Afterland: Chapters 6-10

[Content Note: Transphobia, Child Sexual Abuse (CSA), Racism]

Before I start on Chapter 6, I just have to revisit how very bizarre it is that everyone is just bovinely assuming that no one will ever get pregnant again. This isn't a fertility plague. This isn't even a situation where all sperm is gone: we have IVF banks, yes, and frozen embryos, but by the book's own admission there are a million or so American cis men still alive.

I only know that the government has outlawed pregnancy because a review mentioned it; the book hasn't seen fit to tell me this yet. Which...I can't really blame it for being shy of that plot point, given that Quiverfull groups would never respect this law. We can't even get people to wear masks, and this book wants me to believe that everyone just accepts that the human race is done and no babies ever again because the government says so. What the actual fuck.

Given how much this book was compared to HANDMAID'S TALE, I was expecting impoverished women to be recruited as wombs for the rich while the surviving cis men are milked for sperm. This is... apparently not the case??? Furthermore, we have a zillion frozen embryos in storage. We have embryos whose gender we know, if you're that concerned about not birthing boys who will die (unless you take their prostate out). It's- none of this makes any sense.

AFTERLAND. Chapter 6.

"6. Billie: Peripheral"

This is our second Billie chapter and we've had three Cole chapters. Miles has had one chapter. I expected more POV-parity. Billie's POV still has a bunch of musical references in an attempt to not make her sound like Cole." On the road to San Francisco. Isn’t there a song about that? Billie hums a few notes, trying it on. Something, something, ghosts, something dreaming of the West Coast." As an author, I sympathize; it can be *really hard* differentiating POVs. Giving someone a gimmick and sticking gamely to it through to the end is not, uh, the most artful way to do the trick.

"Driving with the headlights on, because that’s safer, even during the day. High visibility." Billie would appear to have some kind of lasting concussion. She calls Cole, her sister, a "cow" and a "cunt" in her mental narration. Standard villain stuff.

In the Before Times, Billie did Illegal Stuff. "That’s what she was doing for Mr. and Mrs. Amato, executive chef, catering exclusive dinners in exotic locations where the law was…squishier, shall we say....Someone has to feed the rich and unscrupulous." I'm assuming the Amatos wanted to eat endangered species and not humans but who knows. [TW: CSA] Now Mrs. Amato wants sperm from Miles. "Natural emissions. Like sinking a tap into a maple tree."

[CSA] This is really gross? We have a white woman (Billie) trying to exploit an underage Black boy for sperm to be sold to a rich couple, as written by a white author. Yes, Billie is the villain, but counterpoint: this all could've been done differently. Worst of all, the author KNOWS about sperm banks and embryos. "The window is now, before they discover a cure or a vaccine, which will mean decriminalizing reproduction, throwing the sperm banks and embryo storage units open."

So apparently when the drunk Random Woman lamented that nobody will ever get pregnant again, she MEANT it might be a year or two. And when Cole thought of those two Lumberjack Women as the last of the reproducers she- look over there a puppy! I guess. It really does feel like Chapter 5 was written and THEN the author learned about sperm banks and frozen embryos. Rather than edit what had already been written, she just tried to sort of fudge it here. Those things will be useful LATER. Not now. For, uhhh, reasons.

Billie casually misuses bodily autonomy. "White gold. She thought Cole was all for women’s right to control their own bodies. Doesn’t that include the chance to get pregnant?" Kinda cool to make the villain of your feminist book a straw-woman abortion activist. Cool, cool. "Billie wants everything that was promised to her, everything Cole has denied her—freedom, agency, and the catalyst which makes all that possible: money in the bank—" The chapter ends there. I've never seen a chapter end on an em-dash before.

That was the shortest chapter so far. All it did was confirm our suspicions re: why Billie wants Miles, and establish why frozen embryos and sperm banks aren't being used. It didn't establish them WELL, but our handwave is: everyone is awaiting a vaccine first. Nevermind that you could only implant "girl" embryos, or remove the prostates of the "boy" babies.

Here's what I want to know: Why isn't Mrs. Amato and others of her ilk just bribing people who work at the sperm banks? Or hiring illicit black market IVF doctors to pop an embryo into her? She's gotta have fresh product???

Might as well start Chapter 7 since I finished that one in record time.

AFTERLAND. Chapter 7.

"7. Cole: The Day Devon Died"

Oh goody. More flashback. Definitely what I want in an apocalypse novel! More time in the pre-apocalypse setting! We're now two and a half years ago. Disneyland and the flu was 3 years back, so we're 6 months into Devon's infection. Oh. No. Devon is dead. He's resting in a "government-issue body bag" while Miles reads to him.

Devon has been dead for 32 hours, which was when Cole placed the government-issue decal in the window to notify the corpse collection wagon that there's a body in need of pickup. I guess that's more respectful than dragging him out to the curb? This is sad. (I'm not trying to crack jokes with that "curb" comment; that's what I expect we'd be asked to do here in Texas. I'm bitter about our local government's covid response.)

