City of Orange, David Yoon (Putnam’s 978-0593422168, hardcover, 352pp, $27.00) May 2022.
For those readers intent on firmly categorizing books—and I admit to having my own moments of fussy classifying obsessiveness—David Yoon’s excellent and engrossing debut novel presents some issues. And even speaking of those issues with specific examples is tricky, because this reviewer hesitates to spoil the twists and turns of the book. I shall confine myself to saying that while the novel starts out—and persists for three-quarters of its length—as pure postapocalyptic SF, it snaps around at the climax and becomes something else entirely, firmly and definitively removing itself from the core of our genre while remaining fantastical in essence if not in outer semblance. There are some previous landmark books to reference that achieve this: Ballard’s Concrete Island and Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes, for instance. This latter title is even specifically acknowledged by our narrator towards the book’s conclusion. In any case, the bipartite nature of the novel still manages to achieve an organic, unified heft and does not disappoint, although we have veered from the original premise by the end.
So my discussion of the novel will focus on the narrative up to the disjunction/Big Reveal, while affirming that the concluding portion of the book does not betray the rest, but rather carries it to a resonant ending.
On page one, our protagonist awakens in mysterious, dire and painful circumstances. He is lying in sand, injured, at the bottom of a wide dry culvert. Above him is a bridge empty of traffic. The steep sloping walls of the cement ditch conceal whatever else might be present above. And, to top it all off, he has partial amnesia, not even recalling his name or history, save for fleeting snippets. His clothing offers no clues to identity.
But one thing he is certain of, a fact that all his surroundings and circumstances support: these are the end times. Civilization has collapsed under some great disaster, maybe weeks, months, or years in the past. He is one of the few survivors. He postulates that he was mugged by roving marauders and left to die.
Aching, thirsty, hungry, half-hallucinating (is that dead crow giving advice?), he hauls himself into a crevice, maybe to recover, maybe to perish.
Now ensues an epic odyssey bounded by the smallest possible acreage. Our nameless hero, feeling a little better, begins to feverishly explore, itemize and catalog his environment, hoping to improve his lot. His keen perceptions, where the most minute details take on the intensity of cosmic matters, begin to echo another relevant book, Brian Aldiss’s A Report on Probability A. Just as the mundane specifics of house, yard and garage in that book acquired vast import, so too does the topography of the culvert.
A glimpse finally of the world above the rim confirms devastation and absence of any other humans.
On the point of dying of thirst and hunger, our man finds a secret hideaway stocked with food and water and a couple of small tools! Obviously the abandoned lair of another (dead) survivor. He takes it over, his condition improves, and he begins to broaden his geographical search, striving also to make sense of the jumble of memories in his battered head. He comes to realize he left behind a wife and daughter. Could they still be alive in this wasteland somewhere? How can he escape the pit and find them?
Meanwhile, he fills time by instituting pseudo-scientific “data collection,” such as measuring how much the winds stir some reeds. The book becomes a Robinsonade of stark—and also blackly comic—dimensions.
And then, the arrival of another human! An old demented man unable to speak anything than a single word: “Berries!” Is there a future partnership ahead? Alas, no, just betrayal. Our hero returns to his solo life.
But the ultimate trigger of change lies just ahead. One day a lost boy of eight years old named Clay arrives. He seems to know of a camp of fellow survivors, holding on against Armageddon. Can the remarkably assured and weirdly knowledgeable Clay assume the role of adult and rescue our hero? Will our man’s returning memories bring relief or further devastation? Read on, read on!
Clay does not arrive until halfway through the book, and Yoon has the large task of keeping his plot flowing and his scenario lively with just our hero and his madness, circumscribed by the culvert and adjacent territory. (One dramatic incident occurs in an empty house where a hastily lit fire causes a near-fatal experience!) This is a challenge Yoon accepts boldly and one which he does not flub. The vividness of his descriptions—of things which are so commonplace as to go generally unseen—and the alluring stream-of-consciousness thoughts of our hero—a tapestry of pop culture, philosophy, and emotional storms—provide a page-turning intensity.
The book’s title derives from a grade-school lesson our hero recalls: imagine a monochromatic city, where every single thing was only one color, orange. This mental exercise assumes a metaphorical import, for our hero’s condition is monochromatic, both in the present and, as we shall learn, in his past, when a personal tragedy contoured everything.
When our man eventually escapes the monochrome world of the culvert, it’s like the full spectrum returning to the world, Dorothy transitioning from black-and-white Kansas to Technicolor Oz.
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