Do you hear it when you look at the cover of Nancy Lee’s debut novel?
The Age. It is an unusual title which manages to feel both like a fragment and an expansive concept.
If readers do think of the song from “Hairspray”, images conjured from the Age of Aquarius might cluster.
Astrologers disagree about the specific calculations which define this astrological age, about whether it has arrived or is yet to arrive, but readers might think of defining characteristics of popular culture’s understanding of the age, like humanitarianism and idealism, rebellion and nonconformity.
These ideas lurk and certainly fuel elements of the story, but the overarching sense for readers is a feeling of pending doom and anxiety.
It is 1984 Vancouver and there are warships in the Atlantic: these are precarious times and the nuclear threat is resounding.
In fact, the atmosphere of this novel is truly overwhelming. It takes considerable skill and attention to detail to build this kind of emotion without a relentless start-to-finish blood-pumping plot.
Mind you, The Age does have a plot with teeth. There is a plan to plant a bomb, designed to reveal the destructive impact of war and underline the importance of working towards peace. Chaos is to be cultivated though no lives are to be lost. So there is overt tension in some plot elements, yes.
But if The Age was intended to be a page-turner, Nancy Lee would have structured it differently. Events would have been recounted in a linear manner, the glimpses into the main character’s imagination would have been excised, along with the clutter of secondary relationships.
Instead, it seems readers are directed to feel as fragmented as the shards of Gerry’s identity, scrambling to piece together meaningful bits, assembling something-like-a-story despite immersion in a dark and deadened atmosphere.
At first glance, this might be mistaken for the amorphous wanderings of a debut novel. But the mood of The Age is carefully constructed, even though families and communities are shattering.
In the hands of another storyteller, perhaps The Age would culminate in a swath of loose ends, but Nancy Lee’s novel begins and ends with the aftermath, a serious and deliberate fracturing.
The novel’s imagery is presented in straightforward language: uncomplicated, but effective. Even individual sensory descriptions force a degree of discomfort.
Consider the cumulative effect of details like the following: from “her grip on the handlebars part sweat, part tack of peeling tape” to her rubbing “her head, her face burning. The ringing lingers like a bell in dream”.
Sweat, tack, and burning: these are not pleasant. And this kind of thing is inescapable, even at the sentence-level, for consider the echo of ringing which is lingering, which transforms the sentence into something designed to make readers recoil and want to cover their ears.
It is often claustrophobic, strangling. “Megan’s living room is always stuffy, like a hand over Gerry’s face, heat that starts in the matted carpet beneath her socks, then rises to muddy the air.”
Even drawers squawk and protest. “She flattens her palms on her father’s desk, the varnish rough in patches, dust like fabric under her hands. She works her fingers past the lip of the drawer, wiggles it, the stiff, squeaky protest of wood on wood.”
The layering of detail is distinctly unsettling. This novel is unlikely to be anybody’s comfort read, but it could be a fable of sorts, for the seeker, for the traveller.
Gerry’s identity is shifting and altering, as disrupted as the political scene she inhabits, both at home and in the circle of resistors she joins. Desperate to belong, to be recognized as having a role to play, she makes decisions with the passion and misdirection of a hormonal teenager. At times she is savvy and insightful, and at times she is thoughtless and aimless: unsure of her own self, perpetually in disguise.
“With the tips of her fingers, she pats her mom’s liquid foundation over the worst of it, tempers the angry purple with tawny beige. She leaves her hair down as camouflage, draws a brush through it, careful not to graze her scalp.”
In the novel’s opening scene, she is misidentified as a boy: beaten first and then recognized as a girl. In her own imagination, a series of scenes in which Gerry imagines what existence would be like following the detonation of a nuclear bomb, she transforms herself into a boy.
Both in and out of this fantasy, Gerry grapples with the threat of and inevitability of death.
“Missiles will get them first.”
Gerry traces the tiny vessels. “What do you think it will it feel like?”
He pinches his fingers together, then bursts them apart. “Pfft. Nothing. Life is nothing. Death is nothing.”
This is an Age, but it is also Gerry’s Age. Her Age of Becoming. An age characterized by fear, personal and political, which leaves readers shaken and disoriented from the blast of disappointments.
“She is afraid of spiders, of dying a virgin, of the new virus, detonators and plutonium, warships in the Persian Gulf. She is afraid of airplane sounds, the shape of certain cloud formations, gas masks, submarines, the electric squeal of the emergency broadcast system, farmers’ fields that open to mile-deep silos. She is afraid of generals and admirals, and old white presidents. Of seeing her father, and never seeing him, of radiation sickness, and reincarnation, being vaporized only to return to an annihilated world.”
Nancy Lee’s The Age is challenging and abrasive; it scatters readers’ expectations of a novel and invites us to enter the aftermath.