This FEMA is better prepared than ours, well done. "They prepared the body according to the illustrated instructions in the FEMA Mercy Pack, which also came with rations and a basic first-aid kit and a water purifier straw. [...] She clipped on the white ID tag, wrote down his name, Social Security number, time and date and place of death, and his religious denomination, if applicable, for whatever cursory ceremony was to follow."

Cole is upset that the South African consulate hasn't prioritized bringing home a small family of 3 who are comfortably situated in America while a global pandemic killing billions is going on. I'm both deeply sympathetic and yet feeling like this is the most Karen of all responses. And did she want Devon to air travel on a plane for dozens of hours while he was dealing with painful magical prostate cancer? "The auto-response, when her messages actually get through: global crisis blah blah blah, many citizens stranded, working to assist everyone we can, unable to respond to all messages at this time."

The American government is even sending them ration packs so everyone has plenty of food to eat, which is impressive. Cole tries to reassure herself that in a world of women, Miles can't be in danger. "Devon had tried to reassure them that testosterone was the key ingredient in all the worst-case scenarios. As if women weren’t capable of evil fuckery in their own right. So sexist, Dev". I'm- I'm sorry, I just need to catch my breath at the idea of a Black man needing a white woman to tell him that women can be dangerous to him.

The FEMA van arrives and Cole rips into them for taking "so long" to get here, and for asking questions like whether the body is unusually heavy or had any extra diseases they need to know about to stay safe. I hate Cole. Are we supposed to hate Cole? Like, this is how she talks to the two women running the FEMA van: “You got any basic human compassion in that van?” She comes so close to demanding a manager that I can practically taste it.

They're...they're cremating these billions of bodies? With what ovens? That's- our ovens are breaking down with covid deaths in the hundreds of thousands. Cole is told she will be notified when the ashes are ready to collect and I am SCREAMING. No. No. No. If they're cremating a billion bodies in 6 months time, they aren't keeping the ashes separate and distinct, surely. Mass graves. Lime sprinkling.

"She’s already running through the checklist of what’s in her bag, packed and ready. Clothing, food, $11,284 in cash in three different currencies" and- oh god. "the infinitely more valuable contraband: codeine, Myprodol, Nurofen, Ponstan—the traveing pharmacopeia she’d carried from South Africa, where they could be bought over the counter". Okay, I was afraid she was planning to use the drugs as currency, but she's saving them as pain medication for when Miles gets sick. [Editor's Note: Nope! She's planning to use the drugs as currency.] Wait, she's anticipating Miles will get sick? Why isn't his prostate being removed? Or at least why isn't he on a waitlist for that?

Cole is now griping that her Essential Services are not functioning properly in a pandemic; she asks the FEMA body-removal women to jump her car. "“Do you think you could help me jump-start the car? I tried to call AAA, but they’re not picking up. I don’t know why we pay them.” A joke, but also true. All the things you took for granted....are apparently on hold right now."

I can't get over this. She has a neighborhood full of people who she could ask for a jump and she asks the essential body-removal workers AFTER BITCHING THEM OUT FOR ARRIVING LATER THAN SHE WANTED. I guess the next bereaved family on the list can just suck eggs and die, huh, Cole? God forbid you have to sit next to your dead husband for 32 hours, but the next family can wait for your car to be ready.

The FEMA women see Miles in the window and ask if that's Cole's daughter. Cole insists it's her son because Cole has chronic genre unsavviness. They caution her about traveling with a sick son and Cole brags that he's healthy as a horse. COLE. The chapter ends there, with the statement that she'll "regret forever" telling the FEMA women that Miles isn't sick, so I assume they kidnap him on the spot and take him to government quarantine so he can't be stolen by his aunt or others for nefarious reasons.

I am all about bodily autonomy and freedom of self determination but I just have to repeat that (a) we haven't seen any hint of the quarantine being bad--Miles even says it was luxurious, just not freedom--and (b) we don't know if "home" is any better. Like, I am 100% percent on board with "I want to go home" narratives, but Cole's entire motivation has been that she is a Karen who wants to speak to the apocalypse's manager, so I'm a little unsure about her good judgment here.

AFTERLAND. Chapter 8.

"8. Billie: Hedgehog Rescue"

I'm a little surprised at how many Billie chapters there have been so far, and (having skimmed this one in advance) I'm surprised at how little information they contain. This feels like another First Draft problem. The author needs to know what the villain is doing at all times, yes, but the reader does not. Chapter 8 will establish that Billie is capable of flagging down a ride despite her head-wound. Not vital info.

