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In Ana Simo’s anticipated debut novel, not only was America never great; it might’ve never existed to begin with. “There was no such a place,” our Latina anti-heroine dispatches from a parallel universe. “It had been a postprandial dream of the Enlightenment, kept artificially alive by the feeding tubes of self-interest through the end of the twentieth century, until its fat throat was slit in the Jacobean gore of 2008.”
Categorized as “literary dystopia” and “lesbian pulp noir” by Restless Books, Heartland exists in a liberating matrix of its own creation: one where a book can be politically gifted without having to save the world, and Machiavellian without having to apologize for it. Heartland’s dark humor and listeza pairs nicely with Mean, Myriam Gurba’s biting new memoir about life and death in another dystopia of sorts: Southern California. I’ve my fingers crossed that a thoughtful bookstore programmer gets these two authors together for a brilliant intergenerational conversation in the near future.
In reality as we know it, 2008 marked the beginning of the Great Recession, during which 10% of the American workforce was unemployed. In our unnamed narrator’s world, a not-too-dissimilar corruption triggered the Great Hunger, during which the so-called “flyover states”–including an affluent town named Elmira and the smaller one in which our narrator lived–faced dramatic food shortages; many second-class citizens were moved to resettlement camps as a result. With political tension always visible in the rear-view mirror, our tough-as-nails narrator steers us into the Great Hunger’s aftermath, gradually catching up to her past with minimal sentimentality. In the following passage, Elmira, a town that experienced a devastating flood during the Civil War, is flooding again:
All day, the local radio played Perry Como and The Beatles in an orgy of self-congratulation disguised as public service. Churches vied with one another to offer sanctimonious, useless emergency services, generally involving prayers and donuts. Idiots who let their dogs and cats roam and shit everywhere pleaded tearfully for their safe return. The pièce de résistance, however, was The Witnessing, as the radio announcers solemnly called it, a fifteen-minute call-in segment every hour, during which the town’s remaining whites disgorged family memories of that great flood and heroic war. This is what we have and you will never have: a genetic memory of Elmira’s foundation, and second foundation after the great flood. They hammered that in all day long without actually saying it. You just had to listen at their repressive gasps. Forbidden to call a nigger a nigger, a spic a spic, a wop a wop, et cetera, on the radio and in most public forums, Elmira’s whites had created a new tongue rich in elisions, and syntactic and semantic black holes, where the now unmentionable were buried and forgotten, as if they had never existed, with no markers left on their linguistic graves. The new flood was a time machine, a tongue-loosener, a fountain from which sprang a fraternity of pale hue. Elmira was jubilant.
As an adult, Heartland’s narrator has fled to New York City to become a writer who…can’t. Her first literary work, an award-winning one in Elmira, gave her indigestion. The unsuccessful attempts at writing that follow, including a biography on a Hispanic author that she was awarded a grant to complete, come with dysentery-like symptoms and inadvertent omissions of parts of speech. Whether or not her tremendous illness is to be taken literally or not is of no consequence; it is all too reminiscent of the violent physical sensation one experiences as a writer who is under the three-fold pressure of self, heritage, and looming international conflict (notice how the editor becomes the least of one’s worries).
It is on the tail end of this literary failure that the narrator learns her second true love, Bebe, has broken up with her girlfriend and the narrator’s adversary, the successful SoHo art dealer Mercy McCabe. Several well-crafted identities later, she convinces McCabe to visit Elmira with her to “get over” Bebe. The narrator’s expectation: to commit cold-blooded murder. The narrator’s reality: inhabiting the menial housekeeping roles her parents fulfilled for Elmira’s white population…and much prolonged hesitation. Months pass, bankrolled by McCabe.
When the narrator experiences a narrowly fatal accident in Elmira, it’s her intended victim who nurses her back to health. Shortly after, McCabe departs without notice, sending her writer friend into a complex spiral that is one part Stockholm Syndrome, one part unfulfilled bloodlust. Gathering herself as the world continues to go to pieces, the narrator makes one last ditch effort, inviting McCabe back to Elmira for a holiday feast that she–the unlikeliest of Mrs. Dalloways–prepares with the utmost care.
Heartland is an ideal indulgence for the thick-skinned reader who has reached their fill of Rita Mae Brown’s reliable mystery formula or Thomas Harris’ cannibal page-turners. With petite, intense chapters that know when the reader needs to take a break, this is a book for those who desire a protagonist who will rough them up a bit. Given the narrator’s repugnant case of writer’s block, Heartland is a story that can only be told through speech, not literature. Simo never seems to lose sight of oration. “You can fill in the details on your own, or aided by any jerk-off book on the market,” our anti-heroine tells her audience while recounting a primal affair with Mrs. Crandall, the Elmira librarian who might have intel on McCabe’s whereabouts. “I will not repeat here the many twists and turns of his story, its tortuous illogic, logistics, and soap-opera betrayals,” she says upon a Latino childhood friend’s unlikely return to Elmira.
Despite the narrator performing these conversational boundaries for the sake of the power trip, she is ultimately generous. The “reader” is told, for example, whether or not McCabe’s carpet matches her drapes. We are given an exceptional lesson in Montevidean infanticide. Not only do we know that venison is on a dinner plate; we also receive a lesson in deer anatomy and physiology along the way. It’s not necessarily bad that the Heartland’s last living dispatcher is more judgemental than introspective.
If anything, Simo’s debut novel’s sex appeal hinges on the challenge that the anti-heroine’s often thoughtful, sometimes critical, occasionally pleased, and always pointed gaze presents. How many of us have befriended or slept with people who would be intolerable if they weren’t so deliberate, informed, and droll? Heartland takes that sensation and plops it into the pre-apocalypse.
By Ana Simo
Paperback, 9781632061508, 240 pp.