I like it when the full import of a title is felt only at the very end of a story, or in the space just beyond -- think Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49." Laura Kasischke's seventh novel, "In a Perfect World" (Harper Perennial: 310 pp., $13.99 paper), is such a brisk and engaging read that I forgot about its tepid handle till I hit page 207, about two-thirds of the way in.
By this point, the deadly and mysterious Phoenix flu has caused a breakdown in American society, if the small Midwestern town of St. Sophia is any indication. Electricity is touch and go, and gas is precious. SUVs, blamed for contributing to the environmental degradation that might have triggered the pandemic, are being "toppled, smashed with baseball bats, set on fire"; a history teacher with time on his hands (school has been indefinitely suspended) muses about a "cult in Idaho, the one where they all killed themselves to erase their carbon footprint -- that could be straight out of the Middle Ages." The first time the titular phrase arises, it's in reference to a radio station playing "happy, stupid songs about being a teenager in a perfect world. Even the car crashes in that world seemed safe, predictable. There were never any special announcements on the oldies station" -- never any acknowledgment of the mounting death toll and paranoia.
The phrase, in this context, still feels too slight to work as a title, though. We need to wait a little longer for the payoff.
As end-of-the-world scenarios go, Kasischke's is frightening almost because of her willingness to avoid the usual scare tactics. She gives just the right amount of description of what the Phoenix flu is, so that it takes on the aspects of a Rorschach blot -- how much of the threat is from a deadly new disease, how much from hysteria? What is the border between fear and family? This is a doomsday book in the form of a finely observed domestic drama, showing how dysfunctional relationships shift and soften in response to the looming menace.
Kasischke employs a close third-person voice to track Jiselle, a flight attendant in her 30s, as she falls in love with and swiftly marries Mark Dorn, a widower pilot so knee-knockingly swoonworthy that disembarking female passengers often contrive to take a second look (by saying, for instance, "Did I leave a book called The Single Woman's Guide to Rome in my seat pocket by any chance?"). Perhaps influenced by the unsupported theory that women in the workforce had a role in the spread of the flu, Jiselle quits the unfriendly skies and finds herself installed in Mark's secluded house. There she has the formidable task of watching his three children: amenable Sam, passive-aggressive Camilla and aggressive-aggressive eldest daughter Sara.
This responsibility becomes even more daunting after Mark gets quarantined in Germany, his communiqués growing disturbingly terse. Stressing Jiselle out even more, her mother is on an I-told-you-so streak, flinging the dirt from her own failed marriage at her clueless daughter. Jiselle is in a no-win situation: trying to be a good mother to children who resent her, while her new husband is not even around to run interference. Her storybook marriage looks like a trap, and she wonders if Mark just wanted a nanny he didn't need to pay.
The tone is supple enough to provide a fairy-tale frame (Jiselle even reads Hans Christian Andersen to Sam), flirt with romance-novel cliché (in describing Mark and Jiselle's globe-trotting courtship), sustain a science-fiction catastrophe setting and allow for jolts of deft satire.
Though there is a body count, and the symptoms are gruesome, a disproportionate number of the Phoenix flu's initial victims seem to be celebrities, big and small, with Britney Spears "and the daughter of an actress who'd had a small role on 'The Sopranos' years before" among the first to succumb. The mounting tabloid casualties simultaneously increase public awareness and encourage apathy. (Early in the book, when asked, "How concerned are you about the Phoenix flu?," 61% of respondents say "Not very concerned," and 10 % answer "Not concerned at all.")
The first words of "In a Perfect World" are startling: "If you are READING this you are going to DIE!" They come straight from Sara's journal, which is conspicuously left in the open, as if inviting the detested Jiselle to read it. (She does.) The words are doubly unnerving for us, the readers, for surely they are accurate: By reading the novel, we are reading the journal, too, and the curse turns out to be the common curse on all mankind.
Yet we read on, forgetting those words, as Kasischke subtly, believably frees her characters from their anguish. Their resourcefulness in the face of the plague and the gradual mending of seemingly irreparable rifts feel both inevitable and true. Without giving anything away, the book's final, winding sentence at last puts the words "a perfect world" in their perfect place. The reader may well come away with the odd, exhilarating feeling that a spell has both been cast and broken.
Park is the author of the novel "Personal Days" and a founding editor of the Believer. "Astral Weeks" appears at latimes.com/books.