DECEMBER 12, 2017
PREGNANCY IS APOCALYPTIC, or it can be. There’s something both utterly mundane and completely shocking about bringing another human being into the world, and the process of adjusting to a new life — in both senses of the phrase — is challenging for many mothers, whether they admit it or not. Of course, many start out as tender, maternal people and experience few significant personality changes. But for others, the birth of a baby is the destruction of one way of life, one way of being, and the start of another. It’s a complete shift in worldview, a remaking of identity, a transformation that ripples out from the personal to the social and political. Meanwhile, for babies, their mothers or caregivers are their entire world, a governing force that controls all aspects of life. But what if suddenly women were giving birth to babies that emerged as some regressed, earlier form of human? Society as we know it would surely collapse.
That is the central, wonderful premise of Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God. As the novel opens, we’re devolving, though it’s not a straight or linear path backward. After all, as the narrator, 32-year-old mother-to-be Cedar Hawk Songmaker, points out, evolution was intuited from many different pieces of evidence, and it’s been known to push species sideways as much as it has forward. Additionally, our devolution, as Erdrich imagines it, is not merely biological, it’s political and social, as well. But what the reader might expect to be a dark and brooding story is instead frequently flush with knowing hilarity. The novel promises to be both apocalyptic and dystopian, but it takes its time getting there. The literary mixes with the colloquial, as in Erdrich’s other fiction (Love Medicine, The Round House), but the colloquial has the edge. Structured as letters written by a mother to her unborn child during a critical point in history, the novel is among the author’s most accessible works of fiction.
Cedar is the letter-writing mother whose contemporary, slightly forced humor colors the novel. She’s a Native or part-Native woman adopted by white Minneapolis progressives Sera and Glen. She notes, “Although I’ve seen Sera eat a gas-station hot dog once, and many years ago Glen had an affair with a Retro Vinyl Record Shop clerk that nearly tore the family apart, they are happily married vegans.” Throughout, Erdrich mocks Sera and Glen for being the sort of people who congratulate themselves for “how good their track record is on political idiocies and wars and natural disasters.” They see political trouble coming, and they are right. Since evolution is going backward, the government is taking an intrusive interest in pregnant women and the condition of their babies.
When Cedar describes her childhood as an adoptee, she notes, “I was rare, maybe part wild, I was the star of my Waldorf grade school.” Once she went to college with other indigenous people, however, she became ordinary. Unlike the other indigenous students, she had no struggles and stopped going to class. She explains, “I’d been a snowflake. Without my specialness, I melted.”
As the novel begins, Sera gives Cedar a letter from her biological mother, an Ojibwe woman named Mary Potts. Cedar learns that her Native family has “no special powers or connections with healing spirits or sacred animals,” and is, in fact, bourgeois. One set of relatives even owns a Superpumper gas station. Pissed off, Cedar thinks, “Who are the Potts to suddenly decide to be my parents? Worse, who are they to have destroyed the romantic imaginary Native parents I’ve invented from earliest childhood, the handsome ones with long, both-sided braids, who died in some vague and suitably spiritual Native way […]?”
Still, because of her pregnancy — the baby is due on a date of symbolic importance: December 25 — she drives out to meet her birth mother, who goes by “Sweetie.” As she approaches the reservation, Cedar is welcomed by a huge sign that reads “Future Home of the Living God,” and once inside she meets Sweetie’s boyfriend Eddy, an endearing writer. Like several others in the novel, he’s reminiscent of an E. L. Doctorow character — artless and naïve, or self-deluded, yet also weirdly knowledgeable. He “doesn’t have the modern sort of depression” that can be “treated with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors,” and he has written a manuscript that’s more than 3,000 pages long.
Eddy likes theorizing about the world, and he’s the first person to whom Cedar discloses her pregnancy. When Cedar asks him what he thinks is going to happen, the following exchange takes place.
“Indians have been adapting since before 1492 so I guess we’ll keep adapting.”
“But the world is going to pieces.”
“It is always going to pieces.”
“This is different.”
“It is always different. We’ll adapt.”
