The Mercy Journals (2016)
Written by: Claudia Casper
Genre: Post-apocalyptic fiction
Pages: 231 (Paperback)
Publisher: Arsenal Pulp Press
Why I Chose It: I had not heard of The Mercy Journals until Speculative Chic asked the contributors if we were willing to review the books nominated for the 2017 Philip K. Dick Award. I was so interested in the premise of a battle-scarred soldier trying to handle his demons in the aftermath of the apocalypse that I ordered the book from Amazon. This is significant because I’m blessed to live in an area with a great public library system and I probably get 90% of what I read from the library. The other 10% I buy on trips to Barnes & Noble. I usually reserve Amazon only for reading material that I know I will use a great deal, like cookbooks. However, post-apocalyptic literature is my favorite sub-genre of speculative fiction and I’ve read many fantastic books set during or directly after the end of the world. I predicted that I would love this book.
This unsettling novel is set thirty years in the future, in the wake of a third world war. Runaway effects of climate change have triggered the collapse of nation/states and wiped out over a third of the global population. One of the survivors, a former soldier nicknamed Mercy, suffers from PTSD and is haunted by guilt and lingering memories of his family. His pain is eased when he meets a dancer named Ruby, a performer who breathes new life into his carefully constructed existence. But when his long-lost brother Leo arrives with news that Mercy’s children have been spotted, the two brothers travel into the wilderness to look for them, only to find that the line between truth and lies is trespassed, challenging Mercy’s own moral code about the things that matter amid the wreckage of war and tragedy.
Set against a sparse yet fantastical landscape, The Mercy Journals explores the parameters of personal morality and forgiveness at this watershed moment in humanity’s history and evolution.
Discussion: I’m not sure I have ever read a book that struggles as badly with plotting as The Mercy Journals does. It’s a story about two broken people who fall in love. No, it’s about a man searching for his missing family. No, it’s a survivalist tale. No, it’s a Cain and Abel struggle between two brothers. The Mercy Journals is a book that doesn’t know what story it wants to tell.
The novel starts out promisingly enough in Journal One. Allen, nicknamed “Mercy” for actions he took during the war, is an alcoholic veteran with PTSD who is clearly tormented by his memories. His wife is dead. He doesn’t know where his grown sons are or even if they’re still alive. He lost a leg because a garbage truck ran over him when he was passed out drunk. He works as a security guard and barely exists in his own life. The only sliver of happiness in his life is his illegal pet goldfish. Allen meets a woman, Ruby, on the street and they begin a torrid affair. Allen is a unique person and I felt invested in seeing whether or not he could fight his demons.
Ruby is a fascinating character whose potential is ultimately wasted in this book. She’s beautiful, a dancer, and having sex with her brings Allen back to the world of the living. Her six-year-old daughter died at the beginning of society’s breakdown. She describes herself as a childless mother. Ruby tells Allen,
“When I perform, I keep my daughter close. Her heart beats right after mine, her hand moves with mine. I keep her close. I feel her body beside me. I know destruction is a part of life. It isn’t personal. When I dance, I can pour gasoline on the world and light it up, and I can hold Molly in my arms and never, never, put her in the ground.” (p. 99).
When Ruby and Allen have a fight, she walks out of his apartment and out of the book. This was a colossal mistake. Allen and Ruby’s relationship was much more compelling than anything that happens in Journal Two. I wanted to know if these two terribly damaged people could find happiness together. Ruby was an intriguing character in her own right but instead of exploring her tragic life more deeply, Casper just uses her as a catalyst to motivate Allen to look for his sons. She becomes what is known in pop culture as a manic pixie dream girl, a free-spirited, artistic woman who exists only to inspire the male main character to embrace life. Ruby deserved better than being turned into a trope.
Casper’s writing is at its best when Allen is describing his experiences as a soldier. Allen runs into a fellow veteran and writes, “We’re not like the vets from the old days. We don’t march in parades or drink together at the Legion” (p. 30). “We’re like a family who has buried a murdered child” (p.31). We know that Allen is dealing with awful memories, but when he finally starts writing about what he did as a soldier guarding the border between the U.S. and Mexico, the reality is beyond horrifying. The imagery is dramatic, visceral, and haunting. Unfortunately for the book, Allen only talks about his war experiences for about six pages.
The book begins unraveling in the second half (Journal Two) when Allen, his brother, Leo, and Leo’s stepson, Griffin, travel to a family cabin in search of Allen’s sons. Allen is mauled by a cougar in a scene so reminiscent of the bear attack in The Revenant that Claudia Casper should owe Michael Punke royalties. A pregnant woman named Parker is living in the cabin, not Allen’s sons. Even though Allen is the alcoholic who hallucinates talking worms, it’s Leo who goes off the deep end, going crazy with jealously that their long-dead parents loved Allen best. The cougar keeps coming back and I couldn’t tell if it was a metaphor for Allen’s demons, his sons, or a just a cougar, but at that point, I had stopped caring because the story had gone so far off the rails.
In addition to the plot being all over the place, the characters often behave in ways that make no sense. When Allen tells Ruby that he committed war crimes on par with the Nazis, she says that she’s hungry and behaves as if he was whining about getting a parking ticket. “What’s for dinner?” is not a normal response to learning that your boyfriend has killed a lot of innocent people. This response is completely out of character. Ruby is not a sociopath — she is deeply grieved by the loss of her daughter and upset that Allen has lost touch with his sons. Leo goes from being a bit of jerk to dangerously crazy with no warning. Allen is furious with Leo for trying to kill the cougar — the same wild animal that tried to eat him. None of these events are ever properly explained.
In conclusion: Recently, post-apocalyptic fiction has been almost as popular as the vampire novel was a few years ago. Some of the greatest writers of all time have tackled the aftermath of the apocalypse — Margaret Atwood (the MaddAddam trilogy), José Saramago (Blindness), and Cormac McCarthy (The Road). I had hoped that The Mercy Journals would do something fresh and original with the post-apocalyptic tale, but the muddled and disorganized plot ruined its potential. The vivid images of Mercy’s horrific experiences in the war have stayed with me but the book focuses on that incident only for a few pages. I honestly do not know why the author chose the post-apocalypse as the setting for this book — the same story could could have easily been told with Allen as a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the Vietnam War. I was also incredibly frustrated that significant questions about major characters are only briefly answered on the very last page. It’s hard to say what the point of the book is because the author leaves so many issues unresolved. The book was in severe need of better editing to give the plot more direction and a sharper focus, and I do not believe that it deserves to win the Philip K. Dick award. I give it the worst review that I can give any book — I’m sorry that I spent money on it.