Paul G. Tremblay
Harper Collins, 2020
*** As always, here there be spoilers ***
Survivor Song is a novel about a viral outbreak that had the fate to be published during this, our pandemic summer. It should go without saying that the novel is not about the COVID-19 virus. It’s not even about a pandemic, dealing as it does with a localized and contained outbreak. While the story certainly presents some interesting similarities to current events, they are largely coincidental and tangential.
Compared to some of the works I’ve been reading lately, Survivor Song could be pigeon-holed as conservative, insofar as the family and the home are presented as the locus of safety and security. (Queue that “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Stepford anymore” sound bite.) Such a response would, however, be too simplistic. It sidesteps the point by ignoring the book’s real focus: when the crap hits the fan and the fragility of that allegedly-stable center of your life is shattered, what will you do? The novel launches precisely from that moment of destabilization: the destruction of domestic tranquility created by the bloody (and brilliantly crafted) home-invasion of the infected that sets Natalie on her way across town.
Homes disintegrate all the time, of course, usually from more prosaic causes—poverty, ignorance, layoffs, neglect, infidelity, boredom, et . al. Tremblay’s novel resonates not only because a killer virus seems especially timely, but because shattered homes are an unmistakable feature of our contemporary American landscape. Asking yourself what the fuck you’re going to do next is woven into the fabric of a lot of twenty-first century lives.
What you can do--power--depends on circumstance. As time tightens like a noose, Natalie’s options narrow due to the strained resources of the healthcare system. The narrative presents a kaleidoscope of responses to the characters’ growing sense of powerlessness. We get doctors—Ramola included—trying to plot a humane, sane course through a landscape of desperately-ill people, bad options, and shifting directives. We get an incompetent squad of self-appointed guardians out to eliminate “vectors” and raining havoc as they go. And we get Josh and Luis, roaring through their zombie-movie-fantasy landscape and finding, almost despite themselves, an opportunity for real heroism.
Through all these intersecting lives, the novel lays bare the terrifying fact that violence and terror are often just a step or two off the beaten path, embarrassingly close to the cozy world we've tried to construct for ourselves. I suppose that’s hardly news, but it seems to bear repeating these days. And it's welcome when the telling is as compelling as this. Overall, Survivor Song acts as a fierce cautionary tale for thinkers of the when the cities burn down we’ll be warm school of social criticism.
Survivor Song is a grim mix, but not unremittingly so. Luis, for instance, finds a final grace by exercising what power he has left to die on his own terms. The real victory, however, belongs to Ramola. As most readers will discern early on, Nats is screwed from the outset, and the real game is to see if Rams can manage, somehow, to deliver her dying friend’s child in the midst of the maelstrom. That she pulls it off is impressive, though not a tremendous surprise. What is more surprising is the ending, where Tremblay reminds us of the importance of storytelling to maintaining our humanity. There is a restoration of domestic tranquility here. It’s telling, however, that the family we are introduced to in the end is neither a traditional nuclear family nor one planted in an American landscape. It’s as though Tremblay has had to look elsewhere for a renewed sense of stability in the aftermath of so much pain.