A woman finds Billie (villain) passed out in her car. The head-wound she sustained from Cole (her sister) is still plaguing her rather seriously. Billie is a jerk so she describes her rescuer in the most unflattering possible terms. Billie, a white woman whose Karen energy rivals that of Cole's, demands that the woman drive her to San Francisco. I have been informed there are two uses of the word "lesbian" in this novel about a World Of Women, and we come upon the first usage now:

Billie and Cole used to pretend to be "lesbian lovers" in order to upset service workers. "Dramarama—the game she and Cole used to play in public places, improvising Jerry Springer scenarios to get a reaction for kicks." And "pretending to be lesbian lovers" is one of them. Just to be clear, these are the Jerry Springer scenarios listed:

- Arguing over a "baby daddy the one had stolen from the other".
- "pretending to be lesbian lovers"
- "once, faking an undercover arrest for shoplifting"

That's it; that's the entire list of examples of scandalous public drama they engaged in as kids. Being lesbian is considered Jerry Springer-esque shocking drama to Billie and Cole. Such feminist, this book.

Billie, slurring her words because of the very dangerous and constantly bleeding head-wound that nevertheless doesn't kill or render her unconscious, tells her rescuer that she's on "police business" and offers her a bribe for the ride to San Fran. The girl is a service worker who empties septic tanks, which again implies a much cozier apocalypse than I feel the definition warrants. Billie assumes Mrs. Amato will pay several grand (and a hospital bill) to get Billie back. Empty-handed, without the boy.

Billie tells the woman--for no reason, but it effectively tells the reader--that the "kidnappers" of a "missing boy" "don’t know there’s a tracker in their car." The woman does not react even a little to the news that a real, living boy exists in this World Without Men. That's it, that's the entire chapter. Billie hitches a ride, we learn that lesbians are scandalous, the apocalypse has septic tank cleaners and (apparently) car-trackers that rely on a working GPS network. This entire chapter should have been cut by an editor, imho.

I have no reference for how far San Fran is from Billie's current location, but the thought occurs that the five thousand dollar bribe she offers her rescuer may only just cover her gas bill, since it's blackmarket-kidney expensive in the wake of the burned oil fields. We are, for the record, about 1/7th through this novel. We still have no clear idea of what barriers, precisely, are between Cole+Miles and their destination, nor do we understand the stakes in terms of what will happen to them if they fail / are caught.

AFTERLAND. Chapter 9.

"9. Miles: Tumbleweed"

I know I keep harping on this, but the thing where each character has a gimmick to differentiate their POV is very grating. I think I'm bothered by it because it doesn't work here at all. Each of the 3 characters has this one gimmick they pull out over and over. Miles likens everything to video games. Billie has music references and uses the word "cunt" like it's on her Word-of-the-Day calendar. Cole has Devon's ghost dialogue. Otherwise: all identical. It irks me, too, that the inclusion of Cole's dead Black husband is basically just so she'll have a gimmick to set her apart from the other 2 POVs. It makes Devon feel like a prop instead of a person.

Miles is reliving the theft in the bar restroom, because multiple POV characters means you can re-use every scene at least twice. This book is the slowest apocalypse I've ever seen. Cole is excoriating herself for the theft, promising that they'll send the woman money, that they'll never do it again. She's the most entitled woman in the world, but she flogs herself for petty theft in the course of protecting her son.

Miles, on the other hand, is high on the adrenaline of success and feels like a natural at thievery. "“It’s not going to be a habit,” he says. But it could be. Add it to his catalog. Drop-down menu, learn new skill: thief." [Racism] I feel like the author has forgotten that her super-moral mother figure stressing over petty theft is a white woman and her high-on-the-moment son who is considering a life of crime is a Black child.

On the same page, more video game references: "The endless scrublands look the same, as if they’re stuck in a loop in the same side-scrolling landscape of a 2D platformer." I am still very confused by the geography in which we have golden desert sands, endless shrublands, and fallen trees blocking all the roads, all at the same time AND in near vicinity to Lake Tahoe.

Finally we get some planning. Cole asks Miles whether he wants to head for Mexico, Canada, or New York for their boat-trip to South Africa. I...would have thought that with limited travel options, the choice would be made for them. Miles votes for the Mexico border, which honestly seems like that would be harder to cross into than New York. They review their "cover story" which is...phew. I'm- I'm at a loss.

“We’re from London, which is why our accents are funny because Americans can’t tell the difference. We’re going to Denver, Colorado, definitely not Mexico or Canada or on a boat back to South Africa”. What. WHat. WHaT. Why have they come up with something that can be so easily seen through??? They don't have London accents. You can't drive to Mexico or New York from California and claim to be going to Colorado, at least not for long.

Why is their destination some kind of top level secret? BILLIONS OF PEOPLE HAVE DIED in the last two years, the effort to try to keep up with one woman and her kid would be astronomical and frankly not worth it!! "My daughter and I want to go to South Africa, where we are from" ought to be more than enough to get them out of the country. Cole seems to think there's some kind of APB on all South African people in an attempt to find them personally. How? WHY?

