In a future land called Nation, late-stage capitalism and an unchecked faith in technology have wreaked planetary havoc: “Distressed survivors huddle illustratively or claw up cliffs or weep on overpasses dressed in neon, rainsoaked T-shirts screenprinted with the slogans of corporate sponsors: Product is Life. Life is good.” Earth has been pushed beyond what its “immune system” can bear. The environment befouled, people eat synthetic honey and drink chemically constituted milk. The Continuous Heritage Board produces propaganda for nonstop viewing on ubiquitous “filescreens,” and personal liberties are severely limited. There are vast areas of Nation that are off-limits to the populace, and citizens can travel only via preapproved routes. Real freedom of movement is unknown. An unnamed geographer, who works for the Bureau of Maps, notes that “sometimes in the interest of national security we would remove a land or water route from all future editions of a map.” Think Brave New World, 1984, or J. G. Ballard’s dark, prophetic sci-fi. Touted on its back cover as “speculative fiction,” Joyelle McSweeney’s Flet could also be described as a poetic fever dream of the future.
The novel proceeds through the accretion of strange details, which the reader must assemble into the destabilized reality of the state of Nation. Bits of narrative (dis)information can be glimpsed only as fragments of a shipwreck, gradually surfacing to reveal the book’s unsettling central dilemma: Did Nation’s fate-shaping catastrophe, a vaguely documented air attack dubbed Emergency Day, ever actually take place? Or, as the novel’s eponymous young female protagonist begins to suspect, is it a manipulative fiction, staged and maintained by the powers that be for their own murky purposes? To read this novel is not to solve that mystery or the others the book offers, but to become mired in them, as in quicksand.
Flet is composed of short, dense chapters, with titles that range from simple informative phrases (“The Leader Speaks”) to self-reflexive commentary on the writing process (“Plot as a Topology of Hydrostatic Pressures”). McSweeney is also a poet—she has published two collections—and here, straight narrative loosely alternates with stream of consciousness. The latter spills forth in compressed, postapocalyptic mind gushes, full of wordplay, branching associations, mixed diction, and copious references: “For when the eye has lost its slaver, what then? Blind man, by your sense of the sea, steer the vessel. Lift the staff. Part the water. Strange fruit swings in stormy welter. Waxwings. The storm at sea. Wax lips and jelly babies. Learning, the barefoot boys in straw hats before the red schoolhouse. Leaning.”
The novel is both coded and elegiac. It is a warning cry and an evocation of nostalgia for eras within recent memory, when we and our planet were healthier. Flet’s cautionary aspects are timely and dire, yet the book also pays tribute to the urge to hold tight to the ephemeral pleasures of language while so many other joys fizzle and wink out.