Descent into Hell

What if a major quake hit British Columbia?

Imagine—science was right: the Big One hits the West Coast, decimating Victoria. Anarchy rules. Most of the population is buried alive or burned in the inferno from ruptured gas lines; no organized aid groups or military arrive to unearth survivors or dispose of bodies. A tilting Empress Hotel is the last vestige of civility as media vultures hover seeking “prey” to amuse a missing—dead?—audience. Bloodlust reigns, and an animal survival instinct. Such is the post-apocalyptic vision of Victoria poet Steven Price’s speculative first novel, Into That Darkness.

Exploiting an imminent what-if, the book, published eerily on the heels of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, pits an urgent certainty against the randomness of such events in the Earth’s natural history. Science figures largely in Price’s narrative, although his dog-eat-dog Mad Max world is no farfetched sci-fi invention but one made tangible by its contemporary references. There are echoes of Atwood’s genetically engineered dystopia in The Year of the Flood in Price’s references to religion, for religion figures largely too, as tied to humanity’s history as geology is to Nature’s. A postmodern exploration of traditional dualities—light versus darkness, goodness versus evil, belief versus unbelief—Price’s book is unwaveringly polemical.

Blending hyperrealism, allegory and meta-fiction, the novel zeroes in on the lingering question after every catastrophe: if there is a God, why does he or she allow such suffering? Price poses it baldly, entertaining polar responses: the nihilist’s self-cleaning Easy-Bake Oven of an answer, that there is no god and if there was, why would he or she care; and the Christian’s more challenging one, that when humanity suffers so does all of creation including the God whose goodness is manifest in people’s helping hands. It is a mystery that defies resolution and finds little here except in Price’s, and his protagonist’s, affirmation of Nature’s resilience.

But there is hell to be gotten through first, then purgatory, before the tiniest glimmer of hope that might suggest paradiso. Dante’s Divine Comedy is the central trope subverted in what becomes an absurdist human “comedy” whose circus sideshow aspects recall Price’s brilliant poetry collection, Anatomy of Keys, centred on escape artist Harry Houdini. Amid chaos a skewed order prevails. As the believer who appears in Darkness’s purgatory declares, “coincidence is just another word for providence … Except it’s not so frightening.”

The novel’s “hero” (as in the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer,” that pop send-up of pop fiction) is a man named Lear: Arthur Lear, a former painter who at 69 is an “old man.” His Shakespearian preoccupations with aging and grief are trumped yet intensified when the ground gives way and he is buried alive with Aza the tobacconist, former model for his dead ex-wife Callie, a sculptor, minutes after barista Anna Mercia, until then a stranger, returns the wallet he had left in her coffee shop. He digs himself out and manages to save Mason, Anna Mercia’s ten-year-old son, while leaving her for dead.

Thus begins the chain of coincidences that draws us through the inferno, a hellish mash-up of horrific realism and vaudeville as Arthur reluctantly helps Mason locate his mum, who is very much alive, and just as hesitantly helps Anna Mercia find Kat, her missing teenage daughter. Price delivers the principal points of view—Arthur’s, Mason’s and Anna Mercia’s—in a dispassionate limited third-person voice alternating with their interior monologues, which are rawly confessional. Just as Arthur represents everyman, self-concerned but basically decent, Mason signifies innocence easily corrupted, and Anna Mercia the relativist whose survival instincts dominate. Their tale is a five-day existentialist pilgrimage toward some sort of light, even as time itself blurs, the only constant the devastation. If there is a plan—and Price’s formalism mimics one—it is neither good nor evil. “It is what it is,” says the custodian in the penultimate scene, the purgatory of the church of his boyhood that Arthur finds himself in.

If events strain our suspension of disbelief, we are not to judge them, no matter how easy, how blanket the oppositions occasionally feel. For better or worse they serve an allegorical purpose: the waffling between despair and hope that presses Arthur onward through the rubble. Separating the halves of his unwelcome quest—helping first to find Anna Mercia, then Anna Mercia’s daughter—a narrative fault line splits the action: a lengthy metafictional fable he tells her about a creationist and a scientist who become friends and reverse their positions. To say that it flattens the drama is being kind. For all its postmodernism—that determination to overturn various literary conventions—the novel caves here to the didacticism of a conventional antecedent, Hugh MacLennan’s 1941 novel Barometer Rising about the 1917 Halifax explosion. But Price’s problem is less MacLennan’s—that of using catastrophe as deus ex machina—than of making characters serve as mouthpieces to debate a point.

Much more gripping, and redemptive, are the passages in which Price’s hyperreal imagery and perfectly paced language provoke in us a dizzying visceral response to what is happening. Our identification with the characters is less emotional than animal; we feel as Arthur does the first warning tremor, the uncanny stillness before things collapse. We feel sickened yet riveted to the near–pornographic violence when Anna Mercia is violated by and then castrates the barber (Dante’s demonic Barbariccia?) who occupies her home. Nowhere are Price’s graphic realism and poetic pacing more effective than when mother seeks daughter among the corpses at Henderson Field, Victoria’s suburban park serving as a mass morgue:

Many of the coverings had been kicked aside and left in crumpled heaps and she walked with her eyes to the ground and she did not look at the dead. She did not see a naked woman with blond hair, heavy breasts flattened … Nor did she see a little boy with his bruised eyes open, his blue lips upturned in an eerie grin. Nor an old lady whose seamed face looked peaceful, unblemished, without a mark on her, as if she were only dreaming … Nor a boy with his legs crushed … Nor a man with a swollen belly … Nor another with his throat torn out … Nor a plump girl in pink pajamas … Nor two brothers … Nor a baby…

Using the mundane to emphasize the horror, Price spares no details, and finally, as in Anatomy of Keys, attention is directed to us, the remote, voyeuristic audience—viewers as much captivated as repelled by what we see. While the poetry places us amid Houdini’s bloodthirsty audience, here we are like the purveyors, by turns, of Munch’s now-campy Scream and, for instance, any of Francis Bacon’s paintings meant to make us feel the fear they depict. Obliquely, Arthur’s painterly perspective makes sense; it is his curious penchant for seeing in 2-D that we share, as opposed to his former wife Callie’s capacity to see and embrace the world in 3‑D. Even in death she is a guiding spirit through the darkness, and, for Arthur anyway, a final reminder that there is meaning in materiality, even when life seems cheap.

If this seems black and white, it is because it is. Despite some fabulous writing, Into That Darkness suffers from adhering so carefully to concept; hell is a slog, which may be fitting. But while Price’s poetic gifts are put to good use, the world he creates—for all its dark plausibility—misses the layered richness of that evoked in the Houdini poems, which explore similar themes of escape and rescue. Into That Darkness lacks the unified style and approach of Keys, although its message is the same: the idea that, as Sartre would say, although life continues there is no exit from death and decay. As Arthur and his cohorts observe, grief goes on.