I keep coming back to the idea that Cole would make more sense as an Unreliable Narrator who is several bats short of a full belfry. But if that's the case, we've seen no indication of that! Every other POV character--her son and her sister--think the same as she. But- But- But this book would make so much more SENSE if literally no one (except Billie) was looking for them because they have bigger apocalypse concerns on their mind, but Cole's paranoia was out of control.

It would be a terrible and ableist depiction of mental health in that case, don't get me wrong, but the world-building would at least be less shit. NO ONE should be looking for this boy with the intensity that Cole believes they are. Then you get this, which is How Not To Build A Cover Story 101.

“And our name?” “Mila Williams and your name is Nicky, and I’m fourteen years old, because that kind of small detail is what’s going to make it more difficult to track us, because they’ll be looking for a twelve-year-old. But Mom, it’s dumb. People are going to be able to see right through that.” “Not if you catch them on the wrong memorable details. I’m a tennis coach, for high schools, no one famous, although one of my kids almost qualified for the U.S. team. The resort we’re going to has been in the family for years, your dad’s parents turned it into a corporate team-building getaway, Camp Catalyst, abseiling down cliffs, ziplining into the lake, survival skills. You wouldn’t believe how much those suits-and-ties loved learning how to build a fire and make a shelter.” “Wait, is this a real place?”

This is outright Looney Tunes? When they get separated and grilled (by the gender-sniffing dogs, obviously) they're going to break the first time they try out this ridiculous "one of my tennis kids almost qualified for the U.S. team" detail. Really, what was their name, this tennis whiz-kid? Then Miles asks whether "Camp Catalyst" is a real place and Cole brags that it's not. Miles points out that Google exists and Cole is stunned by this revelation. I am rocking back in forth, holding my head.

“No. But you see what I mean. Throw them with details no one would make up. Like the most popular offering at CC, that’s the affectionate abbreviation for Camp Catalyst, by the way, was the zombie survivor theme camp for ten to thirty adults, including three meals a day. You used to play a kid zombie whenever we went to visit, but now you’re too big for that, and you think its lame.” “And there was an alligator in the lake once, only it turned out to be someone’s escaped pet iguana instead.” “But the legend lives on, which is why the t-shirts have an alligator on them.” “But what if someone googles Camp Catalyst?” “Good point. Let’s avoid mentioning any names, apart from ours.” “And Dad’s. Professor Eustace Williams Esquire the third.” “Eustace?” Mom chokes with laughter. “Where the hell did you get Eustace from?” “Who can say where inspiration comes from?” He grins back, wafting one hand through the air to indicate the divine mystery of it all.

I suppose it makes sense that Cole makes up fiction like her author does: with no research whatsoever and a belief that enough extraneous details can paper over a blatant lack of facts or believability. Somewhere in all this, Miles points out the minor problem with Cole's "tennis coach" background: she doesn't know anything about sports. At all. I'm screaming.

Miles asks why they don't just go to Chicago and get help from the actual family they have there. Cole is reticent to agree and says they'll evaluate their options when they stop to "get internet". At the internet store? Do smartphones still work? Are there public libraries? Normally I would expect the answer to be "no" because those are rare in an apocalypse, but we still have speedboats and bars and credit cards.

They stop at a gas station and Miles thinks about "how the desert sand looks soft and silty" and I so badly need to understand this enigma of a sandy desert in which multiple "back roads" exist and all of them are blocked by trees. California: riddle wrapped in mystery. (Texas desert does not look "soft and silty" and I'd thought California desert didn't either. Does the author think California is, like, the Sahara? I don't know!)

In noting that their possessions get smaller each time, we get some semblance of where they've been: "the Oakland house to the airport to the army base to Ataraxia", with the latter being the mysterious billionaire wine farm. Their possessions are: "the bag of girl clothes, their last remaining snacks, candles, a flashlight, a set of kitchen knives and the comforter from the bed, all raided from Eagle Creek, and the bottle of off-brand soda and the homemade chicken pies Mom just bought."

This reads as really strange to me. Their car--the one they're in and the one Billie is tracking--was painstakingly setup in advance for Billie's original plan to get them to South Africa. Why is this all they have? Several of the items were recently raided from the retirement home community or just now purchased. (Several other items are missing: where are the canned goods, the can opener, and all the pharmacy bottles they took in that chapter?)

The only thing I can tell for certain existed before this book is the "girl clothes". They'd been planning this escape for weeks/months! Where are extra clothes for Cole? A cherished book or toy? Hell, a video game since that's Miles' thing? It feels like these characters didn't exist before the book started, which is another common problem with new authors and first drafts, but this isn't a debut novel! It's just so weird. Normally you can tell a lot about a person from their possessions; they have none.

