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The Husk of Yesterday, Tomorrow
On Weather Underwater by Kaisa Saarinen
About 70 pages into Kaisa Saarinen’s Weather Underwater, out in a few days from Bellows Press, one of the novel’s two protagonists does something unforgivable. Weeks after having finished it, I can recall the position of this event in the text easily, without needing to refer back to it, because it marks the moment the text’s actual nature becomes clear. The experience of reading the pages before it is essentially one of acclimation, of gaining one’s bearings. Its first lines are abstract, nameless bruised bodies intertwined, giving way to the first image as-such: an “Electric Medusa” of power cables caught swaying underwater in the morning light, surrounded by wreck and ruin. From these grounds (bodies, intimacies, literal/metaphorical power and decay) a near-future Britain is slowly painted out, one where flooding, water shortages, and runaway xenophobia has recently swept the Tidewater Party, an eco-fascist configuration as openly and cartoonishly genocidal as the NSDAP itself was, into power – although the situation is such that even their power seems to rest on crumbling ground, at risk of being swept away along with everything else. The worldbuilding here is patient but sometimes slightly clumsy, sometimes too heavy on one note or too light on another, and as it unfolds through short chapters, flashing back and forth between the perspectives of the two nameless bodies, giving them names, identities, histories, flesh and breath expanded into two women who knew each other once, loved each other once, long ago, years ago in a time when years are like centuries, I found myself wondering if the book was really prepared to go down thew path it had set itself on. There are many, many works of ostensibly “dystopian” sci-fi that are not really willing to follow their premises to their conclusions, that let sympathy get in the way of honesty – it is easy to blink in the face of horror, hard to keep gazing steadily. Of course, in this case, my fears were unfounded. What Saarinen sets up, she follows through on.
More than anything else, what Weather Underwater is is a text wherein the sentimental impulse is continually met with unsentimental discipline. “Then” and “now” are constantly being overlaid, refracted, interpolated, asking us over and over which must take precedence, and again and again giving us the same answer: you can’t go home again. It’s not that the past is rose-colored and the present is all faded gray (this is not a world that was ever painless), but simply that the past contained an unrealized potential, a diverging path, which in times as bad as these will always possess a melancholy allure. The choice is always between remaining concerned with Being as it is, or slipping into the gentle dissociation of what-once-was and what-could-have-been, becoming a ghost in your own life. There is no truly neutral option, Weather Underwater reminds us, not while you still occupy a place in the world, and if you resign yourself to passivity, if you retreat from this world into the husk of some yesterday, tomorrow you will wake up and not know how the person you remember became the person in the mirror. It’s not a unique insight, but it’s one of value, especially when conveyed with as much clarity and sympathy as it is here. Unforgivable is not the same as incomprehensible.
I’m writing very vaguely, I know, of the contents of this book. The reason for this is very simple: I want you to buy it. Beneath its shifting, refracting surface, Weather Underwater is a relatively conventional novel, in the sense that it wishes pull you along from page to page out of a desire to know “what will happen” – this is not a process I wish to sabotage. Usually, when I write criticism, I’m fine with it potentially serving as a substitute for the object in question; that is not the case here. Once it became clear to me the level on which it was operating, that it was really willing to go for it, I found myself viscerally invested in this book in a way I haven’t been in a while (months, at least). Perhaps this is in part because I don’t often choose to read books which are particularly interested in entertaining their readers, and so perhaps this should be taken with a grain of salt, but the fact of the matter is I found it a compelling, worthwhile experience.
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