- Grand Central Publishing, 448 pp.
Occupy Apocalypse: Julianna Baggott’s YA Dystopia
Chasing the recent trend of blockbuster YA dystopian novels, such as Suzanne Collins’s enormously successful Hunger Games series/franchise, Julianna Baggott’s Pure describes a world in the aftermath of a devastating and calculated nuclear apocalypse. This most recent work by a prolific writer of fifteen books of fiction and poetry follows the story of two young people—Pressia and Partridge—in a futuristic vision of San Francisco’s Bay Area. Baggott imagines the world of her novel with impressive depth, and the author’s take on the conservative capitalist apocalypse is by turns startlingly violent and impressionistically whimsical. While Baggott’s novel describes this world of hideous disfigurements and Manichean class war with inventive and engaging detail, the novel falls short of presenting characters that are believable and ultimately sympathetic. In laboring at length over the narrative construction of a complicated dystopian world, Baggott ends up sacrificing richness to complexity. This first novel of an eponymous trilogy wonderfully describes a dramatic, inventive post-apocalyptic world, but fails to people it with complicated, interesting characters. Pure gives the reader a general sense of the vast scope of the story’s machinations and geography, but no compelling reason to care.
Sketching the parameters of Baggott’s palimpsestic narrative is tricky. Briefly put, the backstory of the novel involves a hyperbolic escalation of conservative cultural rhetoric that seeks a return to “traditional” values: restrained, upper-class politeness and hardline gender roles. The maniacal masterminds behind this so-called “Return of Civility” followed a violent effort at social engineering with a wave of nuclear attacks, referred to in the novel as the Detonations. These evil machinations went into effect some twenty years before the beginning of the novel. Violently rejecting a messy and increasingly diverse democracy, these upper classes seek to remake the world in their own ideological image. When they orchestrate the devastating Detonations, only those select people sheltered under the Dome escaped the horrible and disfiguring effects. Inside the Dome, evil scientists work steadily to technologically enhance their own children while they wait for those outside the Dome to die off to a manageable number.
When Partridge, one of the “Pures” from inside the Dome, meets Pressia, a teenager raised outside, they begin to sift through the mysteries and untruths that shroud their world. People outside the Dome live under the tyrannical regime of terror led by an organization called the OSR. What had been Operation Search and Rescue, helping survivors after the blasts, soon morphed into a fascistic organization led by a series of brutal, militaristic dictators. On their sixteenth birthdays, kids are required to turn themselves in to the OSR, either to become cannon fodder, in a manner of speaking, or officers themselves. Inside the Dome, children are raised with perfectly engineered nutrition and undergo a constant barrage of “coding,” a carefully controlled program of genetic enhancements to make them stronger, faster, and smarter. Partridge is immediately recognizable outside the Dome, endangered by his “purity”—his obvious health and lack of physical deformity. And he finds himself tenuously aligned with the members of a shadowy resistance effort to take down the Dome and to thwart the nefarious plans of its engineers.
In Baggott’s world, one of the great conspiracies of modern warfare technology is the effect that nuclear explosions have on people and objects. Taking quite literally the idea of nuclear fusion, Baggott’s Detonations have the side effect of actually fusing people to people or people to objects in such a way that whatever is joined became completely inseparable. Pure is peopled with characters fused in a tirelessly inventive series of ways. Pressia was an infant during the Detonations, and her baby doll was entirely fused to her arm. Another character, Bradwell, has birds fused into his back. Their wings flutter and rustle under his shirt when he becomes agitated. One, or I should say two, of the novel’s most interesting characters, El Capitan was riding a motorcycle with his brother when the attack happened. His brother, Helmud, from whom he had previously been figuratively inseparable, became literally so—fused to his back. But for the fact that El Capitan is both the brawn and the brains of that particular pairing, we might see an amusing call-back to Mad Max beyond Thunderdome’s memorable character(s), Master-Blaster. Other people fell to the ground and fused so completely with the particles of dirt that they became a fierce new life form—Dusts—while others have been transformed into conjoined twins (or triplets or quadruplets) and Beasts—animal-human hybrids.
The world of Pure is a large and complicated one. It needs to be in order for Baggott to tell a story so big—an effectual political allegory ripe for a society in the wake of the Occupy protests. It may be that the timeliness of it is also what gets in its way. Baggott seems so intent on building in details about the world before and immediately following the Detonation, the mal-intentions of its authors, and the contours of a relatively small geographic space, that the novel lapses frequently into unadorned exposition. In the end, Pure feels a little bit like Terminator 3: not much more than a vehicle for setting up the next installment. The sense of artifice is heightened when Baggott has her characters sometimes express bafflement at artifacts from the time before the Detonations and other times refer blandly and in passing to things with which they seem extremely unlikely to be familiar. Partridge, at one point, comments sardonically about the ravaged people living in the vestiges of gated communities, “Are we about to be beaten to death by a car pool?” (229). The characters seem caught between a typical YA-style of dialogue and its utter implausibility in the world of the novel. Such moments highlight the novel’s failure to make a compelling case for the believability of the characters and their plight. In the end, Baggott seems more interested in telling a story about a dystopian apocalypse and less in showing it.