If you were to go in search of a book that posed all of the important philosophical questions that would arise after a human-created apocalypse, your search would likely end with Brian Evenson’s Immobility.
The story follows the journey of a man, or a creature as it were, that is best described as post-human. The protagonist awakes out of a haze without any clear memory of who he is. Even his name, Josef Horkai, is provided by the subterranean collective of humans who wake him. Horkai discovers that he has been ”stored” for 30 some years in a state of suspended animation. He wakes unable to use his legs, told that there is a disease in him that will eventually kill him. Painful spinal injections are required to ward off the spread of the disease. Even though he cannot walk, the people who woke him send him out into a post-apocalyptic wasteland to retrieve something they claim to need, although they are not forthcoming as to what this item is. For transportation he is assigned two “mules,” Qanik and Qatik, twin males, likely clones, who will deliver Horkai to his mission. Unlike all the other humans that Horkai meets upon being revived, he has an amazing healing ability that protects him from fallout or mortal injury.
The plot seems to be drawn from ground already well-covered by science fiction: the journey reminds us of McCarthy’s The Road, Horkai’s healing powers evoke Marvel Comics’ Wolverine, and his faulty memory is reminiscent of P. K. Dick’s explorations into the nature of experience and memory. But setting these touchstones aside, Evenson’s execution is what makes the tale captivating. Horkai has no memory and no sense of who or what he is, nor does he have any anchor to help him know what to believe. As he is physically carried to his destination he has time to wonder and question his path. By tightly focusing on Horkai’s point of view, Evenson allows us to question the protagonist’s decisions, and the near-total lack of flashbacks keeps the reader doggedly following Horkai through the wasteland, never knowing anything more than he does.
The title Immobility encapsulates some of its greatest themes. Horkai himself is trapped in his own body. He is also held by the will of those who woke him and those who carry him. He is further imprisoned in a post-apocalyptic wasteland so bleak that one could imagine the movie version being filmed almost entirely in and around an abandoned hospital somewhere out in the kibble of post-industrial Detroit. He does have moments of free will, though. There is one particular moment in the book where he must choose whether to side with the community who sent him on this journey or to take up with the group of creatures very similar to himself that he’s been sent steal from. The choice Horkai makes is based simply on the fact that he cannot predict what the result will be; he trades the known for the unknown.
As a creature, Horkai reminds us of Locke’s tabula rasa, albeit one that is very quickly, very deliberately impressed upon by those who revive him. As he wanders the wasteland, a sort of blank slate in itself, he comes to believe, in part, that he is his own keeper, but that does not free him from certain obligations. What’s freshly astonishing about this book is that while the theory of tabula rasa applies to our very beginnings as humans, Evenson’s tale brings us to those questions at the very end of humanity. Are we good? Is survival justified no matter what the means? Should civilization continue after culminating in a world-killing event? What is the role of religion in the wake of apocalypse?
The poet Rilke suggests that we should learn to love the questions and that eventually we will live into their answers. These are hard questions to love, posed in a landscape that forbids normal humans to live at all. But Brian Evenson poses them with a tale so tautly woven it seems to have been brought into the world whole cloth.
– Paul Gasbarra was a student of Brian Evenson way back when the author taught at Oklahoma State University.