Claudia Casper’s third novel The Mercy Journals begins in a not-too-distant future, in a post-apocalyptic world that has come into being not because of war, terrorism, genocide, or violence, but because of a water crisis. Global drought and the ensuing starvation led to a third world war as countries protected their flagging water supplies and defended their borders at all costs. Drought, famine, and war drastically reduced the population in what the survivors refer to as the “die-off.” After the die-off, borders are blurred, pleasure nearly erased, and the necessities of life—food, transportation, power, cell phone usage—carefully rationed by the government. Pets, even harmless goldfish, are banned. Men and women live simple lives, limited to one-child families, and people gather at community cafeterias to save their meager power rations.
Allen Quincy, a soldier-turned-meter-maid, nicknamed Mercy for his actions during the third world war, tells his life story through his journals in an attempt to stave off the memories that haunt him, and to tame the post-traumatic stress disorder from which he suffers. The novel is divided into two parts: Mercy’s first and second journals. The journals begin in 2047, fifteen years after the die-off that ushered in the new societal order OneWorld. In his new life, Mercy’s daily routine consists of scanning for illegal license tags, feeding his contraband goldfish, and rereading his overdue library books. The journals follow Mercy’s attempts to reconnect to the world from which he willingly withdrew. Removed from family and loved ones, he keeps memories of his ex-wife and children at bay by living a passion-free life, until a chance encounter with a dancer alters the timbre of his quiet life:
Billions die from starvation, thirst, disease, and war, violence is done to the mind, a human life shrinks to the emotional range of a hummingbird guarding his territory, cataclysms come and go, yet someone of the opposite sex walks by and really looks at you and your whole world comes to a stop.
He meets Ruby, a woman he describes as “Spark to dynamite, grit in oyster, cutter of hair, Eve, Pandora, agitator, gestator of mystery, fomenter of change.” Thrown headlong into a sexual awakening, Mercy is prepared to end his self-imposed celibacy and solitude in favor of an affair with Ruby. But he is waylaid by the sudden reappearance of his long-lost brother Leo and Leo’s odd request, which threatens the life Mercy is so carefully seeking to reconstruct.
Casper employs an unexpected cast of characters strangely befitting her post-apocalyptic landscape. Mercy hobbles with a peg leg and detaches himself from all he loves to keep his emotions at bay. Then there is his resource-guzzling brother, who even in a word devoid of commodities and luxuries still seems to be on the make. Mercy must also contend with Ruby, a ravenous dancer who eats him out of house and home, his nephew Griffin, and Parker, a pregnant homesteader. Casper’s characters reflect the tensions among social groups and the ways in which the die-off has potentially pitted them against one another. People like Leo struggle to adjust to the new order, while people like his nephew Griffin believe in the communal efforts of OneWorld and actually prefer it. Then are those like Mercy, who are caught between the two worlds:
Obviously I believe that civil society is our only hope, yet I understand what drives the rage. People still remember when individual citizens were allowed to consume as much as they wanted as long as they could pay. People still remember the impotence of knowing that the environment we all depended on for survival was being destroyed by people wanting more—more money, more security, more control, more stuff—and we remember our own anxiety as we ourselves did things that contributed to our destruction. We remember when we realized that we relied for survival on a system that was killing us. It’s not like our fates aren’t all bound together.
In The Mercy Journals Casper gives us a glimpse of society boiled down to its most essential parts. Food, water, energy/power, fuel are all in short supply, but in Casper’s world individual thought is also carefully controlled and limited. So is love, or emotional intimacy. Characters fight for scraps of love, affection, and physical intimacy. When the trappings of material consumption, luxury, and pleasure are taken away, terms like family, forgiveness, love, and loyalty are not so easily defined. Individual wants give way in the face of collective hunger. The strain on the environment produces humans who are compelled to conform and are forced to live communally, giving rise to a chicken-or-egg question by asking readers to consider whether capitalism and all its excesses eventually lead to socialism or if the restrictions of socialism urge people toward capitalism.
Readers familiar with such post-apocalyptic and dystopic novels as 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and The Martian Chronicles will recognize the nods Casper gives to such seminal works in her novel. For example, when she shows how difficult it is for Mercy to find writing instruments and the surprise his journal engenders among others, she gives us a world in which people have stopped reading and writing, revealing that while environmental damage and lack of resources may be the obvious fallout of the third world war, lack of individual thought is another serious byproduct. Her depictions of the world after the war reveal landscapes that show the scars of humanity’s material excesses and the ravages of human greed. As in most scenarios that imagine a post-apocalypse, humans have destroyed the world by consuming its resources, but Casper imagines a scenario in which limited resources are the cause, not the effects, of the world war.
Casper’s scenario expands upon the lifeboat ethics question. What should and would people do in order to survive when resources are limited? What inherent savageries do we reveal when faced with threat of extinction? What do we evolve or devolve into when it is me versus thee? Each of Casper’s four main characters supplies different answers to these questions, based on how much they’ve lost, what there is to gain and what they have at stake. The Mercy Journals reveals how universal platitudes give way to dangerously personal and selfish responses when our backs are up against the wall.