Author Sigrid Nunez

2010, Riverhead Books

Filed under: Literary, Sci-Fi


Nunez’s latest novel takes place in a familiar setting: post-apocalyptic America. It’s becoming popular for literary authors to try their hands at sci-fi—cf. Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Cormac McCarthy—at least partially (I think) because writing in a non-“mainstream” genre gives them the freedom and the framework to work up a good plot.

So it’s always a bit disappointing when one of these authors writes a plotless genre novel. If Nunez wanted to write about identity, community, family, and so forth, she didn’t need to feature a recent flu pandemic that wiped out half the world’s population, and “set life back a hundred years.”

If on the other hand, she wanted to write about a flu pandemic, I’d like to see a plot. Savage conditions, fighting for survival, desperate armed gangs roaming the countryside: these thing up the tension ante, and it’s difficult to backtrack from there to a limp daydreaming consideration about the nature of the boy’s dead parents’ relationship, and whether they would have gotten divorced.

Ultimately, that’s what does this novel is. Nunez creates an excellent setting, and writes vivid (if silly and exaggerated) characters, and she excels at getting them to the edge of the precipice. But she never makes them jump.

Salvation City centers around Cole Vinings, a boy who survives the brutal flu pandemic and gets taken in by a charismatic preacher, Pastor Wyatt (or PW) and his idiot wife, Tracy. PW leads a congregation of survivors who are almost perfectly adjusted even in a country where there are no schools or grocery stores left open, few doctors, and no police or army.

PW and Tracy are vicious caricatures of religious folks, both simple-minded and two-faced. Their religious doctrine is considered entirely incompatible with logic or intellectualism. At one point, PW says:

‘You’re overthinking … Which is one very good way of keeping the Lord at a distance.’

It’s clear that Nunez has a (semi-concealed) ax to grind with Jesus. But that’s not the problem here–the problem is that Nunez refuses to uncork the drama. PW is creepily perfect, as is the whole of Salvation City. Cole nurses a lurking suspicion even as he falls for PW’s charm and kindness, even as he comes to believe in Jesus (Cole’s parents are no less exaggerated as characters: they’re secular Jews who thought religion was a moronic crutch).

Eventually the other shoe does drop, but there’s never a real confrontation. When people get angry, when they discover each other’s secrets, they might have a snarling exchange for a page or two, but then they always kind of shrug and forget about it.

Rather forgettable, too, is what the flap copy calls “Nunez’s deceptively simple style.” That’s code for it being devoid of personality. For instance:

Cole understands that Pastor Wyatt is thought to be handsome, though Cole himself has no opinion about this. But he has observed that people are delighted to have Pastor Wyatt’s attention on them, especially if they are women.

It’s very dry writing, something which is also popular these days. It keeps us an arm’s length away from Cole, but it does succeed in creating a spooky atmosphere. There’s a sense of dread and danger laced throughout the book, and I got the distinct feeling that PW was hiding some dark secrets, though I had no evidence at all.

In this way, Nunez frames the potential drama very well, and the few brief conflicts in this novel creep up on you and jump out. However, in the end the real, sustained drama simply isn’t there. Cole spends too much time coldly considering his options, or dreaming about how his life might have been different, or just languidly reminiscing about his dead parents. In a novel like this (even if the only action comes from quietly spoken interpersonal conflict) I want to see choices, and I want to see consequences.

In a genre novel without a rollercoaster plot, the author should at least delve into ideas that are intrinsic and specific to the premise. For instance, in Salvation City Jesus freaks are the only ones that quickly gather supplies and protect each other in the wake of the pandemic; they’re the only ones that walk door-to-door helping people instead of locking themselves away. There’s rich territory to be mined there, about evolution and religion, about belief in a vengeful God being a survival trait for a people that don’t believe in survival traits, and about their love of guns and unironic support network being form-fitted for a life ruined by a virus which we know everything about.

Nunez doesn’t touch any of that with a ten-foot pole. Instead, she focuses on the more generic adopted-kid themes, all the stuff that doesn’t need a flu pandemic or a post-apocalyptic setting. It makes me wonder why the setting is included.

So, it’s too bad. Nunez has the presentation of suspense down pat: there’s just no infrastructure behind it to hold it up. I’m afraid I can’t recommend reading this book; it will have you on the edge of your seat at times, but none of it lasts, and it’s ultimately a big disappointment.

Similar books: As far as style, the “deceptively simple” scale stretches from Isaac Babel on the good end, to Tao Lin on the bad. As far as substance, there’s Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood, Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, and The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.