Brian Evenson’s Immobility (2012) meditates on stasis as
it follows an amnesiac, paraplegic carried by two “mules” (special clones
designed to carry a burden for several days before deteriorating beyond use)
across a torn and hostile post-nuclear landscape. The novel thinks three or four, depending on how you count them, ways out of stasis. Though, it may seem, at times, like taking on one of these ways out would
simply be trading one mode of stasis for another. The starting point of the
novel’s meditation on immobility is that of the paraplegic protagonist, who
cannot use his legs and is told he needs to receive a drug-cocktail shot to his
spine every 24 hours or so in order to slow its deterioration. Oddly, though
the novel’s focus seems to be on stasis, it posits a world where one can never
be sure what or who will survive and return; indeed, characters often offer one bit of
advice when dealing with bandits or the unknown: “Always remove the head” (232).
The beauty of the novel, in
almost classic science fiction fashion, is that we have to learn with the
focalizing character just where he is, what he is, and what has happened. In
one sense, then, the entire novel offers a political lesson in estrangement. Though
the novel appears deceptively simple in retrospect, it is complex and detailed. Each descriptive element cannot be outlined with brevity but must be allowed to fit into the network of the book and then be explained using the novel’s own logic. Put another way, the novel needs to be read immanently.
The novel can be described efficiently
as cyclical with four spatial phases each linked by a journey from one space to
the next: first, the awakening of the character and explanation of the theft;
second, the first encounter with identity and the first way out of stasis; third,
the flight, rescue, and another way out; third, a strange encounter; and,
fourth, the return, closure, and completion of the circle. The word immobility, while favoured by the novel, doesn't speak to the problematic I see the novel addressing most vehemently, which is of the running-in-a-hamster wheel variety: where no amount of energy or input on the part of the hamster will allow it to move in any direction, even though it travels a great distance round and round. What has got to happen is for us to notice the mechanism that maintains the stasis of the present. Immobility isn't able to tell us exactly what holds us in place so much as it reminds us to look around us for signs that things could be different.
others unlike him: the
awakening of the character and explanation of the theft
The novel opens with the main
character slowly coming to consciousness and confusion – he eventually
remembers his name is Joseph Horkai. We discover that Horkai has been awakened
from some sort of deep freeze storage in order to accomplish a task for his
“community,” and we also learn that he is unlike any of the people within his
community – he alone has the ability to withstand the
hostile environment outside. Horkai is selected for a mission because of this
and because he is a “fixer...called upon when nobody else could solve a
problem...willing to use any means necessary to make things right” (40). Despite
this explanation of his role, Horkai remains uncertain about his identity, location,
and whether he can or should trust anyone. He nicely sums up the exposition of
the novel in a note he writes to make sense of his situation:
1. I was stored for thirty years.
2. I have been woken up to
perform a task.
3. Something is wrong with my
But he rather quickly revises his
list, "with his thumb he brushed over the words ‘with my memory’ until they
blurred and became a glowing splotch. Something
is wrong” (49). But, as he is tasked to retrieve a stolen item crucial to
the community’s survival, Horkai does as he is told and sets off with the
others like him: the first
encounter with identity and the first way out of stasis
Horkai discovers that the others
who are holding the stolen item are just like him. The reason he was selected
for the mission becomes slightly less opaque – the reader has to put the pieces
together at the same moment Horkai does, even though it’s clear that he already
had suspicions about his community and the mission. Under Granite Mountain in a
vast underground facility there are a number of others like him in storage, like
he was, though Mahonri, the one who greets Horkai, assures him that they are
: Mahonri explains that their procedure of leaving one sentinel out
while the remaining beings sleep allows them to guard a number of preserved
seeds as the freezing procedure extends their lives and thus their stewardship (hopefully
long enough to witness a return of flora and fauna and, with it, humanity). There
is a moment during Horkai’s stay where the future seems uncertain; he could attempt
to retrieve the stolen item from the deep freeze or stay along with Mahonri and
help them in their temporal bid to restart the experiment of life on Earth.
Ultimately, and violently, Horkai maintains fidelity to his “community,” attacking
Mahonri and escaping with the mysterious stolen item. But, he doesn’t “remove d
the head,” and so Mahonri revives and gives chase.
one like him: the flight and
rescue and another way out
Horkai escapes, the mules both
perish, and he tries to drag himself the rest of the way back to the community.
Much of this section comes in fragments filtered through Horkai’s delirium. He
is visited by at least two groups during this period: the first take some of
his precious treasure and the second rescues him and nurses him back to health.
