“A blow expected, repeated, falling on a bruise, with no smart or shock of surprise, only a dull sickening sensation and the doubt whether another like it could be borne.” So says Waugh on alcoholism, and so it goes for every character in Gone to the Forest, and for anyone who has the stomach to get through Katie Kitamura’s short but exhausting sophomore novel. Surely, surely each new downturn of fortune, be it physical, emotional, political, geological, will be the last, or at least there will be an eye of the storm in which to recuperate. Nope. There’s always another blow to fall and be borne, says Kitamura, until you’re lucky enough to receive the one that kills you.
Fair play, I say, and bravo to the author for not taking the path of least resistance; she gives us no flower blooming hopefully in a wasteland to brighten the scene, nor some spontaneous act of human kindness between enemies, or indeed between family members. There is no love in the time of cholera she creates, and this is a brave choice to make. It is not, however, a very enjoyable one for her readers.
We open at the colonial Götterdämmerung of an unnamed (of course) country, with panic starting to swirl as the white flight begins. ‘When’ we are is also left vague. AK-47s and portable radios are lying about; the 1960-70’s seems right. The plantation scene of Apocalypse Now is approximately the effect Kitamura goes for, with the usual props showing the romantic ridiculousness of the late colonial condition (crystal glasses on crisp tablecloths, bwanas dressing for dinner, cocktails on the veranda, silent “native” help). Kitamura’s sparse style does her credit here. Like Marguerite Duras, who set much of her work in the same milieu, Kitamura knows that this environment is best served by a less-is-more aesthetic; there’s so much natural, melancholy beauty in the situation that overwriting would ladle too heavy a sauce onto an already rich dish.
The first few chapters begin a domestic psychodrama à trois. The unnamed (of course) father steals the fiancée (named once, then referred to only as “the girl”) of his emotionally stunted, sickly son, who mopes around the family plantation apparently oblivious to the world outside. Then, boom: the volcano next door blows itself to kingdom come. It would take a writer with the self-control of the Buddha to have such an explosive release of pressure and heat in their very own natural world, and then not immediately parallel this with the actions of their very own humans; one cringes in anticipation. Lo and behold, as the mountain blows its top, a bizarre and completely unbelievable gang-rape, recalling Last Exit to Brooklyn (told from the point of view of the half-willing victim, no less) occurs, and the revolution seething in the background… well, erupts. Things get worse fast.
Kitamura’s writing in Gone to the Forest most closely resembles that of Cormac McCarthy. “No Country for White Men” would have been a title as good as or better than the one chosen (a line from Knut Hamsun), and in fact the book expressly enunciates that very sentiment several times: “Soon you will be gone. This country is no longer safe for white men.”
It is McCarthy’s The Road, however, of which Gone to the Forest is most reminiscent. We have in both a claustrophobically small cast of characters including a father-son pair, relentless doom-and-gloom (deepened in the latter with constant repetition of the word “dying”) and the unflinching descriptions of death and gore. Most tellingly, in both books the landscape is physically covered in oh-so-symbolic ash, whether from a volcano or man-made apocalypse. But even The Road, a book that starts dark and just gets darker, gives readers the son’s innocence and the father’s love as night-lights in the blackness, and there is at least a glimmer of hope for the boy (and thus, one supposes, the world) at its close.
Gone to the Forest, on the other hand, offers us only the twisted devotion of the kicked dog of a son for his father as the latter begins to die slowly and graphically, civilization crumbling around them. There follows interminable sick-bed scenes, complete with detailed descriptions of the patient’s faeces (“black as tar, sticky as pitch”, later “like tar on white muslin”) and pain-bellows, while the pacing caregivers hope for nothing more than the old man’s speedy demise. This dreary interlude is broken up by the son taking a merry jaunt to the neighbours to borrow some morphine, only to find them all slaughtered: “A trio of flies buzzes around Mrs. Wallace’s head. One and then another lands on her open eye. Which is turning to jelly, her eyes decaying quickly in the heat. Soon they will slide out of their sockets like liquid gel.” Delightful.
I don’t think it is much of a spoiler at this point to reveal that the ending is not a happy one (if it was, we would have probably had a nice rainbow forming over the volcano to drive the point home). But again, with credit to Kitamura, before reaching the slight twist in the last couple of paragraphs, I really didn’t think things could get any worse for the thoroughly broken characters without slipping the bounds of credulity. Sure enough, though, the hammer falls on that deepening bruise yet again, and this last blow is Kitamura’s best and most surprising, mocking us for hoping that the worst was finally over.