The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering
Peel away the thin veneer of technology and sophistication that our civilization depends on, and we begin our inevitable descent into decline and ignorance. Would our changed circumstances somehow change our intrinsic humanity? Whether we live in the lap of luxury, imbued with knowledge, and with every convenience and advantage available to us, or if we suffer in the depths of poverty, ignorance, and difficulty, we still search for human connection and togetherness.
In The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering, a darkly humorous novel by Jeffrey Rotter, the near future has turned into a new Dark Ages. The earth is once again the center of the universe, the sky is made of an impenetrable Night Glass, and the Sun is a gap in the glass through which the ether leaks. Relics of the past abound, but no one seems to know their original purpose.
The scrappy Van Zandt family lives in a post-apocalyptic city in what used to be Florida. Pop and Umma both have jobs, at least for the present, and twin brothers Rowan and Faron are learning a vocation. Pop gets into trouble defending his winnings in a contest at work (well, he pushes an aggressor into a vat of bubbling boiling egg yolks), which sets off a cascading chain of events culminating in a tour bus hijacking by Rowan and Faron that eventually force the family to make an impossible choice: going to live in separate prisons for the rest of their lives, or volunteering to be test subjects in a rediscovered rocket to be launched to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.
The rediscovered rocket lies buried in the sands of the old Cape Canaveral, now Cape Cannibal, and the mission is supposed to be secret. Since only a few people even know that anything exists beyond the Night Glass anymore, it is not difficult to hide. Rowan learns that gravity is “one of those things that you never miss until it’s gone,” and keeps boredom at bay by reading and rereading an old stash of Colson Whitehead novels. However, mental breakdowns, death, a horrifyingly comical funeral pyre, and squabbling between the two brothers and the other potential astronauts cause the eventual breakup of the Van Zandt clan. Rowan loses everyone he loves, living on the run for the next decade, convinced that he will be hunted down and punished. He travels all over the former southeastern and southwestern United States, going from job to job, and searching for the old observatories that he had learned about during his training. He has knowledge but cannot share it with anyone. He knows that Newton’s laws of motion govern mechanics, but that they do not govern “moral mechanics”; in other words, he describes inertia as “tak(ing) no effort to get a terrible sadness off the ground”, force & acceleration as “speak(ing) a few words so that everyone you love will be sent away”, and reaction as “sign(ing) a paper and your mother dies.”
A much older Rowan writes the story of his life for his young daughter, hoping that she will someday forgive him for the choices that he has made. His legacy to his daughter is the gift of knowledge and the curse of loneliness. He recalls the last happy time that the he enjoyed in the bosom of his family, when they had a full meal, a safe place, and lots of weed, music and singing. The only words worth remembering now and forever are sorrow and solitude.
Add The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering to my favorites in post-apocalyptic literature! It should join the canon along with such classics as Alas, Babylon, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Earth Abides, and Riddley Walker.