In a skillfully crafted post-apocalyptic world, Darcy, our young hero, searches for her missing mother in Anna North’s debut novel America Pacifica.
We’ve seen some of this before: the human race in a post-apocalyptic funk, roving gangs, the eating of one’s pets to stay alive, an autocrat with little regard for the well-being of the masses. Anna North’s debut novel, America Pacifica, goes even as far as a crumbling Hollywood sign, and indeed a hearty portion of this book feels like something novelized from big-budget Hollywood, if Hollywood had heart.
The hero of this doomsday fantasy is an eighteen-year-old girl named Darcy, whose mother goes missing, very mysteriously, in chapter one. From there the novel has the pace of an adventure story—the pages often seeming to turn themselves—and yet this pace is balanced with a hankering for detail that defies the overzealousness of action convention. There’s plenty of gunplay here and not a little revolution, but there’s also faces of “impotent guilt” and “calm intention,” dolls made of stone, the taste of jellyfish steak, and a pervading attention for small moments more typical of dramas of domesticity. There are big pieces moving here along with the littler ones—human kind hangs in the balance as a young woman weeps for her missing mother. The global and personal breathe into one another and are expanded.
The world established in these pages is complete with its own fabrics and materials, with its own beleaguered attempts at food and schools and public transportation. In a story about the end of the world as we know it North does a comprehensive job of building a new one—one we don’t yet know when we begin the book, one she gets to build by dropping us there and letting us look and smell and feel around. It’s a challenge in which you can feel this author luxuriating: the constantly deteriorating seaboard out of which everything is made, for instance, which “smelled like the dirty ocean after a long rain, and if you scratched it, it flaked away under your fingernails.”
It’s a small place, this island to which the luckier part of humanity has escaped, and it has its own civic issues—sinkholes in the street, pavements that cannot endure the island’s savage rainfall, what to do with the elderly and infirm. The people here are unhappy, to say the least, but they struggle onward, back and forth to their badly paying jobs in a way that may remind you of the workers of any metropolis. Drudgery is the pervading lifestyle. But this is different from anything New Yorkers, or Los Angeleans, are forced to endure: the government is a hoax, its elections are meaningless, and the man in charge—named, simply, Tyson—doesn’t seem to care about anything beyond his own house on a hill. It’s different, I say, though one gets the feeling that North may like us to consider by how much.
There’s a political angst to this book, a comment on the nature of governments, that grows organically out of the experience of the young hero, Darcy, and I don’t mean hero as in, merely, protagonist. Darcy is a hero in the true sense of the word, and this is a story about her heroics, a plot propelled almost entirely by her courageousness, her persistence—an adventure story with a literary personality. Throughout we see Darcy struggle with the question of authority, how it can be rightfully obtained, and how, alternatively, it can be stolen. When the book begins Darcy doesn’t care about these things—elections, where and how government money ought to be spent, the bad priorities of their leadership—but when her mother doesn’t come home from work one day this begins to change. Most of the book you read to find out what happened to Darcy’s mother, and why, and as these plot questions are answered—in unexpected yet fulfilling ways—broader ones are introduced. What is the point of revolution if, by its very occurrence, power is proven to be temporary? It’s by searching for the only person in the world who truly cares about her that she becomes acquainted with the question of how and if a government cares for its own people. This is a fairly straightforward perception-widening experience for a character to undergo, but in North’s hands, carried by the particularity of her eye, we sense an older kind of tale very capably refreshed.
The story engages in some wide-scale, straight-faced coincidence: several of the people Darcy happens to run into turn out to have had integral roles in the “founding” of the island and, in their own way, are closely related to the matter of Darcy’s missing mother. This is a necessary condition of the novel—that each thing relates, somehow, to each other thing—but that doesn’t mean some of this will not strike you as unlikely, as lucky, as working out a bit too well for how the novel wants to unfold. It’s a small, young world—this America Pacifica—and so it seems that to be elderly here is to have been involved in its beginnings. I can’t help but feel, however, that in real life poor Darcy would have run into everyone but the people with helpful info. Instead, to get things where they need to go, North ascribes to her character a touch of luck, and, really, what’s the harm in that? By this time you’re rooting for Darcy, and into the story, and coincidence feels much more like intrigue.
The mainland, as it’s called, is the centerpiece of a generation’s nostalgia, spoken of like an old love. Life on the island is bric-a-brac with memorabilia of the old place, seaboard recreations of the buildings and animals people once knew, before it was all turned uninhabitable by climactic catastrophe. America Pacifica was the human race’s salvation right before it was its unfortunate reality, but Darcy is engaged in a hunt for her origins—her mother, her personal history. She knows what everyone thinks is true, has heard, like everyone else, about the inescapability of this garbage-island dystopia, but this is a novel that charts its hero’s discovery of broader hopes, of distant possibilities. If there’s something unscripted and thoroughly extra-conventional about Darcy the hero, it’s that in the end the pull she feels toward saving others—typically so strong in those whom we are asked to admire—is no contest for that which has her, finally, saving herself.
I sometimes worry that novels are more and more being measured by how well they recreate the experience of watching movies. And when, in this book, the revolutionaries show up, well armed, at just the moment when Darcy most needs their help, you feel the story falling back on the movie conventions to which Hollywood has made us so inured. We don’t go: “What are the chances?!” because we’re too busy going: “Of course!” and “Go Darcy!” There wouldn’t be a whole lot of point in adapting America Pacifica into a movie; in so many ways, it already is one—albeit one that bristles with human tenderness, a beautiful one.