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.

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Western Slope Conservation Center Paonia, CO WSCC seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking and a creative problem-solver. Position Summary: The Executive Director leads...
  • ARIZONA STATE DIRECTOR
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGEMENT/HOSPITALITY SERVICES
    Seasoned ranch manager of award-winning conservation ranch seeking position as nature reserve/resort or ranch manager. Visit philipmoonwalker.com for resume and certifications. Contact: [email protected]
  • PART-TIME OREGON GRANT WRITER
    Help advance rights for people, communities, and nature - Part-time grant writer. The Oregon Community Rights Network (ORCRN) has been active over the last six...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Job Title: Utah Public Lands Program Director Location: Southern Utah Position: Full Time (40 hours per week) Supervisor: Conservation Director About us: The Grand Canyon...
  • FSBO PROPERTY-SOUTHEAST ARIZONA
    Located in an area steeped in history, this gentleman's ranch sits at the entrance to the renowned Cave Creek Canyon. Enjoy picturesque views of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • LAND CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    JOIN OUR TEAM! The New Mexico Land Conservancy in Santa Fe is seeking a Land Conservation Project Manager who will work to protect land and...
  • HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NP
    Comfortable home at foot of Boulder Mountain, on one fenced acre. Amazing views!
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • NEW MEXICO PROPERTY - SILVER CITY
    20 acres, $80,000. Owner financing, well, driveway, fencing possible, very private, sensible covenants, broker owned. Contact - 575-534-7955 or [email protected]
  • SECLUDED COLORADO HIDEAWAY
    This passive solar home sits on 2 lots and offers an abundance of privacy and views while being only 15 minutes to downtown Buena Vista....
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.