After meeting her biological family, which includes her drug-addict half-sister Little Mary and her wise Native grandmother Mary, Cedar returns home to the father of her unborn baby, Phil, and hints of dystopia start emerging. Looking at Cedar’s ultrasound, her OB-GYN notes that every part of the fetus is perfect. He tells Cedar she should leave, and though she’s initially confused by the warning, it turns out that the government is searching for any pregnant women carrying babies that are not devolving.
Once Cedar’s pregnancy starts to show, she cannot go out, even to shop for food. She becomes confined to the house and has to construct a secret food cache in the basement. Her progressive parents disappear from their house, and fake people with fake smiles and gentle voices move into it. She cries over all the “wonderful, normal times” that she’s eaten crackers and cheese with parents or friends. The government is taken over by the Church of the New Constitution, which conducts surveillance through her computer. It turns on by itself and says, “Hello dear, this is Mother. How are you tonight? I am worried. We don’t seem to be communicating very well.”
It’s end times.
Reading the first 50 pages, with all their satire and humor, I was humming R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” But as the novel progressed, I came to understand that it would be grimmer than other dystopian novels I’d read and, because of its recognizable ordinariness at the outset, more terrifying.
Indeed, events grow steadily more horrifying and visceral — in one memorable scene, Cedar is forced to crush and kill rats to keep them from swarming a stillborn baby. But as the action grows more intense, the government’s will becomes increasingly baroque, simultaneously over- and under-explained. Why are people trying to escape to California? Why is the government targeting Minneapolis? Why are the news anchors all white? How does Mother appear in computers in which the power has died? These questions need not be answered, of course, and the supernatural elements in the basic premise provide Erdrich some freedom. But the way in which these questions are raised and then just as quickly dropped feels rushed rather than intense and mysterious.
Somehow, in a fortuitous blast of pregnancy hormones, Cedar remains optimistic through the darkest of times. But Future Home fully conveys the intensity of pregnancy during an apocalypse — if it can feel harrowing for an individual mother in normal circumstances, how much more earth-shattering must it be when you’re carrying one of the last fully evolved humans? The conceit of a mother writing to her unborn child is well executed, and the nature of impending motherhood is handled with care and accuracy. Cedar notes, “I don’t know why it is given to us to be so mortal and to feel so much. It is a cruel trick and glorious.” This spirit of looking at the world as a source of amazement, as being pregnant with possibility, rather than with sorrow or wistfulness, permeates the book. The tone shifts from frank and satiric to philosophical and tender but rarely sinks into the deeply melancholic voice that we’ve come to expect from the genre.
Designing a fully realized dystopia that speaks to the present moment is an ambitious and challenging feat of world building. Although the novel is slow to move into a dystopian register, the newly oppressive governmental institutions Erdrich fashions for Future Home make sense. The reader can easily imagine how our current government, which is already obsessed with controlling women’s reproductive systems, would become even more intrusive when there is a premium on “normal” babies.
The immediate comparison is to Margaret Atwood’s similarly hellish masterwork The Handmaid’s Tale, but the two novels have quite different political viewpoints. Given the Trump Era rise in reactionary conservatism, Atwood’s storytelling may seem eerily of-the-moment to those watching the Hulu television show based on the novel. However, the novel was published in 1985 — it was Atwood’s insightful response to what was happening politically during a decade that was crucial to the advance of the Christian right. Catholic right-to-life organizations had made Roe v. Wade a significant political issue by 1976, former Southern Baptist minister Pat Robertson was calling abortion a “theological matter,” and it was taken up as a pet cause by Evangelicals who came together to form the Moral Majority. Atwood’s novel simply takes the Moral Majority and pushes its beliefs to their logical end: a violent theocracy. She plainly modeled Serena Joy after pro-life conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly, who said in 1977, “Women find their greatest fulfillment at home with the family.”