Cole has gotten them a ride, which I thought meant hot-wiring a car (a skill she's been established as having) (even though she stresses over wallet-theft) (I don't know, I just work here) but instead she means she's hitching a lift with a stranger. WHAT. (A) Why did we need that useless Chapter 8 to establish Billie has a tracker in the car if they're going to immediately ditch it? Heightening tension only to immediately fix the problem is not good writing. (B) Cole is paranoid as fuck and is terrified of anyone even looking at Miles lest they penetrate his sparkly-barrette gender disguise. Now they're going to hitch a ride for hours with a total stranger? They're going to have to make small talk during that time! Their hastily conceived backstory will fall apart like cookies in milk!

[Miles' narration] "[T]hey seem to be walking toward what is clearly a child-catching white panel van, bristling with aerials and antenna and a satellite dish. “It looks like a murder wagon,” Miles complains.
“Meteorology,” Mom says"

Miles cautions that they can't get in a stranger's car and Cole pontificates: “Signs and signifiers, tiger, identifying our tribe.” Then: "Mom ticks off the list on her fingers. “One: brown. Two: purple hair. Three: meteorologist, and we like scientists. Four: my gut instinct, which I might add, is excellent. And she’s willing to take us all the way to Salt Lake City." I just. A white woman wrote this white woman bragging that a woman of color is part of her "tribe" because she has brown skin. This was published. Authors have raved about it. I am so tired.

The Meteorologist says she's from a "commune with internet" where they don't make people show ID. Miles points out that doesn't preclude serial killing. (Remember when Cole was worried about cannibalistic bikers?) I really don't understand why "the internet" is so hard to acquire. People are using debit and credit cards, which means every restaurant and gas station has an internet connection.

Cole: “She’s our kind of people, trust me on this. And hey, if she’s not, we’ll keep on trucking. Your dad would approve this plan.” Miles is about to protest that invoking his dead dad in support of this plan is shitty behavior but the woman steps forward and introduces herself as "Bhavana. You can call me Vana."

Bhavana commiserates that their car has broken down, saying she can recommend a mechanic and that she's "heading back to Elko next week, so I could bring you back." Regular drives from Utah to Cali makes me question, AGAIN, the supposed gas shortage and price hike.

We get a brush of world-building that you can "apply for a reclaim"[ed] car but that it's a buttload of paperwork because the automobile industry is still hoping to recover. (I still maintain there would be a probably-government-sponsored Too Big To Fail buyback.) Like, there's yes going to be a shitload of extra cars out there, but cars are something that kinda "go bad" if you let them sit and rot for very long.

Bhavana says their commune is "a bunch of anarchists, socialists, off-the-gridders, and other free radicals. Assorted animals too. Dogs mainly, but there are a few uppity cats too, along with chickens and ducks. Good people—you’ll like them.” Miles asks what she actually does and Bhavana beats about the bush because her job is world-building and she's not finished. ("Climate change didn’t magically fix itself when half the population died.") "The shortage of satellite technicians, because most of them were men and they died, means we have to do manual monitoring of crops, irrigation, flight paths, water management, flooding, storms—all the vital information for farming and transport and civilization".

A new piece of world-building is revealed and it is so bananas that I truly do not know how to absorb this. I would find Magical Mole People From The Earth's Molten Core more realistic than this.

“Do we have to stay at the commune?” “If you’d rather, there’s a choice of Freevilles…” “What’s a Freeville?” Miles says. “You know, Hotel Californias? What do you call them where you come from?” “I’m really not sure…” Mom starts, trying to cover. “You must know—R&R Transitional Housing. What’s more depressing than a dead hotel chain? One that’s been turned over to Redevelopment & Reconnection. And there’s all the paperwork, again, officials trying to hook you up with missing family members, or asking future census questions about your ultimate destination, and do you have a job lined up, or would you like one?” “So tedious,” Mom agrees, as if they know all this stuff already. “I know they’re trying to reunite families, getting a handle on where people are, what’s happened to them. But some people want to slip through the cracks. There’s a lot of that happening right now.” “Cracks or slippery people?”

The American government has seized control of hotels and are placing people in them while they batter them with paperwork, seeking to reunite them with family and asking--ASKING--if they would like a job. You would think Socialist Bhavana would think this is pretty awesome, but it's described as a huge bureaucratic drag that everyone hates. This isn't an apocalypse OR a dystopia! It's a near-utopia that's maybe a little too fond of paperwork. At most!

The American government is feeding people and housing them! For free! They're asking people if they want to work, but not forcing them to in exchange for food and shelter! They're attempting to reunite families in the wake of a huge worldwide trauma!! Meanwhile our socialist friend is like 'GAWD, how depression and awful, am I right? Hotels, so gaudy and gauche. People would just rather disappear and here the government is being HELPFUL and trying to prevent kidnappings and human trafficking by keeping tabs on folks.'