Between both encounters we learn about the stakes of Horkai’s mission: the stolen
container holds frozen fertilized human eggs. Horkai has in his hands the
potentiality of an ambivalent future. Also, he learns from his saviour, Rykte, that he is not
paralyzed after all. In fact he heals and can walk. (Why not write a note to yourself now, Horkai?! ‘Dear self, the
community lied to me: I can walk.’ The tension in this section arrives when members of Horkai’s community find
them and beg him to return. He now faces yet another choice, another version of
stasis in the form of a life with Rykte: to follow Rykte and let the humans die;
or, to deliver the seeds. Yet again he decides to return, but not without
wondering: “Is Rykte right...is it better
for humanity to die out?” (227).
one unlike him: a strange
On his way back to the community
Horkai is sidetracked by a strange building he remembers from a moment of
delirium. What he discovers marks both the most opaque moment in the novel, a
moment the novel itself cannot seems to resolve, and the closest Horkai comes
to deviating from his path and breaking, what we’ll see in a minute is, the
cycle of stasis: “He moved carefully forward,
rifle ready. The body was relatively recent, not the desiccated corpses he’d
seen while travelling with the mules. It
was naked. A stake had been hammered into its chest. It was extremely pale and
hairless, just like him. He could not tell if it was a man or a woman; the
facial features were ambiguous and the hips could have belonged to a boyish
girl or an effeminate man. It had what looked like the beginnings of breasts,
but the body itself was chubby and the nipples looked more like those of a man
than a woman. Between the legs was no sex, neither male nor female, but instead what looked like series of a half dozen strings of pearls in a strange gelatinous casing that seemed to have been extruded from the flesh
itself. He bent to have a closer look, but couldn’t figure their purpose. He
was just reaching out to touch them when the creature opened one eye” (231). This moment of the strangest occurrence, in a somewhat
unparaphraseable book, is followed immediately by the moment when Horkai's decision to return
to the community is the sharpest. Horkai thinks, “Back to the original purpose. . . focus Horkai.” (232). This encounter is not only the shortest in the whole book, it's also the most difficult to fit into the cycle of the plot. As such, it is also the moment when we realize that there is still much of this strange, post-apocalyptic world that we do not understand. I'm not trying to say the solution to Horkai's situation (or our own) necessarily lies in an encounter with the unknowable, but that doesn't mean he should rule it out either. What is most telling about this encounter then is the fact that he so quickly returns to the well worn path of service to a community, a group that by now we realize have out and out lied to him.
others unlike him, again: the return, closure and completion of the
The twist at the end is almost
unsurprising, especially after Horkai turns away from each alternative space with
its attendant narrative possibilities. Even though Horkai completes his
mission, or maybe precisely because he does, he is muscled back into deep
freeze. A short fifth section concludes the novel, ending with the line: “Ah, he thought, just before the sudden inrush
of extreme cold. I’ve been in storage.
They must just be waking me up” (253). At this moment in the novel, I am
reminded of an essay from the early 1980s where Fredric Jameson remarks, “a
narrative must have an ending, even if it is ingeniously organized around the
structural repression of ending as such” (283). It is the ingenious
anti-closure and resistance of climax in Immobility
that make it a novel worth considering as an exercise in thinking through possible escapes from stasis. The way Paul Tremblay puts it emphasizes the stuckness the novel describes: “Horkai’s choices, those 0s and 1s of Immobility’s binary code, determine his downward spiral, a spiral that ultimately has no end, as this apocalypse is only a beginning, destined to repeat itself, ad nauseum, ad infinitum.” While the overt lesson seems to be one
about political attachment and faith (maybe ideology would be a better word),
its true lesson comes as the cycle apparently starts over again: this has all happened
before, so how can we remember and take a path that leads out of the cycle of
Evenson, Brian. Immobility. New York: Tor, 2012. Print.
Jameson, Fredric. “Progress
versus Utopia, or, Can We Imagine the Future?” Archaeologies of the Future: The
Desire Called Utopian and Other Science Fictions. New York: Verso, 2005. 281-295.
Tremblay, Paul. “Broken on the Wheel of Apocalypse.” LA Review of Books 16 Aug 2012 . Web. Accessed 6 Dec 12.
* Special thanks to Alex Carruthers for her suggestions after giving this a thorough read through.
Labels: contemporary fiction, Immobility, post-apocalypse, science fiction, stasis