Despite having agreed to review Queenelle Minet’s In Memory of Central Park: 1853 – 2022, I really wasn’t that excited about reading it. Described as “a thought-provoking work combining insight into the mind of a therapist, a poignant love story, and a commentary on both right-wing politics and our troubled environment” in press materials accompanying the book, I thought “Oh, no — fiction with an agenda. That almost never works.”
I was wrong.
In Memory of Central Park follows in the tradition of the great works of dystopian fiction: Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Set in New York City in 2050, the novel’s protagonist and narrator Noah is a psychotherapist with plenty of issues of his own. He’s in love with his brother’s wife Margaret. He struggles with unresolved resentment about his relationship with his deceased father. And he, along with the other characters, live in a city that’s not only seceded from the United States, but has also encapsulated itself in a huge dome in order to protect itself from terrorism and other outside threats.
As you might imagine in this environment, Noah stays pretty busy with his psychotherapy practice. Though skilled at helping other resolve some of their own emotional problems, he’s distant from those around him. His eventual affair with Margaret fails because he’s unwilling to allow her to leave Adam, her successful and politically-connected husband, and move in with him (Noah, like many of the residents of the city, lives in a single room). He’s frustrated because, despite his best efforts, he can’t seem to help a difficult patient who’s obviously dying. And he just doesn’t get the ideas underlying “clown show” performances by an underground street theater group that seems to pop up everywhere.
Noah’s disconnection, and his eventual transformation into a revolutionary who participates in non-violent resistance to the city’s totalitarian government, forms the core of the novel’s plot. Minet structures the story much like a 19th-century slave narrative: Noah moves from a prisoner of the city’s claustrophobic environment to psychological and physical freedom by daring to look beyond his immediate situation, and resisting the larger forces that keep him and his fellow citizens “enslaved.” Along the way, he finds purpose and connection by opening up to larger truths that he’d have just as soon ignored in his earlier life.
But what’s all this have to do with sustainability and the environment? Plenty. Minet’s futuristic New York represents a technocratic vision at its extreme. The novel’s characters are completely disconnected from the natural world: even their food is completely processed and artificial. The most basic elements of survival — air, water, waste disposal — are commodities provided by those who control the encapsulated city, so no citizen has any knowledge of their source, or the ramifications of their lifestyle. As the title suggests, even Central Park, a haven of nature in one of the world’s biggest cities, is just a memory: in the novel’s world, it’s a gated enclosure of buildings where the politically powerful reside. Separation defines life in the city, and that separation proves unsustainable not just environmentally, but also emotionally and culturally.
I wasn’t looking forward to picking up this novel; once I did, I couldn’t put it down. Minet does address all of the issues listed in the first paragraph, but does so by weaving these details into the story rather than pontificating (or having her characters do so). It’s a riveting, thoughtful book that will have you thinking long after you turn the last page.
Note: The authorship of the book is an interesting story in and of itself: Minet’s husband Aron Spilken actually started In Memory of Central Park in the late 80s. After his death in 2003, she finished the manuscript according to her own vision of the novel, but left much of his work intact (about half, she claims). At the beginning of the book, she notes:
For a variety of complex reasons, my publisher and I decided not to list two authors on the front cover. However, I wish to acknowledge clearly and unequivocally that my deceased husband Aron Spilken and I are coauthors of this novel.
The book’s website is located at http://centralparknovel.com