Consider the apocalyptic writ small. While some novels and stories have taken the idea of a world-ending or world-changing event as a way to use the largest possible canvas, other writers have taken the opportunity to zero in on one specific element of society. Both Laura van den Berg’s Find Me and Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation have embraced this route, which — not unlike some of J.G. Ballard’s work — offers a chilling vision of an imploding society.
Whereas most fictional apocalypses embrace something tangible — a nuclear war, an alien invasion, or an environmental cataclysm — this variety of the end of the world takes a different route. For these writers, the idea of something cataclysmic that defies an easy description is much more unnerving — and, from the perspective of someone living through a constantly-evolving pandemic, it certainly seems as though they’re on to something.
Grievers, the new novel from adrienne maree brown, fits neatly beside the works of van den Berg and Russell — especially in its emphasis on a pandemic that feels as metaphorical as it does visceral — but also steers its particular vision of an apocalyptic scenario to a very different place. In telling the story of Grievers, brown focuses on the city of Detroit. And in protagonist Dune, brown has a central character whose own anguish in the face of both a mysterious condition plaguing the people around her and mixed signals from a broader society makes for a compelling read.
The novel opens with the three motifs that recur throughout the book: family, illness and mortality. Dune is cremating the body of her mother, who has died as a result of a mysterious illness that will soon be named Syndrome H-8. Its symptoms, one doctor tells Dune, include brain activity indicative of both severe depression and PTSD. Soon enough, brown reveals that this leads to a slow and steady withdrawal from the world, ending in death. By chapter’s end, we’ll also learn that Dune’s mother may have been the first to contract it. She won’t be the last.
Later, Dune receives confirmation of what she suspects: H-8 is a plague that only affects Black people. “Of course Black people were dying from grief,” brown writes. “But why now? Why here?” Just before this, brown alludes to “the mystery,” and it feels like an apt choice of words in both the literal and metaphorical sense. This is a metaphysical question, even as brown also gets into the specific details of how Syndrome H-8 has affected Detroit, from shuttered businesses to debates over the best facemasks to wear.
As a Vulture article about the novel revealed, Grivers has roots that extend back nearly ten years, long before the current pandemic. But certain passages from it also read like dispatches from the past 18 months, as with this consideration of social media during a national crisis:
At some point, these trite condolences had replaced the act of grieving, of actually feeling a wave of sadness. Before, a loss could make you gasp. Before, it reached for your heart. You were expected to have a coherent articulation for it, a way to say you knew something had happened and you had the right response.
This is a novel of big ideas and intimate gestures. One early chapter opens with a very specific use of syntax: “The morning after her mother was made into ash, Dune came to as the sun created the horizon.” That use of the passive voice is striking for what it says and doesn’t say — as well as for how it suggests that these characters are grappling with forces much larger than they are.
Much as Syndrome H-8 hits on both a visceral and a metaphorical level, so too does Grievers work as both a symbolically rich, politically charged work of fiction and a thoroughly lived-in look at life in Detroit. Dune’s history — and that of her family — are meticulously drawn; like this novel as a whole, they intersect in complex ways, and offer much to ponder.
by adrienne maree brown
Black Dawn/AK Press; 150 p.