Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
In Future Home of the Living God, Louise Erdrich suggests the entirety of humanity is God’s afterthought. What if mankind’s creator got bored and moved his attention elsewhere? Would any value or purpose remain in the abandoned species? Is our supposed intelligence actually a maladaptation, causing an evolutionary descent back into the primordial soup from whence we came? Though these questions grab attention, they’re nothing more than scattered observations included to lend weight to what is otherwise a stale escape-the-bad-guys caper. The farther you plunge into the supposed world of Future Home of the Living God, the emptier you find it to be. It’s little more than a career writer’s scattered and complacent sixteenth novel.
In a tense near-future, evolution has started working in reverse, though none of the character discussions or newscasts are courteous enough to explain exactly what this entails. The indirect statements we do get will not satisfy anyone with even a basic scientific background. Meanwhile, there’s a government crackdown on pregnant women, who are interned in hospitals and subject to endless testing. There might be a feminist statement in here; could it be that the protagonists are strong women because they’re pregnant females who care about their unborn babies and don’t give up when oppressed? Whatever thematic statement Erdrich attempts to make is buried under the stale tropes of YA novels that are, bafflingly, being served up to adults.
It should be mentioned there’s the lingering possibility that Cedar, the book’s protagonist, is pregnant with the next incarnation of God. But this, like the dystopian exposition that sets up the story, is only “explained” via off-plot meanderings on winged angels, spirit sightings, and divine purpose. The cherry on top is a paragraph about “the artistic and textual evidence that the orifice of impregnation for the Blessed Virgin Mary was her ear,” into which entered the whispers of an angel. It’s so intellectually bankrupt that your money would be better spent on Scientology pamphlets. The author does nothing to connect this religious iconography to our modern times, nor to the dystopian cautionary tale the characters scramble through.
There’s a subplot of the heroine’s ethnicity that seems present only to score diversity points. Cedar is of Native American descent, but was adopted and raised by wealthy white parents, and at the novel’s start her biological parents reach out to her. Previously reluctant to meet, she obliges due to the urgency of the societal decline and the momentous occasion of her own first pregnancy. Or maybe she’s just in it to find out if any physiological defects might be headed down the genetic pipeline toward her unborn child, which she admits is a motive for the rendezvous? When Cedar tries to juggle the two different threads of her upbringing and origin, it’s actually mildly interesting and carries a smidge of promise. Sadly, this plot element is largely shelved during the final two thirds of the book, dominated by a tedious caper in which our heroes hide and escape from the Evil Oppressive Government. To shoehorn Native American culture into the novel is baffling since it’s largely eclipsed by all the Catholic imagery. This novel wears a hat and then wears another hat on top of it, and only ends up looking foolish. It’s little more than Erdrich, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa herself, shouting “Hey everyone, my race! Look at me!”
At 260 pages, Future Home of the Living God comes padded thick with filler. It’s presented as an epistolary novel in which Cedar addresses her unborn child. It’s little more than a narrative gimmick in which calendar days stand in lieu of chapter titles, and Cedar intermittently lectures her fetus about which of its bodily parts have formed and how vigorous the kicking is that day. It’s indulgent, tedious, and advances nothing in the story. The other artificial padding is the characters’ preparation for the descent into anarchy. As society collapses and the government largely abandons its citizens, our narrator endlessly describes her participation in the new barter economy, elaborating on the collection of weaponry and fortification of her house to fend off ill-meaning intruders. It’s been done so many times before, including in the interminably long and prominent The Walking Dead. The post-apocalyptic elements here do nothing new for the genre nor do they generate any meaningful advancement of the plot; it sure ain’t literature.
There’s also enough stale phrases to make you wince. Some of these sentences wouldn’t make it through a middle school writing seminar, but Erdrich is complacent enough to let them slide. Wasn’t it long ago established that the phrase “all of a sudden” is a lazy, cliched way to generate urgency and excitement in a scene? Erdrich disagrees, and she leans on this phrase on multiple occasions. Her narrator also describes some automatic pistols as “the kind you see in a movie.” (Yikes.) The crowning jewel of cringe is a scene in which a man orders food for Cedar at Subway where he “watched sandwich artisans construct my sub and answered questions like Wheat? Cheddar?”
Future Home of the Living God is some derivative child of Orwell’s 1984, but devoid of any stakes or cultural relevance. To compensate for this glaring deficit, Erdrich haphazardly inserts references to religious imagery and a laughable, paper-thin science fiction premise, meant to distract the reader from the fact that nothing’s really going on. In the opening chapters, the human-birth-reverse-evolution concept is dangled as an elephant in the room that, based on common courtesy, would be revealed to the reader about a third of the way through. But it isn’t. Only upon finishing the book’s final page will you realize how deeply your time has been squandered. The book’s afterward reveals that the idea for this novel dates back to 2001, and an abandoned iteration of the manuscript languished on Erdrich’s computer for years. That hard drive is where this story should have resided exclusively.