The Handmaid’s Tale has an elegiac atmosphere, a longing for a yesteryear in which secular democracy, rather than theocracy, was the social norm. In Atwood’s dystopia are the seeds of a utopia. The novel sets as its ideal a time prior to the seizing of political power by Evangelical fanatics. It’s unforgettable partly because the narrator, the handmaid Offred, turns ordinary secular details like shampoo into objects of visionary poetry imbued with a loss and sorrow that pervades the entire work. This poetry of the everyday is shared by notable contemporary dystopian novels such as Laura van den Berg’s Find Me (2015), which touches on the search for a mother, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), as well as arthouse films such as Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). Everything social and political that is frightening in Atwood’s universe is intensified through lovely references to the utterly banal. Look at what you could lose, her novel seems to say.
Future Home shares the intensity of Handmaid’s Tale but doesn’t dissolve into melancholy. It cannot be read as an elegy for a lost world the way Atwood’s novel can. Cedar’s moral and religious worldview is different from that of the more liberal narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale. For instance, Cedar writes a Catholic newsletter, and this is in line with the book’s choice to treat her unborn fetus as a person, a potential recipient of all her letters. Perhaps Erdrich’s approach to what is dystopian arises from her different starting point — our existing world is not a utopia, and Erdrich will not pretend that it is.
Unlike Atwood, Erdrich uses banal imagery — particularly food and pregnancy, but also snot and technology — to generate a surreal sensation. She evokes the feeling of crazy end times by showing how institutions have gone completely haywire even as most sensory objects are experienced and sought after in the same way. In one scene, for example, Cedar is out getting a Subway sandwich when she sees the police seize a pregnant woman and her husband off the street, leaving their child to be swallowed up by a crowd. Cedar writes, “This is how the world ends, I think, everything crazy yet people doing normal things.” Erdrich captures the flavor of our Trumpian reality perfectly.
Future Home also shares literary DNA with P. D. James’s reproduction-focused dystopian novel The Children of Men (1992), though the latter is set in England. James uses fertility issues as a launch pad for concerns about totalitarianism. In the novel, the last baby was born in 1995, and by 2021 humans are on the brink of extinction. The narrator’s cousin is the Warden of England, and his critics view him as a despot. He’s a paternalistic force who purportedly acts out of concern for order but actually seeks to retain and enforce power. A subplot about a baby’s paternity echoes and reinforces the larger plot’s commentary on the rise of a tyrant, which is rendered authentic through James’s use of real history and politics — heretofore run by men, by fathers — to inform her narrative.
Instead of a masculine-centered totalitarianism that can be read as paternalism run amok, Erdrich imagines the government of Future Home as a creepy mother. As it acts to control the reproduction of Cedar and other pregnant women, the government explicitly projects itself as “Mother” — soft, maternal, concerned. But it’s a mother that desires control, a mother who may seem nurturing and progressive but is really just as autocratic as a traditional father figure. Where James’s paternity subplot clarifies her vision of totalitarianism, Erdrich’s government-as-creepy-mother framework muddles hers. It feels like a literary attack on a progressive vision of government, especially when juxtaposed with the lightly mocking satire directed at Cedar’s progressive, white, adoptive parents.
There is a conceptual basis for Erdrich’s decision to make her intrusive government maternal and solicitous, or falsely nurturing. As the linguist George Lakoff has pointed out in multiple books, including Moral Politics (1996), we tend to understand nation metaphorically as family. Traditionally, the left and right wings in this country have held ideological worldviews that can be understood as two different family models. Within this framework, progressives are identified with a nurturant parent model in which empathy is crucial and children become self-reliant with the help of caregivers, often mothers. In contrast, conservatives subscribe to a strict father model, which positions the father of a traditional nuclear family as the primary protector of children and sole authority devising rules of behavior and providing enforcement. Thus, one group sees the role of government as nurturing and supporting its citizens while the other sees it as an enforcer of rules and order, nothing more.
The text of Future Home drives toward the idea that a nurturing, progressive vision of government could and would lead to an abuse of control just as the strict father model does. This may, as an abstraction or in a historical vacuum, be true. Humans of any gender have within them the capacity to abuse whatever power they get. However, our real-world experience shows that most of what we know about how abuse of power plays out corresponds to a right-wing, authoritarian, strict father worldview (think Nazi Germany). The Children of Men gets this exactly right. The nurturant parent model, on the other hand, has only ever partially been implemented in the United States through programs such as Social Security. It simply doesn’t, by its very definition, correspond with the idea of brute governmental force.
