Intrigued by its stark cover and the fact that it was on so many “recommended reading” lists, I picked up Nostalgia last year. As time passed and I still hadn’t had a chance to share it with you, I started to worry that it would seep out of my memory and that I’d no longer be able to write about it with any freshness or detail, which is wonderfully apt, given the book’s central themes of memory and identity.
Then, just a few weeks ago, it popped up on the literary radar when it made the list of contenders for the CBC Canada Reads 2017 competition. Although I’m delighted to see it there, I wonder how long it’ll survive. This year’s selections are meant to answer the question: What is the one book Canadians need now?
I’m not sure that Nostalgia fits the bill. I say this because, in contrast with the others, Nostalgia is a cooler, more detached and speculative piece of fiction that certainly doesn’t have laser-like focus.
In this, his eighth novel, M.G. Vassanji raises numerous, expansive, universal and difficult questions in a limited world that’s barely more than outlined. The story is set mostly in Toronto, in the second half of the twenty-first century (the book refers to The Great Explosion of 2032, a nuclear disaster with catastrophic geo-political repercussions). What we see and understand of this dystopian world is filtered through the eyes of Dr. Frank Sina, whose speciality is memory implantation and repair.
After hearing Vassanji interviewed by Shelagh Rogers, on CBC’s The Next Chapter, I couldn’t help but notice the resemblances between the writer and his protagonist; their dispassionate, composed and quiet way of expressing themselves. But while the author is now in his mid-sixties, figuring out Frank Sina’s age is a different story.
That’s because Vassanji has imagined a future in which aging has been almost eradicated, thanks to developments in medical science which have made physical and neurological rejuvenation possible.
We don’t really know how this is achieved—genetic manipulation plays a part—and we don’t really know how far the boundaries of longevity have been pushed, but we’re quickly made aware that for those wealthy enough to afford the treatments, thoughts of mortality no longer cast the same shadow over daily life.
And so, in the North Atlantic Alliance—the part of the world that’s on the fortunate side of the divide known as the Long Border and which includes Europe and the Americas—society is divided in three strata: the New Generation (or GNs: new-generation persons), who have undergone the process of rejuvenation; Baby Gens (or G0s), the truly, naturally young who quickly find themselves parentless, elderless and, in a sense, futureless, trapped as they are behind an expanding cohort of GNs with no plans to die; and finally, those left behind and living in the margins of society. We learn in the very first pages of the novel that Frank is a GN, living much like a sugar daddy with lovely young Joanie, a G0.
Frank finds his purpose in life through his work as doctor at the Sunflower Centre for Human Rejuvenation. While no real descriptions of the physical results achieved during the age-reversing procedure are given—I was mostly left with a feeling of unease, imagining bodies made younger in ways that would always pale in comparison with genuine youth—it soon becomes clear that the mind—locus of identity, memory and spirit—requires a different sort of care.
The problem with rejuvenation is that in order to reverse the aging process, it’s necessary to let go of virtually all memories of life up to that point: something to do with the mind’s struggle to integrate so many new memories and experiences in a mature mind.
The care Frank gives to his patients is thus two pronged. The rejuvenation process itself requires that he perform creative memory implantations. However, the side effect of such intrusions into the mind is something called Leaked Memory Syndrome, or more commonly, Nostalgia Syndrome, which Frank describes as:
[…] the case in which stray thoughts that we believe are from a former life move into the head—leak in. Usually they are harmless and sometimes impossible to tell apart from other thoughts. Sometimes, though, they can multiply into a deluge, and immediate recourse is necessary.”
In fact, untreated, they can in extreme cases result in madness and death.
Two events occur early on in the novel that shake Frank out of his static and slightly sad existence. The first is the arrival in his office of Presley Smith, a GN with an Afro-head of red hair, pale skin and striking green eyes that Frank considers “A well-done reconstruction job if somewhat eccentric”.
Unfortunately, Presley is displaying all of the symptoms of Nostalgia Syndrome and needs treatment.
The second event, which seems completely unrelated, is the kidnapping of an idealistic journalist named Holly Chu by The Freedom Warriors, an extremist group trapped in Maskinia—a huge swathe of ravaged territory that includes Africa and large parts of Asia, on the wrong side of the Long Border— one of the poorest areas of the world.
In a couple hundred more pages, these strands are carefully woven together to create a melancholy and disturbing story about the value of human life in a world in which the injustice of inequality is so deeply entrenched that it’s literally come to mean the difference between death and immortality; a story about what we might be willing to give up and who and what we might forsake in our individual pursuit of happiness; a story about what makes us who we are and what breaks us; and a story about race, radicalization and the long reach of the powerful.
Maybe it is “the one book Canadians need now”.
Here are some of the questions that came to mind while I was reading Nostalgia:
-Why choose “immortality” if the price is the loss of self?
-What survives after rejuvenation? Can the sum of us be eradicated so easily?
– Why choose immortality when the cost is severing all of your connections with your family relationships, and especially your children?
– Is it really immortality if the person you were is erased?
– How must it feel to know that you’re no longer the person you were?
– How much of each human being is formed through experience? What happens to that when old memories are eradicated and unlived, unexperienced memories are implanted?
– What are the implications for procreation? Are rejuvenated bodies able to produce genetically healthy children?
– What sorts of population growth restrictions must the State place on reproduction in a world with low mortality and finite resources?
– Is Rejuvenation not the ultimate expression of systemic inequality?
– Why would any Government support such a thing?
– What are the mechanisms for disease control in this world?
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