In Laura Kasischke’s new novel, In a Perfect World, an airline pilot, a widower, marries a stewardess, Jiselle, primarily so she can take care of his three troubled children while he flies off to various exotic cities. There is tension from the start. But this family drama may not be what is most memorable about the book, which is set in a decidedly troubled time: “Full of curious weather, meteor showers, the discovery in rain forests and oceans of species thought to be extinct, it was the kind of year you might associate with an apocalypse if you were prone to making those kinds of associations, which more and more people seemed to be.”
There is a new disease just vaguely hinted at in the news, “the Phoenix Flu,” and it is beginning to take a toll. More like the Black Death than Swine Flu, it is making people flee their homes and usual occupations. The nations of the world try to put America in quarantine. The social fabric begins to crumble.
This is the moment where Kasischke shines. In her previous novels and her award-winning poetry, she has excelled at taking the things we recognize immediately as our own, and then turning them toward a different light. Readers might remember the imaginative reality that almost conquers death in The Life Before Her Eyes, the book that became the interesting movie starring Uma Thurman last year. The ordinary often becomes ominous in Kasischke’s books, and occasionally it turns wonderful.
Disease finally overwhelms the society of In a Perfect World. Kasischke creates a futuristic post-apocalyptic dystopia, or at least the beginnings of one. Luckily the water continues to flow in the taps, and the cell phones continue to function for a couple of months. Electricity flickers off for a moment, then a week, and then forever. The new plague seems to kill the old and the young randomly. But Jiselle learns how to cope. At first she figures out the simple things: “After all those years relying on frozen dinners and packaged bread, it amazed Jiselle that she could prepare a meal out of beans and water and a single carrot that was so delicious even Sara [the most troubled daughter] would ask for seconds.” But Jiselle learns even more and gets competent at more complicated skills. As the comforts of her suburban world disappear, her odd family begins to cohere. As she begins to imagine a previously unimaginable perfect life, the new and terrifying threats outside begin to close in. A reader will be at the edge of her seat toward the end of this book. Laura Kasischke has written a novel that’s very different from her earlier books, and once you’ve begun it, you’ll find it impossible to put down.
Kasischke reads from In a Perfect World at Nicola’s Books on October 8.