Review: I Cheerfully Refuse

I Cheerfully Refuse
Leif Enger
April 2024, Grove Press, $28

The most effective post-apocalyptic fiction and climate fiction (cli-fi) doesn’t feature One Big Disaster that annihilates half the population and resources of the Earth with a Galactus-like snap. These stories are more like mid-apocalypse, and so more realistic, and maybe more existentially frightening. It’s difficult to imagine Mount Hood actually erupting and spilling lava down the Columbia Gorge and taking out Portland, Oregon, where I live, but it’s a possibility. (According to the New Yorker article about this possibility, it’s not worth my worrying about how I will survive in this post-apocalyptic, post-eruption future. I will be immediately choked by smoke then smothered in hot lava.) It’s such a remote possibility, this Galactus-snap apocalypse, that it’s thrilling to read about or to watch on the big screen.

In more literary post-apocalyptic novels, the crisis—or more often crises—are ongoing to the extent that it’s pointless to wonder when things will “go back to normal.” These stories—I’m thinking of works like Joy Williams’s Harrow—are set in the slow-rolling middle of the apocalypse, where something has happened, but things are still kind of happening, so this is the way things are for now, and it may change tomorrow, and it may not, and there’s no way to know, so you might as well play bass in the local band and run a hybrid bakery/bookshop in a postliterate world.

This is what the main characters of I Cheerfully Refuse are doing in the opening chapters of the latest novel Leif Enger. The narrator, Rainy—short for Rainier, like the mountain near Seattle—is doing his best to maintain a small life in a small midwestern town in this otherwise miserable post-apocalyptic world. His partner, Lark, runs the bookshop half of the bakery. In addition to the bakery and the bass-playing, Lark and Rainy take in boarders. When a skittish young man named Kellan arrives in search of a place to stay, Rainy takes him under his wing like the little brother he never had. Kellan is one of the many workers in the United States signed on to a six-year indentured-servant-like contracts that they cannot break, and they may not leave the prisonlike confines where they are forced to live. The occasional escapees are known as “squelettes,” for the emaciated appearance of the first escapees to make it to French-speaking Canada. And who are they running from, these squelettes? The astronauts, of course. That’s what members of the ownership class are called, a nod to the off-planet ambitions of our current crop of mega-billionaires. As a squelette, Kellan is a fugitive, which puts Rainy and Lark in legal danger. But Kellan seems harmless enough, despite his paranoia and night terrors. Everyone is dealing with the mid-apocalypse era in their own way.

Anyone who is having even half a decent time of it thinks of themselves as lucky, including the narrator Rainy. Everything around them crumbles into neglect. An expressway sags into the ditches on either side after three flash floods in quick succession wiped out a section of pavement. Residents requested repairs, which were promised as soon as funds were allocated, but no repair was ever made. It’s a microcosm of what’s happened to the rest of the world in this novel: a series of never-ending disasters, large and small, that overwhelmed infrastructure and budgets and organizational capacities. As Rainy puts it: “The world was confused. It was running out of everything, especially future.”

Just when it seems that the apocalyptic conditions, both environmental and societal, are going to be the amorphous but oppressive evil against which the protagonists fight, an actual, flesh-and-blood human antagonist arrives on the scene: Werryck. He’s in pharmaceuticals, and he will absolutely destroy anything and anyone in his way of controlling supply and labor. Kellan warns Rainy about “relentless hellhound” Werryck: “When you see him standing in your kitchen, you slip out the back. Be quiet, be quick. Don’t hunt for your wallet. Don’t grab a coat. Slip out the window if you have to.”

The appearance of the menacing Werryck changes everything and sets in motion a slow-motion chase on Lake Superior with many stops for supplies that might bring to mind The Odyssey, or even The Little Prince. Safe harbors are hard to come by, but a small found family congeals around the rickety Flower, piloted by Rainy. Environmental and community devastation are evident throughout: long-dead bodies released from the lake’s depths by climate change, the extortion of a bridge lift operator, the nearly empty lakeshore towns.

And what of the title? Does it refer to a ragtag band of resistance fighters against the astronauts? Is Rainy a Bartelby-esque thorn in the side of capitalism? It’s none of these. It’s actually the title of Lark’s favorite book, written by the fictional author Molly Thorn. The book was never published, but Lark has come into possession of a rare advance review copy, or ARC, printed before the publication was canceled. As an aside, this created yet another a surreal moment for me as a reviewer, as I was reading an ARC of a novel called I Cheerfully Refuse.

I know I said that literature that uses the slow-rolling middle of an apocalypse feels more realistic, but I Cheerfully Refuse does have a surreal dreaminess about it, even outside the occasional dream sequence or reference to an advance review copy. The twists and turns of the plot are earned; there is no deus ex machina feel. But the eerie calmness of Sol, the girl Rainy takes aboard his boat, and the pettiness of the bridge operators, and the memory of sailing to the Slates with Lark are just one step beyond grounded. Oddly, that in turn makes the setting a little more believable. If it were merely gritty realism, not only would the novel be a downer, it would be kind of unbelievable to a reader in 2024. In the past several years, we have been required to adjust to the very weird: heat domes, record-setting wildfires, a global pandemic, reality TV stars as world leaders, and phrases like “milkshake duck,” “This is fine,” and “covfefe” breaking free of social media and coming out of our actual mouths in conversation. A near-ish-future post-apocalyptic cli-fi novel that is not at least a little surreal would not be at all realistic. Which is surreal in itself.

Despite its surreality and erosion of community and climate, I Cheerfully Refuse lives up to its title in offering quiet resistance in the form of solidarity and community. Rainy eventually “remembers the future,” as he says, and the very idea of looking forward to small pleasures and contentment. This undercurrent might shift the novel toward another new subgenre, hopepunk. There are no Marvel superheroes or Katniss Everdeens here, but there are regular people making music and bread and bookshops and friendships amid the chaos.

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