Review by Katharine Coldiron
About six weeks ago, the writer David Shields told a small audience, “Something in us craves apocalypse.” That quote certainly applies to Adam Nemett’s debut novel, We Can Save Us All, in which the young characters that populate it cope with a series of approaching catastrophes. But this is an uncommon apocalypse novel. It makes others in the genre seem like they’re still being modeled on the shock of the H-bomb, instead of 21st century threats. The book is also a gonzo performance: a sustained gabble of ideas and energy that is difficult to resist.
Time has begun shortening, such that the human race is losing successively more minutes every week. No one knows what will happen at the culmination of this phenomenon. Will the space-time continuum collapse? Will the sun explode? It’s not clear, but the ecosphere is imploding, too. Outlandishly inclement weather taxes power grids and infrastructure to the breaking point, kills huge swaths of the population, and makes life increasingly desperate and strange. Nemett elects to narrate this calamity through a group of Princeton students born around the year 2000 (the book takes place across the academic year of 2021-2022). The three crucial figures of the group are David, a schmoe-ish freshman, Mathias Blue, a mad-genius/rebellious-scion figure who both craves and attempts to shape the apocalypse, and Haley, a sensible, even-keeled young woman whose bad decisions (and redemptive gestures) spin off conflicts galore. David, the main narrator, is a bit of a misstep; in his ordinariness and insecurity, he is inadequate to the task of anchoring this wild, funny book. He’s a bit like a YA hero or a superhero out of costume in that way: an eminently normal, sympathetic guy, an in-over-his-head Nick Carraway.
This trio helps to assemble students from Princeton and elsewhere into the Unnamed Supersquadron of Vigilantes (USV), which is equal parts fraternity, X-Men team, and cult. The USV’s practices blend identity-seeking with knowledge-seeking, much like a college education, and the group is organized around projects intended to help others as well as themselves. These projects rely on an endless stream of money and time, a pair of privileges which Princeton students have in abundance. Except that time is vanishing daily. And the weather makes normal life almost impossible, so the money can’t keep flowing forever. And Mathias, despite his charisma and confidence, is growing more and more unstable. How’s it going to end?
This novel is long, and it’s complex, and it clips along at the pace of a well-written sitcom. Its narrative moves could fill an entire review. Thematically, We Can Save Us All rests at the apex of multiple paradoxes, including, for instance, the naïveté that leads young people toward problem-solving strategies so untried they might actually work. Or the absurdity at the heart of certain doom, which Nemett invokes abundantly. There’s also the hoary yet useful device of a superhero who is more himself in costume than he is in normal clothes, and how an act of cowardice can actually induce heroism. How drugs can enlighten and destroy. How dear friends can wreck your goddamn life. Et cetera.
It’s a great ride, this book; it’s a novel I couldn’t put down after I started it, and I can’t stop thinking about it after finishing it. But in a book that’s bubbling over with ideas, there are bound to be problems. It relies too much on drugs and sex as answers to a simulacra-ridden life, and the USV’s confidence that they have solutions to the apocalyptic problems of the 21st century might be nothing more than the arrogance of the young and privileged. “It’s like, when you’re a kid you want to build a fort,” says one character, “and you’ve got these ideas for how awesome it’s going to be, with rocket blasters and a drawbridge and stuff. But it’s never that cool in real life. It’s, like, a pile of branches and bungee cords.” Exactly, I thought. That’s what you self-important idiots are doing. But those criticisms sound suspiciously like I’m asking Nemett to get off my lawn. I can’t deny that he’s written a phenomenally interesting book, one that I could read two or three times with the sensation of reading a different book each time. So even though I mark these as “flaws,” they enrich the reading experience like the trademark rasp enriches Louis Armstrong’s voice.
Since its characters purposely form a league of superheroes, naturally the novel references and relies on superhero literature: Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, and the distinctions between how they operate. It’s kind of a photo negative of Fight Club: instead of the cynical philosophy of “you are not special,” it’s “every last one of you is special,” which, like so much of Mathias’s rhetoric, works well if you don’t look at it too closely or apply it to everything. Unusually, it’s influenced by the Illuminatus! trilogy, although that book’s thick paranoia and exhausting style is, thankfully, replaced with sharp-as-tacks dialogue and something like hope. (The title is We Can Save Us All, not We Can’t.) Even though the book ends with optimism, the fact is, that promise, “we can save us all,” is as empty for children of the millennium as it was for flower children. But the USV certainly does try.
The giddy fatalism that invigorates We Can Save Us All belongs entirely to the late 2010s. Beyond its ambition, beyond its wealth of ideas, beyond its influences, it is remarkably current. The sensation of reading it is the sensation of living in an America on the brink, feeling, now, that all we can do is laugh and wait for the next horror to come round the bend. But an undercurrent of resistance against this absurdity exists in Nemett’s work, too; along with everything else it does, the novel struggles to make meaning against apocalypse. Perhaps the craving for the one comes out of craving for the other.