Kissmate has just pointed out that this shatters the entire plot, because Cole should be all over this. "Yes, we want to be reunited with our family in South Africa. Two plane tickets, please!"

Bhavana, professional socialist, says a lot of people see the plague as a chance to reinvent themselves. YES, ACTUALLY. You'd think a lot of people would start thinking about gender and more trans men might come out-- oh sorry, that's not what she means. People are "reinventing" themselves by cosplaying Little House on the Prairie. "taking over abandoned houses, moving people in, turning the gardens into farm allotments, creating self-sufficient social nodes."

Self-sufficient social nodes? Yeah, no, the author has confused anarchists and socialists with libertarian preppers. Almost every socialist I know is disabled in ways that means they can't eke out a living from a family farm (spoiler: almost no one can do this; it's an impossible dream) and knows that Stardew Valley is a fantasy and not reality. I'm also deeply confused with how to reconcile this frankly *amazingly* compassionate government response with Cole's (paranoid?) fears about gender-sniffing dogs, women in kevlar, and man-camps.

Bhavana complains that state government (but not federal? is this imprecision or deliberate world-building) is still clinging to "late capitalism" and Cole makes a joke I don't understand: "“That bitch isn’t *late* just yet,” Mom quips". Is it a menstrual joke? Y'all have speculated that "late" could mean "dead" but Bhavana's point seems to be that capitalism *is* dead and the state government just can't accept it, so...idk what Cole is trying to say or why it's funny. Bhavana laughs and Miles is uncomfy with his mom flirting.

I didn't even realize Cole was flirting, but I trust Miles' take on the situation. Bhavana urges them to stay at the commune long-term, or to do a trade-exchange residency with their fictional Grandmother's Camp, and Miles is tempted because the commune has dogs. Miles borrows some paper and draws a pack of wolves chasing lightning and "a face in the clouds, dark and moldy with long arms reaching for them". The chapter ends there.

I'm honestly baffled by this chapter. Back in chapter 1, Cole seemed ready and willing to steal cars as needed for this road trip. I was primed for that! Now we're hitching a ride to Utah as part of an overall plan to go to Mexico and from there South Africa. Somehow. They have no money and no real plans except to find An Internet and send an email asking for help from... someone. I'm unclear who, or how they'll be able to help unless they have an infinite pool of money to wire. They've abandoned the car that was working perfectly well for them and now are relying on the kindness of strangers. Cole is no longer worried about the big city government checkpoints and gender-sniffing dogs that plagued her earlier fears. And for reasons I cannot begin to understand, it is vitally important that they not go to the government which is invested in getting everyone safely home to their families and ask for help in getting safely home to their family.

AFTERLAND. Chapter 10.

"10. Miles: The Last Time They Drove Away From Everything"

Two Miles chapters in a row. That's nice because I like Miles, but this structure where the chapters are randomly Cole-Miles-Billie-Cole-Cole-Billie-Cole-Miles-Miles is messing with me. This is another flashback chapter, which I don't really love in general but especially not in apocalypses. I'd prefer for past events to be seeded into the main here-and-now narrative, rather than repeatedly hurled from the apocalypse back to the pre-event world.

We're back in the moment when FEMA came to remove Devon's body. Cole has loaded Miles into their car to leave and the FEMA agents are behind them and urgently talking into their "radio". Cole urges Miles that they need to go and aren't abandoning Devon by leaving. They're in the car as she says this--Cole is sitting in the driver's seat "with the duffel bag with their whole lives in it on her lap" which seems unsafe--and it's aggravating to realize we're sitting here wasting gasoline in an idling car so FEMA agents can nab Miles.

Oh, no, I guess they really are driving. (Why did Cole previously imply that telling the FEMA agents that Miles was healthy was the worst mistake of her life? I guess we'll see why later.)

Miles feels anger at the other cars on the road, furious that people can go on with their lives in the midst of a pandemic. This feels both terribly realistic as a portrayal of grief but at the same time... you're on the road, too, Miles. Cole is, in fact, the model definition of someone determined to carry on her life without letting a pandemic affect her. Billions of people have died but she wants to get back to *her* house. Because it's hers. I'm not unsympathetic, but thems the facts.

Miles fantasizes about the empty office buildings being retaken by nature. I don't really understand a lot of the assumptions people are making about this pandemic. Most of the men are dead, therefore accountants are a thing of the past?

Oakland airport has a tent city set up around it, filled with people who are "waiting to catch a plane. To go home." They're warned that either the people don't have the money to fly, or there aren't flights to where they want to go. I don't understand this global displacement of so many people, such that "wanting to get home" is commonplace need for almost everyone for the past 3 years and counting. Several of you have pointed out that this isn't a flood or hurricane that would cause an evacuation. I can well imagine there would be some travel in the beginning as people seek medical attention, but once the hospitals were overwhelmed you'd think that would halt.

