The Survivalists is Kashana Cauley’s 2023 novel about a young New York lawyer questioning her direction in life. She starts dating the owner of a coffee business, whose two housemates are survivalists – people who spend their time preparing for disasters and societal breakdown.
If you’re wanting a story where New York succumbs to something like a zombie virus, leading to chaotic scenes of soldiers barricading bridges, while choppers fly overhead, then this is not the book for you. The setting is a resolutely un-apocalyptic New York, where people struggle with jobs and relationships. Disaster would be easier to deal with if we all knew what it looked like. The survivalists described in the story spend their time preparing for what never seems to happen, while getting blindsided by unexpected developments. The book satirises the cliches of disaster, and undercuts our clumsy attempts to achieve security. People might prepare for life’s uncertainty by spending a fortune on going to law school in the hope of landing a secure job. That job might never materialise, leaving the law-school survivalist with debts they can’t pay. Going to law school is a bit like building a bunker in the back garden, designed for a nuclear war, but flooding in heavy rain.
The Survivalists is an interesting novel, often funny when the cliches of danger collide with the unpredictable challenges of real life. It’s also timely, exploring the concerns of an anxious age, confirming that while the ground beneath our feet is indeed wobbly, there is nothing to be gained by worrying about something that will probably never happen. I found The Survivalists a nuanced and oddly reassuring read.
“Would you deny the Consul such astounding visions? Me neither. In fact, I think I’ll have a mescal myself …”
Sam Jordisan – the Guardian
Published in 1947, Under the Volcano is Malcolm Lowry’s famous book about Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic British consul, living in Mexico, trying to resurrect a relationship with his ex wife. The action takes place over the period of one day, the Mexican Day of the Dead.
Drink is a big thing in this book. Alcohol provides the extreme experience that people often look for in reading a novel, enjoying drama and danger without the risk. For some, all the visions, hallucinations, delusions of grandeur, might even make heavy drinking an attractive real-world option. In The Guardian, I found a reviewer who was inspired to reach for an explosive glass of mescal. Writing for The Guardian must have felt pedestrian compared to the galactic visions provided by Mexican alcoholic beverages.
My reading of Under the Volcano, did not leave me wanting to reach for mescal. Apart from graphic descriptions of the physical horribleness of alcoholism, there was the confirmation that any supposed exciting elements of alcohol, potentially bringing colour to the humdrum lives of Guardian journalists, are an illusion. My favourite scene in the book involved an ‘over the garden fence’ conversation between Firmin and his neighbour, Quincey, a dull, American retiree. Quincey is a conventional, judgemental fellow whose imagination does not stray beyond the watering of plants in his beautifully kept garden. Firmin, too bohemian, drunk and out-there to worry about anything as suburban as watering and pruning, has a derelict garden. The irony is, Firmin, searching for a bottle hidden in his weeds, is not really breaking free from conventional limits through drinking. For all his visions of flying amongst the stars, alcohol has him in a ruthless death grip. And there’s a further irony in the name of his narrow-minded neighbour. Quincey’s name echoes that of the author of 1821’s Confessions of an Opium Eater, Thomas De Quincey, founder of the ‘addiction literature’ genre. There is a suggestion that Firmin and his symbolically named neighbour are actually living similar lives. Both inhabit their own Garden of Eden, and both in their own way have brambles invading their pleasure grounds.
I have to say I didn’t really enjoy Under the Volcano. The action is supposed to happen over a single day, but that’s not how it felt. There were so many walks and visits to people’s houses or bars, trips to fiestas, and days out on buses, that it didn’t seem feasible to pack all this into a day. And between great descriptive passages, and sections like the Quincey conversation, there were long stretches, particularly in the second half, which I found confusing, and I have to admit, boring. Finally, the life of constant drinking did not resonate with me. I had one or two evenings at university involving quite a lot of drink, but they only taught me I didn’t like it. There’s no point pretending I’m some kind of William Burroughs. Drinking always left me feeling terrible, and provided no ethereal visions. Maybe I was a total lightweight, and if I’d tried harder, and drunk the equivalent of Crime and Punishment, the rewards would have come. But I very much doubt it. The alcohol would have killed me before I got anywhere near that point.
In no sense am I envious of Firmin’s experience. I appreciated the descriptive writing, and the contradictions involving freedom applying to drinkers and non-drinkers alike, but it was a relief to reach the end.
The Assistant is Bernard Malamud’s 1957 novel about an ageing Jewish shopkeeper who runs a struggling grocery business in New York, and the young man who becomes his assistant.
Although shopkeeper Morris Bober is an immigrant, with all the suggestion of rootlessness that his situation involves, he has spent decades in the same shop going through the same routine. He is honest and steady by nature, but his business has suffered in not changing or adapting. By contrast, Frank Alpine, a second generation Italian American, lost his parents early, and before becoming an assistant to Bober, has never remained anywhere for longer than six months, suffering a loss of educational and advancement opportunities in the process.
This conflict between the benefits and problems of moving and staying, drives the story. The opposite sides of the issue become so tangled, that it is difficult to tell them apart. For example, Bober is an immigrant, but his experience of having to flee Russia, combined with a cautious personality, has moulded a profound stick-in-the-mud. He creates an unchanging world in his shop, into which Frank Alpine becomes the immigrant, even though Frank was born in America. This isn’t a case of them and us, when the immigrant is very much settled in outlook, and the person born in the country, because of his individual circumstances, is in the position of a migrant. And both Morris and Frank are vulnerable, Morris because his caution threatens his business, and Frank because his rootless wandering leaves him isolated. This confusion also applies to cultural identity, which is important to Bober and even more so to his wife, but which seems to dissolve into nothing if the characters discuss it too closely.
I think the quality of The Assistant shows in the way you can read a book published in 1957, and then find yourself thinking of immigration in the twenty first century. There’s an ongoing debate in the book about whether Frank’s arrival reinvigorates the shop, compared to other factors, like the changing level of local grocery competition. The ins and outs of this reminded me of an article I read recently by an LSE economist, assessing whether immigration offers economic benefits. With some provisos, the article suggested that yes, immigration does bring economic benefits, just as Frank’s role in the survival of Bober’s grocery shop seems undeniable in the end. This puts the Bobers in the position of trying to get over their innate distrust of a stranger, who becomes important to their livelihood. In the UK, there has been debate about ‘secure borders’ for years. Some of the most hardline Conservative politicians in the UK, with an extreme fixation on borders, themselves have an immigrant background. Their efforts at promoting national isolation and border control are highly controversial, not least in the sense that such measures – according to say, the LSE, the UK Office of Budget Responsibility, the Centre of Inclusive Trade Policy at the University of Sussex, Small Business Britain, and surveys conducted by the British Chamber of Commerce – hurt the economic prospects of the UK grocery shop.
I enjoyed The Assistant. It provides a view into a highly specific community and a reflection on general human dilemmas, which certainly remain relevant. There is quite a lot of skipping about between points of view, but this doesn’t generally make the straight forward writing difficult to read. In fact moving about between different heads is a good way to see how contrasting outlooks, can end up finding unlikely common ground.