Moreover, Erdrich’s political intentions for the novel as expressed in her author’s note are precisely the opposite of what her text suggests. She started writing the novel in 2002 in response to what she saw as a regressive political moment — the false intelligence that went into justifying the war in Iraq and President George W. Bush’s reinstatement of the global gag rule. She revisited the novel in 2016 after Trump was elected, when it appeared that we’d circled back to the politics of 2002, only worse. In the note, she points to deaths from unsafe abortions and the newly reimposed global gag rule, writing, “I only have to look at photographs of white men in dark suits deciding crucial issues of women’s health to know the timing is right” for publication of Future Home.
But the political concepts in Future Home are not fleshed out enough to comment effectively on our current moment. The symbolic connection between mothers and power that Erdrich wants to make is handled much more thoughtfully by Octavia Butler in her strikingly prophetic 1998 novel Parable of the Talents. In Talents, a demagogue president takes control of the country by promising that he’ll make America great again. A group of his Christian Crusaders are kidnapping the children of heathens and raping women, though he formally distances himself from them. The novel’s protagonist Lauren Olamina, a cult leader whose daughter has been kidnapped by the Crusaders, desires power and influence, too. However, she’s a black woman, not a representative of the established white-nationalist government, and she’s not given to offering up fake nostalgia in an effort to gather followers. Instead, she creates her own religion by seeking out like-minded followers through conversation and discussion — in other words, she’s nurturing.
But in the end, Olamina’s daughter Larkin, who may have been brainwashed, perceives her mother as being just as frightening as the totalitarian president. Through Larkin we receive the truth that power-seekers are always, regardless of gender, capable of manipulation and abuse. This, I think, is the truth Erdrich is working toward in Future Home. But Butler’s Afrofuturist version speaks more directly to our times. Olamina is never in a position to wield the brute, oppressive force of the government — she never has the power to create apocalyptic conditions the way Future Home’s Creepy Mother regime does. She may offer a form of salvation, but it is not to be had on this Earth.
Future Home is a departure from the lush intimacy of Erdrich’s Love Medicine and the dark, unforgettable storytelling of The Round House. As a gifted author’s flawed, experimental foray into dystopian fiction, it illustrates an important distinction between dystopian writing that arises from dreams and fantasy and that which arises from observation. At Future Home’s core is a fantasy about the visceral relationship between mothers and their babies, and between humans and Mother Earth. Dreams are inexorably personal, private, and idiosyncratic. They arise more from how we feel about things than from what those things might mean apart from our feelings about them and so fall outside the shared public sphere of the political. Erdrich’s dream-like approach to dystopian fiction contrasts with that taken by Atwood, James, and Butler, who were articulating shared visions rather than private ones, those they’d extrapolated from tangible situations that could be observed by anybody in our world who was interested in looking.
In the later part of the novel, Erdrich alludes to a famous Bertolt Brecht quote: “In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.” In the scene, Eddy says, “Humans have always been superfluous troublemakers […] But at least we’ve got good songs.” Cedar points out that not everyone has good songs, and notes, “Mother — you know that Mother — has no song.” Eddy replies, “People sick for power have no song. But your baby is going to have a song.” Future Home functions like a song about the dark times, a blues hymn about how surreal life under Trump feels to progressives. But it’s not really a song about the specifics of our dark times. Rather, it’s a beautifully written, if imperfect, thought experiment that pushes the boundaries of reproduction-focused dystopian fiction. We may be in a historical moment that feels brutish and regressive, but it could, Erdrich suggests, be even worse.
Anita Felicelli has contributed essays and reviews to The New York Times (Modern Love), San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, and The Rumpus. Her short stories have been published in The Normal School, Joyland, Kweli Journal, Eckleburg, Strangelet Journal, and The Stockholm Review.