Anna North is both a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Work Shop and a writer for the feminist Web site Jezebel. It’s no surprise, then, that her debut novel, America Pacifica, is overflowing with big ideas about revolution, ecology, feminism, class, and poverty. But by the end of page one, when a teenage daughter, Darcy, watches her beloved mother, Sarah, emerge from a communal bathroom down the hall carrying “their” toothbrush, one also knows that this novel, like, say, the dystopic fiction of Margaret Atwood or Ursula K. Le Guin, aims not only to transmit those ideas in the form of an invented narrative, but also to give them the animating, detailed, and less predictable life of literature.
The “America Pacifica” of the title is an unnamed island upon which a generation of North American refugees have attempted to create a simulacra of their old home–complete with cities named Manhattanville and Little Los Angeles–after an environmental calamity rendered “the mainland” too frigid for human life. Daniel, a mainland scientist, argued that the humans should adapt themselves to the changing climate, while a man named Tyson insisted that they look for a warmer climate and use technology and dirty industrial processes to continue human life as it was once lived. The island’s population is comprised entirely of those who took Tyson’s side of the argument.
But this haven can only sustain enough luxuries for a tiny few. Every aspect of island life is governed by a brutal caste system which divides people into rigid hierarchies based on the order in which they and their families arrived by boat. The rich eat strawberries and fresh tomatoes, wear real fiber, and live in air-conditioned apartments. The poor subsist on meat products fabricated from jellyfish and seaweed, wear synthetic SeaFiber clothing, and dream of somehow getting into college (which isn’t open to them) so they can afford an apartment with their own bathroom and shower.
At eighteen, Darcy, has already dropped out of school to work six days a week in a cafeteria, so that she and her mother can afford their rent. But her mother, a pearl diver, creates a tiny world for the two of them in which Darcy feels that she is not merely interchangeable. When Sarah goes missing, Darcy must go out into the parts of the island she’s never known to find her mother.
North has some sparkling flashes of class-based wit–the rich kids come to the slums looking for “authentic” Mexican food; another group of rich gamblers is taken in by the idea of a “last boat” costume party–but throughout the book, there is a stifling heft to the way she repeatedly immerses the reader in the visceral discomfort of extreme poverty: the stink, the filth, the hunger, the broken bones and disease. Her imagery feels strategic, as if, page by page, she is coiling a boa constrictor of prose around her readers, reminding us how difficult it is to escape. Political allegory tends to reduce the untidiness of stories, but, like Darcy, North seems to insist we’d better get used to wading through the muck.