Once upon a time there lived a pretty lady named Jiselle who was always a bridesmaid and never a bride. But one night she is swept off her feet by a handsome pilot with green eyes and a tragic past. He proposes! She says yes!
But the “happily ever after” part snags on a few complications. Her new husband spends way more time in flight than he does at home. He has three motherless kids, one of them a middle-schooler with the mother of all attitudes. Jiselle’s own mother has an attitude of her own, marked by a particular contempt for unreliable charmers and her own daughter’s pathetic naïveté.
Oh – and a deadly plague is sweeping the land.
“In A Perfect World” is a dystopian fairy tale by Chelsea novelist and poet Laura Kasischke, set in an America whose citizens have become global pariahs – shunned, quarantined and loathed as potential carriers of the gruesomely fatal Phoenix flu. A distant war drags on vaguely. The power grid fails for hours and then days, and then for good. The mysterious plague kills the rich and famous along with everybody else.
In the small Midwestern town of St. Sophia, “regular codes of conduct” give way to casual licentiousness. Fearless rats hang out in the drugstore parking lot like a gang of bored teenagers. The schools eventually close and so do the malls, and soon there’s no going to the office in the morning, either. The local newspaper manages to publish an occasional edition with feel-good items about the Boy Scouts; it has stopped running obituaries altogether.
High drama of the apocalyptic kind is scarce in this novel, hence much of its allure. As often in Kasischke’s fiction, including “The Life Before Her Eyes” (which a few years ago was made into a film starring Uma Thurman), creepy developments glide through the same door as the day’s ordinary doings. And as what Kasischke calls “a trickle of disasters” seeps in from the coasts, “In A Perfect World” becomes a tale of quiet, determined domesticity. Jiselle and the children plan trips to the increasingly barren grocery store, pass the evenings with games by candlelight and husband the firewood in anticipation of winter. Jiselle does what a mother must, and while the family unit contracts with death and despair it expands, too, nourished by a primal love swept clear of grudge and resentment by the demands of existential crisis. Life goes on, will go on.
Kasischke says she knew when she began her latest novel – it arrives in bookstores next week – that it would be “about motherhood … the primacy of the children and the family.” But like Jiselle, Kasischke ended up with a story unlike the one she’d initially envisioned. What finally emerged as “In A Perfect World,” she says, was a manuscript half the length of the original draft.
“Until I get really far into it and then start pruning things away I really don’t think it’s going to be a novel,” she says. “I always think, ‘well, this probably won’t work out.’” But when she has a novel in progress, “I always have something to think about. It’s like people who carry their knitting around with them. … I can be sitting in a meeting doing my knitting, and no one even knows.”
Her early research for “Perfect World” led Kasischke to plague histories and accounts of the Crusades. But only a few pages into the story, it is hard not to feel thrown back into the dark ages of George Bush the Second: “You think the Europeans have any sympathy for us?” Jiselle’s neighbor tells her; he has armed himself with a rifle and a year’s supply of water and advises her to do the same. “Ha! We burned that bridge, and all the other bridges are burning as we speak.” But political commentary wasn’t necessarily Kasischke’s intention.
“I think I had bird flu in mind, and I had wars and anti-American sentiment and that sort of thing,” she says of the time when the novel was taking shape. But she adds: “I don’t know that I feel like things have radically changed, as far as that sort of thing goes, since he’s out of office. I mean – now we’ve got the swine flu.”
Still, in the form of running communiqués from an ever-receding mass media, Kasischke wryly observes how American society makes sense and nonsense out of disaster. Trendy spirituality and other absurdities of popular culture initially rise to the challenge: A flourishing crop of gimmicky evangelists push atonement, silver-bullet nutrients, back-to-the-land movements or various forms of positive thinking. There’s something called the “Whale Prayer Project”; “New Amish” groups lay the blame on radiation from cellphones. Inevitably, as the panic mounts, mobs go after SUV drivers with baseball bats. And the market segment that rejects introspection is served, too: “If you don’t want to hear the bad news out there, folks,” a radio announcer shouts, “we’re just playing music and telling really stupid jokes!” We know it’s grim when only the roughest of raw staples remain on the supermarket shelves and the celebrity rags at the checkout are chillingly out of date.
This is Kasischke’s seventh novel. She teaches creative writing in the Residential College and the MFA program at the University of Michigan; before joining UM she taught writers at Washtenaw Community College. She has also written several books of poetry.
“Writing poetry,” Kasischke says, “is a high-energy thing that only happens once in a while.” But reading and writing it, she says, enhances the imagery in her prose. True – from “In A Perfect World,” here’s a description of hummingbirds outside the family’s cabin:
One night at dusk, there’d been masses of them swarming … glistening and iridescent and beating their wings in a supernatural blur. They zigzagged through the air around the house as if they were working together to sew an elaborate net, tying the house to the ground.
Kasischke remarks on what she calls the “really lively” community of performance poets when asked about the local literary scene. But, she adds, “we’re yet to see what happens now that Shaman Drum is gone. … It would be bad if the only writing community stuff that lasts now is at the university, because of course that excludes so many people.”
Kasischke is taking a break from teaching at UM this term; she received a Guggenheim fellowship that’s allowing her to complete a book of poems. And she’s working on another novel.
More from an interview with Laura Kasischke:
On “In A Perfect World”: “I knew I wanted it to have these fairy-tale elements. … I always see so many fairy tales as having a dark undercurrent, anyway.”
On why she writes: “I really do love it. It helps to get published and all, but if you’re looking for validation, all you have to do is look at the next bad review.”
Her favorite novels: She mentions Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome,” Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.”
What she’s been reading lately: “Await Your Reply,” by Ohio writer Dan Chaon, and “a lot of poetry in translation.”
On the literary community: “We’ll have to see if something takes the place of Shaman Drum, because I think that’s what brought a lot of people together.”
“In A Perfect World,” by Laura Kasischke, is being published in October by Harper Perennial.
About the writer: Domenica Trevor is a voracious reader who lives in Ann Arbor.