Completed 3/4/2016, reviewed 3/4/2016
“In the Garden of Dead Cars” is a post-apocalyptic novel about humanity after a plague that actually worried me back in the ‘80s, that the AIDS virus would mutate and go airborne. I imagined the world coming to an end a la Stephen King’s “The Stand”. Claiborne imagines something less cinematic but just as dramatic, as the world’s population is cut in half and a fascist government outlaws sexual contact.
The plot centers on Emma, a young woman in future New York City whose dream is to rebuild a Subaru from the parts of dead cars in the giant dead car lot of Central Park. She is a product of her times, eschewing contact, and refusing to even reproduce in the sterile, artificial insemination clinic, though it is required of all women. She lives and argues with her mother who reminisces fondly and fiercely of the time before the plague. Much of the book’s conflict comes from the two of them arguing about living in the past and how to live in the present.
Society is kept in place by the evil comedians, formerly, the police. It was decided that society needed to laugh after the plague, and bullets were becoming rare. So they trained the police to add humor to people’s lives. At first it worked, but it quickly devolved into a sadistic vigilante group, using fear to keep people from human contact or other subversive thoughts. Besides the comedians, the government uses terror to keep society down by regularly televising executions of sexual outlaws.
There are two types of sexual outlaws. There are the regular citizens who become outlaws when they have sexual contact and procreate. They are pursued by the comedians and sometimes executed. However, there’s a second group, the “carnals”. They are people who remained coupled even when being in a relationship was outlawed. They are the new lower class. The government labels them a dirty subspecies to help whip up public sentiment against them. But these carnals are effectively invisible, dropping out of society to live in squalor so that they can have what we consider “normal sexuality”.
The book is beautifully written. There is an ease and gentleness to the prose despite the horrible environment it describes. Emma herself is a hard person, as described by her mother and her co-worker. She’s a product of the new society and rebels against her mother’s reminiscing of the past. However, her reality is chipped away slowly as she becomes more aware of the oppression and subversion around her, even finally realizing that her mother is not just living in the past, but radically trying to change the present.
I give this book four out of five stars. Reading it was a delight, which was very welcome after just finishing a book that was terribly written. Claiborne took some interesting worst case scenarios and weaved it into a very readable book. The plot is fairly straight forward. Halfway through the book, you know what’s coming. But that’s not quite as important as Emma’s journey through this fascist world extrapolated from the concept that sex is bad.