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Monday, October 3, 2022

Review: ‘Elsewhere,’ by Alexis Schaitkin

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ELSEWHERE, by Alexis Schaitkin

One of the many advantages of writing in the speculative realm is the opportunity to clear the decks of societal expectations. To upend, poke fun at or hyperbolize the silliest of rituals or darkest of human flaws. It is often revealing, then, to notice which of these archetypes the speculative writer reserves and which they jettison.

Alexis Schaitkin’s second novel, “Elsewhere,” joins the recent roster of impressive novels that have employed speculative elements to examine new motherhood. Like Rachel Yoder’s “Nightbitch,” Helen Phillips’s “The Need” and Claire Oshetsky’s “Chouette,” “Elsewhere” literalizes the transformative experience of maternity.

In a remote mountain town scrubbed of identifying factors, new mothers risk succumbing to an “affliction” that causes some to vanish with no warning or trace. No one can predict which mothers will be taken, though that doesn’t stop the villagers from guessing that it affects those who are either “incautious” (like the one who lets her children cross a stream when the water’s too high) or too tightly wound. When the mother of Schaitkin’s 16-year-old narrator, Vera, disappears, she too is subjected to such conjecture: “One clue about my mother everyone kept recounting was that I often turned up at school with my buckle shoes switched,” she says, “which gave my appearance an ‘unnerving’ effect.”

And yet, raised to practice the town’s xenophobia and mother-worship, Vera and the other young women consider motherhood their highest possible achievement. Staring at older women, Vera and her best friend “saw how they swayed with their babies in their arms, side to side like metronomes holding time for a song only they could hear.” Meanwhile, they fear anyone who comes from “elsewhere,” playing a game called “stranger,” in which they imagine outsiders to be “wretched and cowed.” Vera’s trouble begins when a real stranger comes to town who threatens her and her community’s meticulously calibrated way of living.

“Elsewhere” continues the theme of female disappearance that Schaitkin began in her admirable debut novel, “Saint X.” Also set in a location both recognizable and all its own, “Saint X” follows the possible murder of a privileged teenager who goes missing on an island vacation and whose absence is used to illuminate the prejudices and ramifications that spiral out in her wake. In both novels, Schaitkin’s pace is firmly controlled, her arcs built line by patient line.

But unlike in “Saint X,” after the women in “Elsewhere” vanish — or do they? — there is no kerfuffle, only silence. And this too is by design: The community has developed a ritual of wiping the missing women’s homes of all their personal effects. Rendering an apt metaphor for the invisibility and loss of identity felt by many new mothers, “Elsewhere” sees them forgotten completely.

This ritual of collective removal is reminiscent of the supernatural premise of Yoko Ogawa’s deeply affecting novel “The Memory Police,” in which it is objects and not people that are erased, lending a kind of charm to aspects of our world (matchbooks, dolls, vases) that we take for granted, hardly noticing them at all. “Elsewhere”’s speculative conceit works in a similar way.

Vera’s first-person narration moves in and out of the plural perspective, evoking the collective “we” to signal the unified viewpoint of a town that is both geographically and philosophically remote. Her voice, her insistence on an “us” and a “them,” creates a distance between character and reader that is particularly pronounced in the passages when Vera ultimately leaves her town for “elsewhere,” and undergoes harrowing trauma.

The novel imagines a universe without many of our known realities: technology, transgender and nonbinary mothers, social class, race or women’s rights. There is literary precedent for such a featureless world and the buffering space it affords, in stories like Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas.” Without any signifiers of location and time, Schaitkin’s narrative seems to reach for a sense of universality, and intentionality: as though every element of this carefully crafted theater has been placed there for a reason. It’s not what “Elsewhere” elides but what it preserves from our world that is the most telling.

The culture around motherhood has not been soiled, or even tainted, by the “affliction.” Our all too familiar ideal of a Perfect Mother holds, and remains the novel’s underlying tension. This ideal requires that young women like Vera aspire to nothing other than procreation, that they love their children to the exclusion of all else. Any ambivalence, lack of desire or complaint is seen as a defect, and possible reason for “affliction.” Those who cannot or do not wish to become mothers, and even those locals who decide to have only one child, are treated with the same suspicion as strangers. Childless women are silent shadows living on the outskirts. Middle-aged women, past their reproductive prime and so immune to the “affliction,” are perceived as useless.

Of course, the prejudices and practices within the novel are not so different from those outside of it. Schaitkin chooses to leave intact our culture’s misogyny and reproductive pressures. Readers might long for a sympathetic, perhaps child-free outlier to reimagine, this female plight and bring some semblance of resolution into focus. But such an anomaly never materializes, and even strangers still reinforce the status quo when it comes to gender roles. Even as the plot completes a satisfying loop, Vera maintains the prejudices she had at the start and, most unusually, never questions her own certain motherhood. Perhaps this is the real speculative element: a mother with no traces of ambivalence.

A welcome addition to a shelf of speculative fiction about the joys, failures and metamorphoses involved in having a child, “Elsewhere” asks: Is motherhood, like the town itself, meant to be a featureless place, best experienced under a haze of collective brainwashing?

ELSEWHERE, by Alexis Schaitkin | 226 pp. | Celadon | $26.99.

Marie-Helene Bertino is the author, most recently, of “Parakeet.”

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