“The most decisive actions of our life - I mean those that are most likely to decide the whole course of our future — are, more often than not, unconsidered.”
Adam Johnson’s trademark in his lauded first book of short stories, Emporium, is creating an unlikely scenario that overlays a sincerity that touches on the longing and yearning that impels life onward. Some of the stories wend their way through the most unbelievable situations - an adolescent sniper on a police SWAT team, a radiation-resistant French-Canadian fur-trapper propelled into space to become the first man on the moon — yet these fantastic premises are thoroughly grounded by the life Johnson imbues in his characters.
In Johnson’s follow-up novel, Parasites Like Us, he continues to spin his yarns in the same fashion. Set in the future, anthropology professor Hank Hannah recounts the happenings and peculiarities of modern Homo sapien life. Hannah and his students unknowingly unearth a plague while excavating the grave of a Clovis male, an ancestor of modern humans who lived off more resources than could be readily replenished, who debatably caused the extinction of 35 species of large mammals, and about whom Hannah once wrote a controversial book called The Depletionists. Hannah is one of a handful of survivors of the plague, and true to his anthropological roots, he catalogues his experience of fast food, film, and cars, of lifestyles and ceremonies particular to modern life. He writes for posterity, to inform his ancestors of their past and to relay the story of how the supposed height of civilization was reduced to nothing in a matter of days.
Underlying Hannah’s narrative thread is a recurring reminder that shaping events into a tale, such as he does by recounting the story of the plague, is vastly different than the experience of living through them. He comes up with two fallacies of life — both born of the error of attempting to organize and arrange events in our lives according to narrative convention. Although each person plays lead role in his life story, superimposing this centrality on the grand scale of the world is one of the most prevalent errors of human understanding. Hannah explains:
“it is a common mistake for people to believe they live in times of great change, and it can only be vanity to think of our lives, compared with the last several million years of humanity, are of great account. And take heart in the knowledge that only a fool thinks he knows when his life has reached a high and a low.”
The point at which Hannah announces this theory turns out to be a time of consequential change in the history of human life, but until time passes to show how the plague eradicates most human life and many animal species, any prediction of the end result is mere speculation.
Perhaps avoiding such future speculation is part of the reason why Johnson chooses to use an anthropologist who studies former cultures as his protagonist, and to tell the story from the vantage point of the future. By looking at the Clovis’ history, comparisons are drawn to the way we live: communities that live beyond their own means, who falsely believe that they don’t rely on forces beyond themselves, who are indifferent to the excess that leads to the extinction of several animal species.
While the events that unfold are of epic proportion, the focus never strays from Hank Hannah’s ho-hum life. Hannah is serious about studying anthropology, but he is also isolated, an academic manqué who has fallen in the esteem of his peers. At the height of his academic career and the fame of his book The Depletionists, he fell to vast depths in his personal life — propositioning students, drinking too much whisky, and driving fast cars to remedy his discontent. Still Hannah reminds his audience that nothing supplants the space of time or replaces the underlying rhythm of life. The highs and the lows of his life and anyone’s life, Hannah proclaims, can only be perceived as such after the dénouement plays out. Central to the message is Hannah’s notion of perception: “Climax, of course, is an illusion. High powers suddenly call us to action? Mundane days suddenly become epic? Don’t make me laugh.” While events might seem grand, their ultimate impact is unfathomable as they continue to proceed.
The catastrophic plague isn’t a gimmick that Johnson uses to instill fear, to make conversions, or to stage a thriller like The Stand that imagines its devastating after-effects. Instead it turns the focus to the present — to reclaim the life we are living — despite the ordinary and because of it. Hannah begins his tale with the preface, “I will share with you how the betterment of humanity began, and let no one claim I slandered the past. I am the past.” The reader is left to imagine how the future benefits: no man stands alone, needs possessions to prove his importance, lives a life without meaning, for his survival depends upon his actions. Life becomes the ultimate art form, a medium that recovers its significance when the fundamentals of existence are rediscovered.