The Gentleman Recommends: Sequoia Nagamatsu

Many readers use fiction as an escape from reality, and with the dangerous heat and pandemic(s), perhaps now isn’t the best time to recommend a frequently very sad book largely about climate change and a pandemic, but rest assured “How High We Go in the Dark” is a frequently very sad book completely about people and their grief and hope (the people are massively impacted by climate change and a pandemic, however). There is an abundance of pain and sadness in this novel. You should read it!

How High We Go in the Dark” is a novel-in-stories that spans all of human history and then some, but the bulk of it takes place in the current century. The first story follows a researcher as he looks to continue his dead daughter’s work (she was trying to save humanity from climate change, including the viruses and bacteria it will unleash from melting ice). Turns out the ancient and mysteriously well-dressed corpse she found while dying of injuries caused by falling through a thinning layer of ice harbors an ancient virus that isn’t as dead as the scientists studying it assume. So, pandemic time.

How high we go in the dark book cover

This new disease causes organs to turn into other organs. A brain becomes a heart or a liver becomes a brain, and also eventually your skin might glow like there are stars underneath it. Interesting plague, but mostly you’ll learn about the people living in its shadow and trying to work through the grief it’s caused.

If you need something sadder than a father mourning his daughter while he tries to continue her desperately needed work, consider the subsequent story. It follows a worker at an euthanasia park. His job is to wear a mouse costume and entertain dying children as he leads them through the park until they reach the ultimate roller coaster: one that euthanizes its riders.

In one of the saddest stories involving a pig I’ve ever read, a scientist growing organs for humans inside pigs discovers that one of his pigs (Snortorious PIG) can speak telepathically when the pig begins speaking telepathically with him. The scientist grows attached to the pig, in part because he lost his child to the Arctic Plague, and in part because pigs are smart creatures capable of companionship and this particular pig can speak to people telepathically. Of course, life isn’t easy for a telepathic pig.

There are many other very sad stories and few less sad ones. There is a story set in a void briefly lit with the memories of its inhabitants. They walk around looking at memories. It makes more sense by the end of the novel. There is also a fun story aboard a generation ship that’s meant to find a new home for people. There are some possibilities, if you can travel at currently impossible speeds, don’t mind waiting thousands of years and keep your eyes peeled for *SPOILER*. There are connections between every story, and narrators of one story will pop up as ancillary characters in another. Fates left hanging in one story will be answered in another. And some of the subtle, clever connections between stories will probably be missed, and I welcome having them pointed out to me. Please consider taking notes and sharing them with me.

The final story casts everything in a different light, and in part because I finished the book when I should have been sleeping, I reread that story the next day and, with the benefit of being fully conscious, was doubly delighted. This novel is a work of tremendous imagination, and I eagerly await Sequoia Nagamatsu’s next book.

Frequently bleak though it may be, “How High We Go in the Dark” demonstrates that even in the darkness, we can go pretty high.

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