It’s happening. I’m taking book recommendations from TikTok.
To be fair, TikTok has a vibrant community of readers, writers, and booksellers, all posting under the #booktok tag. It feels almost reminiscent of 2010’s era Tumblr, when people would write reviews and headcanons of Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Sherlock Holmes. Except now there’s the earworm-y music, and those silly dances. And would you know it, they’re still making headcanons about Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Sherlock Holmes! I guess that’s why they’re called classics. Also another Green brother is famous on the platform. History truly does rhyme.
In any case, around two weeks ago, someone on BookTok posted about Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go In The Dark (2022). I was skeptical at first, when the user (I wish I could find them, but alas, the speed of the modern Internet) described the book as being among the most important pieces of fiction to read right now. Even now I still have some reservations about that assessment, but as they went into further detail into what the book was about, and the ensemble of characters at the heart of its tragic drama, I started to get hooked. I better check this out, I thought to myself by the end of that fifteen second TikTok.
I had initially planned on reading this on my Kindle. I already had the Amazon page open on my iPhone, and was just sitting on it for a couple of days before finally pressing that “Buy” button. But as fate would have it, the day after I first learned about this book, the fiancée were at the mall near our house to check out the Fully Booked branch that had just opened there, and lo and behold, this was the first book I stumble upon on the shelves.
The book itself is a beauty. I got the first US hardcover edition from William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins. The inside binding is a delightful sky blue, and the dust jacket bears what looks like a blue and white watercolor impression of a cloudy sky. At the center is a golden sun, and the phases of the moon splashed along the diagonal. When my first novel is finally published (and dare I say it, it’s well on its way), I want the cover to look as evocative and mysterious as this.
Anyway, back to the book. The novel opens with the discovery of an old virus in a thawing permafrost somewhere in Siberia. At the research facility that had been set up there to collect data on the permafrost, a scientist arrives to continue the work his daughter had left behind after her untimely death. However, the team of scientists quickly learn that in the thawing ice, they have contracted a virus that had been preserved from a bygone era. In this first chapter, the book is still vague as to how the virus affects the human body, but naturally the scientists are pressed: should they report the finding and potentially never come home to their loved ones again, or do they brush away the fact and risk unleashing a global pandemic?
Because of its subject, one might think that COVID served as an inspiration for Japanese-American author Sequoia Nagamatsu (who also wrote the short story collection Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone published with Black Lawrence Press in 2016) but one would be surprised to learn that the book, prior to its 2022 publication, had already been in progress for nearly ten years prior. Nagamatsu himself would post about this, and on TikTok no less, sharing screenshots of updates on Twitter and Instagram as material for the novel piled up and the book entered into editing and later printing. Sections of the book had already been published as short stories in literary journals and anthologies like The Black Warrior Review, Southern Review, and One World: A Global Anthology of Short Stories.
After the emotionally charged opening with the father following his dead daughter’s footsteps in the Siberian cold, where the story takes us next, it’s already been years since the discovery of the virus, and the world has already started to come under the pandemic. Though it seems at this juncture that only children are affected, and the grown ups are more or less immune to the more mortal effects of the virus. Naturally, society is at a scramble to try and mitigate the disaster. After a failed quarantine protocol (reads very familiar), pharmaceutical companies and universities test experimental drugs to try and reverse the infection. When research continues to be unproductive, a solution is proposed in the form of a “euthanasia” theme park, where terminally ill children board a rollercoaster – aptly named the Chariot of Osiris – whose inversions are engineered to induce a quick and painless death.
A euthanasia theme park for dying children, a mass of formless people getting a glimpse of the life they left behind in a kind of afterlife antechamber: Nagamatsu shows a deft hand at writing evocative imagery that embody the collective grief of the world he has created. I think partly because the novel was conceived through separate stories, How High We Go In The Dark deals largely with these images of a mortal existence, which isn’t to say it has no plot, or that it reads like an exercise in futile lamentation. In what is definitely a noteworthy debut for an author with an assured and elegiac voice, Sequoia Nagamatsu gives us an unsparing glance into the messy bits of what it means to be human. He has ventured bravely into the heart of the void and come out the other side with a report of what it means both to live and to die meaningfully.
Note: featured image is from the Chicago Review of Books.