and Casper’s story of the Quincy brothers, the reader is left with the task of interpreting the reversal of the brother’s roles. In the biblical story, both brothers offered a sacrifice to God, and God favoured Abel’s offering. Cain, in a fit of jealous resentment kills Abel, thus committing the first murder and ushering evil into the world. However, in The Mercy Journals, it is Allen (the good brother) who, in order to protect Parker and Griffin, and, by extension, the new Eden, kills Leo (the evil sibling). As suggested earlier, one can interpret Leo as Allen’s evil twin. In fact, when Allen asks the universe for a sign to indicate he should not kill his brother, he refers to this act as “a wager made in a mirror (…) — twins winking.” In a larger sense, the two brothers represent the light and dark of human nature, the self and shadow of society. From this perspective, Allen’s murder of Leo is a triumph of light over dark, a renunciation and conquest of the materially greedy, self-interested, planet-destroying elements of our human natures. It is not insignificant that, according to the terms of their parents’ will, assets were to be divided evenly, but, should irreconcilable differences between the brothers arise, Leo was to receive the material effects while Allen inherited the land. Destruction of the planet would seem to qualify as an irreconcilable difference, and Allen’s murder of Leo can be interpreted as the defeat of materialistic consumerism so necessary for the salvation of the natural world.
There is considerable support for this allegorical interpretation in the story itself. Allen’s enhanced role is hinted at early when he admits to having a sense that he is alive for a reason, and that, perhaps, fate has chosen him for a specific purpose. This idea, though, is so deftly anchored in the more mundane probabilities of PTSD delusion or related psychosis that it is only in retrospect that one recognizes its premonitory aspect. However, as Allen prepares to confront his brother, there is also reference to “wrestling titans, frozen in time,” and later, in a nice bit of pathetic fallacy, as the final confrontation looms, and as the wind “pushes” Allen towards his sibling, the elemental nature of the conflict is mirrored in the landscape.
Wind blasted across the field and grabbed the trees on the edges and shook them, making their tops fly back and forth like the heads of children being shaken to death.
The clincher, so to speak, arrives as Allen admits to planning Leo’s demise, musing that he will
Murder murder with murder
in other words, reverse the first evil of the world — consuming greed and self-interest, personified in Leo/Cain — by destroying it. As Allen notes, as a result of his confrontation with his dark twin, he was marked, but he survived. So may we all.