On Page 4 of this extraordinary new novel, Carolyn See writes disarmingly, "This is partly the story of Lorna Villanelle and me; two ladies absolutely crazed with the secret thought that they were something special. But if you think you aren't going to care about this story, hold on. It's the most important story in the Western world! Believe me."
Believe her! Anybody who cares about anything should read this short novel, the author's fourth, and the generals and hawks of our present Administration should hear it on tape as they sleep; be force-fed it, ground up and sprinkled on their steak and eggs. Long an admirer of her "Rhine Maidens," I knew See was good--dry, trenchant, irreverent and intelligent, very much a California child, which to me implies a certain fearlessness about looking at the future. Now, as most writers circle or cringe under the heart-stopping shadow that hangs over us, she has taken The Unthinkable and turned it into a tale that is almost inspirational.
The story is about a group of Californians who survive a nuclear war (a requirement, of course, for any narrator of Doomsday), and some provocative suggestions why . The narrator is Edith, a divorcee with two daughters, who returns to her home territory to make her fortune. She buys a house in Topanga Canyon, where she and her live-in friend, Skip, put together a family out of family fragments, Skip's frightened wife having moved to Buenos Aires during the Cuban missile crisis.
Edith and Lorna each have a string of failed marriages, some in darkest '50s fashion, some more colorful if just as painful. But the two ladies seem to be crazed less by intimations of uniqueness than by that puzzled, initially mute desperation that has since been translated into feminism. There is something special about Lorna, though: With a touch, she cures one child's sprained ankle, another's broken bone. She can be invisible. She can be two places at once. Later, as her magic powers develop more, her fingers leave a trail of stars and her feet burn circles in the grass.
These powers are strengthened by a charming charlatan and evangelist, Lion Boyce, who gives self-actualization seminars in a seedy San Francisco hotel. " 'Cosmic Jell-O,' he kept saying. 'Just think of the universe as red Jell-O.' " Doing cartwheels, he cries, " 'OOOO-eeee! I see abundance everywhere!' " Edith, covering the event for her newspaper column, and Skip are initially skeptical. But when Edith extends her arm and adds some shining light, she can support all of Skip's weight, and the shadow in Skip's lung he'd been hugging to himself--his ticket to the grave--disappears. There's something to this stuff, See tells us, in her slangy, low-key way. " 'No wonder Easterners think we're crazy!' " Edith observes.
After Lion's seminar and the conversion of the kids, everything goes better for the family. The kids get A's, the money rolls in faster than the eye can see and Skip--no longer old and sick--becomes Edith's wonderful lover. Things are, in fact, too good to be true. It's now spring of 1987, and the world situation is deteriorating. As small nuclear weapons are detonated in Third-World countries, people either panic or refuse to face the inevitable, such as the psychologist at a party who tells Edith her fear of war is a metaphor for her other fears--a chillingly familiar form of denial. " 'No,' I said. I may have shouted it through the beautiful, sheltered room. 'It's my view that the other fears, all those of which we have spoken, are a metaphor for my fear of nuclear war!' "