IN 2010 A CLEVER BLOG titled the Hypothetical Library posted covers, jacket copy, and blurbs for books that did not actually exist. The April 5, 2010 entry was for a bleak, post-apocalyptic detective novel, Immobility by Brian Evenson. In an odd case of art imitating art then becoming art, the description of the fake book caught the eye of an editor at Tor books, who then encouraged Evenson to write the real book. Got all that? Given its grim, all-too-plausible, post-nuclear disaster setting, let’s hope for no further iteration, no life imitating art.
Evenson has written stories of apocalypse and nuclear devastation before, most notably in his unnerving 2009 short fiction collection Fugue State. Evenson’s repeated use of the weaponized atom as a thematic concern is not surprising — he, like me, survived the Reagan-and-Watchmen 1980s. Immobility opens with Josef Horkai waking after being stored — a form of frozen stasis — for 30 years. Horkai does not remember being stored, nor does he remember his life before the Kollaps: a cataclysmic event described in blurry snapshots of panic, violence, and the unholy white fire and light of nuclear bombs.
Upon waking from his stasis in a dreary, concrete room, a disoriented Horkai attempts to strangle the inscrutable technician attending to him without really understanding why he does so. His attack fails when he discovers he can’t move his legs. Horkai then meets Rasmus, the leader of the small, dying community referred to as the Hive. Rasmus informs Horkai that they stored him for his own good, and as a result of exposure from the nuclear blast, Horkai is slowly dying from an insidious disease that will in time shut down his body. “Eventually you’ll be completely paralyzed, suffering from utter immobility.”
Rasmus and his two towering cronies, Olag and Olaf, give Horkai a painful epidural to slow his encroaching paralysis. Rasmus further explains that they have awakened Horkai to help complete a most important task: to retrieve a stolen cylinder that contains seed, which the community desperately needs if they are to start over. He tells Horkai that pre-Kollaps he was a fixer, a kind of detective who, simply if ominously put, solved problems. Rasmus is coy with what information he gives and in what form, filling in only some of the considerable gaps in Horkai’s memory.
Rasmus is one of the only characters in the novel who uses Horkai’s first name, Josef. It’s a first name that recalls Franz Kafka’s Josef K., who is arrested by unidentified agents working for an unnamed agency in the oddly humorous bureaucratic and totalitarian nightmare The Trial. Horkai also resembles Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, waking to a terrible physical transformation; in addition to his waist-down paralysis, Horkai’s skin is hairless, smooth, and eerily pink. Oleg calls Horkai a monster that shouldn’t have been awoken, while others insist that Horkai has been transformed into something no longer human. Horkai, like the cockroach, the only other wildlife spotted in Immobility’s poisoned environment, can now withstand prolonged exposure to radiation. It’s why Rasmus and the Hive need him to find the cylinder. Only Horkai can survive the trek to the mountain to retrieve it.
Horkai cannot walk so he is carried on the backs of two human mules, Qatik and Qanik, who may or may not be identical twins. The Qs’ sole purpose within the Hive is to carry Horkai, their “burden,” so that he may retrieve the stolen cylinder. The Qs know they will not survive this journey to the mountain and back.
The Hive’s worker bees, the Qs, are faceless drones in their bulky helmets and hazmat suits. Without the benefit of physical characteristics and facial expressions, they are nonetheless the human heart of the novel, two post-apocalyptic Lennies from Of Mice and Men. The Qs’ language is deceptively simple. When introduced to Horkai, one of the Qs says, “Hello, burden.” Their unique personalities and humor (with one of their funnier quips a pithy aphorism about needing a good severed head) emerge as they defend themselves in the face of Horkai’s onslaught of existential questions. The Qs carry their burden through the bleached ash and ruins of Salt Lake City, Utah toward the mountains with a zealot’s fervor and a doubter’s aching vulnerability, their self-sacrifice as surprisingly touching as it is ultimately nihilistic.
On the surface, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road would seem an obvious comparison, with its bleak, bombed-out landscape and stripped-down narrative style. But Immobility’s world is bleaker still. The world in and around Salt Lake City has been stripped of just about every form of life. Horkai and the Qs are not McCarthy’s father-and-son team gamely clinging to life, hope, and morality — that thinning tether to the old world, to civilization. Immobility is a dead world trying to start over, and its players know this and act accordingly. Immobility is a post-apocalyptic, epistemological horror novel.
What is knowledge? How is it attained? Can anything or anyone be truly known? The foundations (or lack thereof) of belief, faith, and truth are Evenson’s lofty concerns, and he constructs the narrative as though the novel were written in binary code. Is this Horkai’s reality or is he dreaming? Are his few remaining memories real or are they imagined? Is Rasmus telling him the truth or lying? Is Qatik a true believer in their purpose and Qantik the doubter? Or is it vice-versa? Is Horkai human or something else? Is his errand a trap or not? Does he trust Rasmus or not?
“What do you think of Rasmus?”
For a moment Qatik didn’t speak. “What do you mean?” he finally said. “He is Rasmus.”
“What do you mean by ‘He is Rasmus’?” asked Horkai, confused.
“Exactly that,” said Qatik. “Rasmus is Rasmus and is no other.”
“But that doesn’t explain what you think of him,” said Horkai. “Do you like him?”
“He is Rasmus,” said Qatik. “He has his purpose. How can I judge how well he serves it? His purpose is different from our purpose and I do not understand it nearly as well as I do my own. That is proper. Surely you can see that?”
When the Qs succeed in getting Horkai to his mountain destination, he is met by Mahonri, a man named after a prophet in the book of Mormon, a man who warmly greets him as a brother, a man who’s physical appearance is almost identical to that of Horkai’s. The riveting third act of Immobility tilts on whether Horkai chooses to believe the oddly serene brother Mahonri or believe Rasmus. He has to choose not only who to believe, but whether to believe that people are even capable of telling the truth. This gives the novel an edge of psychological horror as unsettling as it is authentic. 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 tales of the end of the world are as old as story itself, apocalypse certainly seems to be preoccupying our frenzied, 21st Century zeitgeist. A recent national poll reports that 22% of Americans believe that they’ll live to see the end of the world. In some ways, it’s an arrogant belief; that you might be important enough to see the end — that the world couldn’t possibly go on without you. I wonder how many of those 22% believe they’ll be Will Smith heroically fighting off the CGI beasties to save their family, or save some new, better-looking version of their family. Evenson approaches the horror of the apocalypse more honestly. He dares posit that we will not be the lucky last ones left, and if we are the last, we won’t be lucky. We’ll be alone. Cosmically alone. “What’s more terrible than living when everyone else around you dies?” And beyond the initial shock of losing everyone and everything, including knowledge, including your very self, the true horror of Immobility’s apocalypse is that it is a wheel that has been and will be forever turning.