Book Review: Not Dark Yet by Berit Ellingsen
Bombs. Strikes. Hate crimes. Droughts. Every nightly news broadcast seems catastrophic enough to require a visceral reaction from us—but what should that reaction be, exactly? In Berit Ellingsen’s novel Not Dark Yet, Brandon, the introspective protagonist, finds himself teetering between two extreme responses: a complete withdrawal from society, and a violent push to revolutionize it.
The novel begins slowly, with Brandon’s move to an isolated cabin in the mountains. Having suddenly left behind his entire life—his boyfriend, his older lover, his siblings, his past in the armed forces—Brandon turns his existence as spare as a monk’s. He spends most of his time brooding alone, lost in a passive numb quiet. In the few instances he enters public spaces, he strategizes to avoid anyone who might know him: “If he was careful … there was no reason in the world he shouldn’t remain unseen.” His only real pursuit is getting into a Mars space program, which would jettison him away from humanity altogether.
Yet slowly, inevitably, the world starts to draw Brandon back in. His boyfriend calls, the astronaut program requires a face-to-face interview, and his neighbors want his help with their agricultural experiment on the mountains, warmed up from global climate change. Things come to head when a sudden hurricane jolts Brandon out of apathy and incites him to join his lover’s fringe environmental group.
The disparate details of Brandon’s life—an attack from a science lab owl, a visit to a monastery, a three-day event at an astronaut training center—often seem bewilderingly disconnected. Yet these confusion of events start to twist and merge as in a funhouse mirror. The self-abnegating story of a mummified monk mirrors Brandon’s own grueling efforts to purge his life of extraneous matters and train his body for the Mars program. And the alien descriptions of Mars’s barren landscape starts to sound not unlike descriptions of earth itself, as it transfigures into a stranger, hotter planet.
Still, Brandon’s primary mode is disconnection. For him, all relationships (with people, with things) seem to exist only at the surface-level, with the effort to connect coming more out of obligation than desire. Even at the end of the novel, Brandon’s main impulse is to withdraw into himself – a self that is increasingly purged of thought and emotion. “One can never truly possess anything,” Brandon muses, then goes on to note that “even that notion seem[s] distant and inconsequential.” Not Dark Yet is a quiet, introspective, and ultimately, bleak book: one that explores the possibilities and limits of the human need for engagement—and even more, for aloneness.
Siel Ju’s stories and poems have appeared in Denver Quarterly, The Missouri Review (Poem of the Week), ZYZZYVA, The Los Angeles Review, LIT, and other places. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks: Feelings Are Chemicals in Transit from Dancing Girl Press and Might Club from Horse Less Press. She is the founding editor of the literary zine Flash Flash Click. More of her work can be found at sielju.com.