A pandemic of both feminism and despair

In Lauren Beukes’ ‘Afterland,’ only women survive. Can they rebuild?


In the annals of history and literature, it is usually girls who dress as boys — or women as men — to survive in a man’s world. Joan of Arc, Sarah Edmonds and Malinda Blalock did so to fight in the wars of their time. Many women writers have used traditionally male pen names to free their work from gendered misconceptions and reach wider audiences.

But in Lauren Beukes’ new novel, Afterland, set in 2023, in the wake of a global pandemic, a boy must present as a girl to cross the United States and eventually return home to Johannesburg, South Africa. The boy is 12-year-old Miles, son of Cole, an artist who loses her American husband to an influenza-like disease called human culgoa virus, which morphs into an aggressive prostate cancer fatal to most boys and men. Miles, fortunately, is immune.The novel opens as Cole and Miles — now “Mila” — flee the California hospital compound where they’ve ended up after coming to the States to care for Miles’ cousin. Their getaway is orchestrated by Cole’s sister, Billie. When Cole finds out that Billie wants to sell Miles’ sperm on the black market, however, she attacks her sister and escapes with her son. Together, they embark on a road trip across a changed America.

Reading about a fictional pandemic’s aftermath in the middle of a real one is eerie. Afterland’s virus is worse than the one that causes COVID-19 — it’s much deadlier, and it infects at least 5 billion people. But there are unsettling parallels, from the virus’ mysterious machinations to the rapid infection rates. Cole’s relatives, exposed on a trip to Disneyland, pass sniffly days in a hotel room, and some of them eventually contract the cancer. Around them, airports, shops and cafes close. “You can’t imagine how much the world can change in six months,” Cole thinks. “You just can’t.”

Beukes, a South African novelist, propels the story forward with stolen cars, flying bullets and rest stops in quirky communities. The West — and America itself — are portrayed as barren and lawless, where women brandish tire irons, guns, knives, lies and apologies to survive. This “frontier” becomes a metaphor for life-after-pandemic. Whenever the writing slows, the reader can see the landscapes. “In the early morning light, the highway is a gray crayon swipe through the salt flats crossing into Utah, craggy mountains reflected in the water,” Beukes writes, comparing the view to an arid stretch between Johannesburg and Cape Town. She reminds us that it’s not just the Western U.S., but the whole world, that is now ravaged; everyone is squinting through an unclear dawn.

At times, complexities are lost in the novel’s quick pace. Cole and Billie’s rivalry remains somewhat opaque, and we see women’s roles framed — still — by the patriarchy. There’s the criminal life, with its unscrupulous employers. There’s the sex worker life, finally legal. And there’s the nun’s life, where “sisters” empty their hearts by apologizing for their transgressions. There’s nothing wrong with sex workers or nuns, but I wanted to see a wider panoply of options for sexual and spiritual expression.

Cole and Miles eventually join the sisters, disguising themselves all the way to Miami, where Mila must choose between the group’s vision of redemption and her own mother’s. Afterland becomes a fierce love story, one that maps the treacherous roads a mother will travel to protect her child. Beukes gestures to the layered dynamics of gender and race (Cole is white and her son/daughter is Black), but prioritizes the story’s action and momentum.

I often wanted the story to meander along side roads and linger in the homesteads, to look at how women were gardening, doctoring and building to keep society functioning. We see women undertakers and soldiers, but I longed for a post-male society that pushed past patriarchal structures, offering new models for problem-solving, safety and well-being. Am I asking for too much too soon? The story takes place only three years after the virus takes hold. Maybe the matriarchy will come to Afterland in time.

We do encounter a self-sufficient commune in Salt Lake City — “a bunch of anarchists, socialists, off-the-gridders, and other free radicals” who turn gardens into farm allotments. “Some people see what’s happened as a chance to reinvent themselves,” says Vana, a meteorologist. In front of the house sits a tractor, painted with the words “The Future Is Female” — but “Female” has been crossed out and replaced with “Fucked.”

Cole and Miles/Mila don’t stay long before they hit the road again, danger pressing down. Perhaps if they’d stayed a bit longer, they’d have glimpsed a future that was female, and not so “fucked”  — a place where women work together to find solutions, feed one another, provide homes and grieve the dead. This may not be the future they are traveling to, but I hope it’s where the rest of us end up.

Kimi Eisele is the author of The Lightest Object in the Universe, a novel. From her home in Tucson, she writes, makes art and performance, and works for the Southwest Folklife Alliance.

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