Cole counters that she has "lot of cash to buy [tickets]. And medicine to trade." I don't know who she plans to trade her medicine with; I'm pretty sure Delta airlines isn't going to give her a ticket in exchange for a bottle of codeine, and she was just warned that everyone else lacks money too. This seems like a bad idea. People have begun donating their cars by leaving the keys in the ignition under donation billboards, to be given to someone who needs it. Cole is incensed at the inconvenience: “Rude,” Mom says. “Sure, donate your car, but don’t dump it in the middle of the damn road.”

Miles thinks to himself that he doesn't want to go home because all his (male) friends and relatives and teachers are dead. That's a good point! Home is comfort to Cole but might be triggering to Miles! Cole has priorities of her own. "“What do you think the economic impact of all these abandoned cars is going to be?” Mom says, hefting their duffel bag, pretending not to notice that he’s walking slower, his palm pressed against his stomach."

I think we're supposed to read Cole as trying to distract Miles from his physical and emotional pain, but it feels more like she just doesn't want it to exist. I really loathe her.

“What do you think the economic impact of all these abandoned cars is going to be?” Mom says, hefting their duffel bag, pretending not to notice that he’s walking slower, his palm pressed against his stomach. He groans. “No homeschooling now. Please.” She ignores him. “On the plus side, cars for everyone, less traffic, fewer emissions, huge impact on global warming, but a lot of four-wheeled junk clogging up public spaces. And what about the impact on jobs, or tax revenue from the auto industry? Or do you think we’ve got enough robots now to handle it?” “Mom. I don’t care.”

Kissmate points out that distracting someone from their pain requires you to utilize a subject they're interested in, not just yammering on about things they've asked you not to talk about.

Now for something topical: "A notice at the cash register with a sad-face emoji reads, “Sorry! Hand Sanitizer Sold Out!”", except that it doesn't make sense. The time between flu and cancer was several MONTHS. If the cancer is now, the flu pandemic was way in the past.

The airport is silent ("No announcements, no muzak. It’s weird.") and this is surreal to me. There's a TENT CITY outside full of people who want a flight, which means they will want information. You'd be piping a recorded message about flight availability non-stop. People are sitting in line at the empty ticket counter, bovinely waiting for the ticket office to open at 8 am. Cole jokes that "Boy, it really is the apocalypse" because she's unaccustomed to having to wait for service. Everyone is serene.

A friendly TSA agent informs them that the only airline flying international flights is SFO (San Fran) and not this one (Oakland). I- I don't know how to describe the surrealness of this scene. It's not just that Cole didn't phone ahead or check online from their house internet which the book said they had. It's that the TSA agent has been up all night, in the middle of a months-long pandemic that has killed every man she ever knew but she sounds like this:

“Not from here, honey, that’s SFO only. Only place they got agents to process international. Suggest you head on home, get a good night’s sleep in a warm bed, and get yourself over to the airport tomorrow.”

Like. LIKE? LIkE?!?! Where is the dystopia here? Where is the weariness, the rudeness, the panic, the fear, the anything? Cole is drifting blissfully through an apocalypse, her Karen powers ensuring everyone is honey-sweet to her because she is The Heroine. TSA agents aren't that sugar-sweet now, on a good day, when their sons and husbands and brothers and fathers aren't dead. Why isn't this woman annoyed at the latest asshole who thinks she can stroll in and buy a ticket to South Africa without checking ahead first?

"“Well, that’s annoying,” Mom says in the bright calm way that says she’s PO-ed as heck." Miles asks if they're going home to sleep but Cole says they're going to drive straight to SFO and get a head-start on the line there. Cole and Miles are stopped on the way out of the airport by a woman trying to scalp tickets to them, ineptly, as the TSA agent scolds her. WHY IS THIS SCENE IN THIS BOOK? What is this doing to propel the narrative, to deepen characterization, to not waste our time???

Like, I need you to appreciate, to really drink in, the prose here:

[TSA] “You want me to call the cops?”

[Scalper] “It’s not illegal! What’s illegal is you oppressing my rights and ability to do free commerce and support myself and my family!” Then she jolts, like she’s been tasered, and her face crimps in disbelief. “Oh shit, for real?”

4 billion people dead and dying, and "the cops" are going to drive out to Oakland airport because a woman is trying to scalp plane tickets for a flight to South Africa that does not exist. And the scalper is *bantering* with the TSA agent, her face only "crimp[ing] in disbelief" at the realization that the threat to call the cops might not be an idle one. Sure, every man she's ever known or loved is dead, but this is how she spends her Friday nights. Or mornings. Or whatever day and time it is.

Suddenly and without warning: "A squadron of cops in black riot gear with huge guns is running toward them, yelling, “Get down! Get the fuck down, now!”....A black family by the window raises their hands like they’re being pulled by strings, and he does the same, half-hearted, uncertain."

