Rating: A-/ Imagine a deadly virus began to spread across the U.S., first gradually, then like wildfire. Society deconstructs. Loved ones and neighbors succumb grotesquely to the pandemic. People go into quarantine. It’s not a particularly original concept, but it is one that captures one’s imagination. How would you react? Would you go about business as usual? Would you wantonly indulge in alcohol and casual sex? Would you lash out at your fellow citizens like a caged animal, looting shops and beating anyone who tries to maintain a semblance of peace to a pulp? This is one of the big questions asked in In A Perfect World, a lyrical end-of-times novel by author/poet Laura Kasischke.
Jiselle is an ordinary woman rapidly approaching middle age who impulsively marries a handsome, charming pilot named Mark Dorn. Jiselle drops everything, including her job as a flight attendant and her home and friends, to live with Mark and be a stay-at-home mother to his three kids. However, Jiselle realizes too late that she has been duped, and what Mark wants her for is essentially glorified babysitter duty. While Mark’s son is sweet and kind, his daughters set out to make Jiselle’s life a living hell. Worst of all, a gruesome pandemic is slowly infecting the people in Jiselle’s life. The ‘Phoenix Flu’ is brutal and unyielding. It destroys everyone it touches, it leaves no prisoners. Can Jiselle keep her stepchildren safe from the coming catastrophe?
My mom chose this book for me, I asked her to pick me out a novel because I couldn’t make up my mind on what to read. I was convinced it would be boring domestic fiction with a little bit of apocalyptic drama sprinkled in. For the first ten pages or so, all I wanted to do was put it down. And yeah, it is basically what I expected, except it wasn’t as boring as I thought it was going to be. It’s brief, slow-paced, but filled to the brim with interesting insights and lush prose. It presents to us a future that seems like it could really happen, offering a subtle but frighteningly believable perspective of the end of days. No zombies or UFO invasions here, only a deadly virus that nobody takes seriously until it’s too late.
Jiselle initially seems like a boring Mary Sue, but she really grew on me about a quarter of the way through. She’s not a colorful or outwardly spectacular character. What she is is a woman endlessly devoted to keeping her step-family together during the most cataclysmic of times. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have doubts, but she manages to push her fears aside and keep her shit together in an extraordinary situation. Laura Kasischke describes herself as being ‘not the most character-driven of writers,’ but that doesn’t mean her characters don’t work. It just means that they take a backseat to some extent to the florid prose (on the other hand, I am a very character-based writer, and not so intent on the lyricism and more elaborately rendered language.)
Obviously, In A Perfect World isn’t like The Hunger Games or something, it’s a novel for the (relatively) patient reader who isn’t set on having something monumental happen every five minutes. The ending was kind of inconclusive, but I actually didn’t mind that so much. Ultimately, it’s the images that hit you the most; an elderly Alzheimer’s patient cutting a ghostlike figure as she gazes up at the moon in her nightie, piles of infected animal carcasses lying festering in a ditch at the side of the road. But at the same time it’s fairly accessible and not at all pretentious or ponderous. In a Perfect World is for people who like good writing. It’s short, sweet, and gorgeously invokes imagery both beautiful and deeply disquieting. And it begs the question; what would we do if the world was quite possibly ending? This lends to the novel’s commentary on the human condition, and by extension, the things that make us human beings tick.