The cops are apparently there for Cole and Miles and this understandably frightens Miles. "He remembers what his cousin Jay said when the family came to visit them in Johannesburg. They shoot black kids in America." Miles has sudden stomach cramps from anxiety and falls to the ground, violently spasming. The cops search Cole's duffel bag at the same time and find her massive stash of illicit drugs that she thought she could use to buy a plane ticket AT THE TICKET COUNTER with.

A woman cop clean Miles up after he vomits, then pulls him to his feet and hugs him. "Across the room, Mom screams, Don’t you touch him! and the crowd that’s been watching, so still and so quiet, twitches like a seismic needle at that pronoun. Him." I guess everyone in the room has read the back of the book-jacket, so they know that Miles is a rare and beautiful immune butterfly rather than, say, just another dying kid like the other billions of dying kids dying at this very moment.

The cops pull Miles and Cole out of the airport, and the action is very unclear but they appear to be *shooting* the people in the airport in order to...keep them back from Miles. They're lifted into a truck. “Easy, we’re on your side,” the soldier says...“You really should have reported this. You should have come into one of the crisis centers. Don’t you watch the news? Men on their own are getting torn apart. You’re lucky we got to you first.”

That's the end of the chapter. I don't- what. WHaT. Men are being "torn apart" by women? Why? We're only 6 months into the pandemic! They got the first wave of the flu 3 years ago and Devon died six months later and this is where we are, flashback-wise. We're 2.5 years in the "past" from our current setting and six months--0.5 of a year--into the pandemic. That's just not enough TIME for people to have a collective mob response to individual boys and men!

For people to be "tearing apart" individual men and boys--I presume out of grief because they all want to take the man home and he is wounded in the fight over him??--at this early stage is just not plausible! The FEMA women advised Cole not to travel with her son because travel during prostate cancer is nightmarishly uncomfortable! They did NOT say that if she took a boy into public he'd be ripped apart by maenads!!

This book doesn't work because every chapter is written in such a way that it contradicts the preceding chapters. The entire book is retconning itself as it goes! Cannibal biker gangs become stolid septic tank workers. Mild advisories against travel because travelling-with-cancer sucks becomes histrionic screeds warning that being Male In Public will result in being torn to shreds. Each chapter undoes the world-building so far!

I'm haunted by the realization that every flashback chapter we've had could've been condensed to a handful of paragraphs. There's so much in this novel that is just...filler. Cole's rambling and uninformed thoughts on the car industry, for example.

...The thought has suddenly stuck me that IF the cops are right about boys being torn into shreds, then Miles probably *should* be in quarantine? He'll have friends there! Other boys and men he can socialize with! What's Cole's ultimate plan here: take him home to Johannesburg and then he can *never leave the house again ever*??? He hates dressing up as a girl, so it's not like they can just keep doing that forever so Miles can have a social life! Wouldn't the safety and community of a quarantine be worlds better? This is why we need to be told--and early on!!--why quarantine isn't healthy.

I wanted to add something last night about Chapter 10, but it's tricky for me to word at. There's a lot of racial dynamics in this book and I'm trying to straddle the line between Staying In My Lane(s) vs. not wanting to ignore or gloss over racism. Several of you have already commented on how strange it is to hold up South Africa as a paragon of non-racism as compared to America. Like, America is very very very bad about how it treats Black people, yes, but South Africa isn't the paradise Cole envisions.

Chapter 10 tries to do something clever where, when the cops storm the airport in riot gear, the white people just ignore them but the Black family (which the author never capitalizes) puts their hands immediately up. Because police brutality. But then the cops go from brutal to hugging Miles and crying because they're so relieved to see a real, live boy. So it feels like the author knows police brutality exists, but hasn't thought through what that means in terms of how *all* cops act when out in riot gear.

And we have the cheery helpful TSA agent who is all smiles and warmth, with no understanding of the fact that TSA agents routinely harass and assault Black people at airports. Again, it feels like the author has heard about police brutality but doesn't recognize that the racist oppression of Black people extends through all our authority structures. FEMA, TSA, etc. and not just cops as some uniquely bad institution. So we have these moments that feel like a very shallow understanding of the problem--police are racist and violent, yes--but without recognizing that it's an institutional problem, and there's not room in here for Nice Cops and Nice TSA Agents.

The result is world-building that seems faintly off. Or we're meant to believe that the cops and TSA became nice by virtue of killing off all the men and replacing them with women. But I don't think this is meant to be read as a change from the old violent norm. Probably to the author, TSA agents and FEMA workers and police officers do seem occasionally nice because she's white, and it hasn't occurred to her that they might treat Cole differently with her biracial Black child there beside her. It's possible that a later flashback chapter will reveal that the cops were not, in fact, nice--but I can't imagine we'll see the cheery and inexplicably gentle TSA agent ever again.


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