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In Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar, the tangerine-leather-skinned Matthew McConaughey makes a living farming near-arid land. Blight has taken most of his and the world’s crops and he’s now relying only on corn to provide for his family. Soon the corn will be gone too and McConaughey’s children and the rest of the world will starve. There’s only one solution; McConaughey and his tan will have to go on a quest to save the world.
‘Hero goes on quest to save the world’ is a well-worn trope in fiction. Sometimes called a monomyth, the formulaic structure is a flavor-base, meant to be spiced up with the auteur’s unique spin. Star Wars follows this structure. So does The Hunger Games. Dystopian writers love the hero’s quest, probably because it removes worries about plot and allows them to deal with the fun part; building their dystopian universe. To his hero quest Nolan added space flight and wormholes.
On that same canvas—hero, blight, quest—Sandra Newman presents The Country of Ice Cream Star. The population of the United States has been wiped out by plague, and all that remains is a society of dark-skinned children who for eighty years have survived by foraging for Chef Boyardee and Patagonia parkas in the homes of the long-dead. The children are the corn growing on arid land. Those lost in the plague are called the Sleepers. The children who remain won’t live past the age of twenty. The plague or something like it will start to take their lives in their late teenage years. They bear children to try and keep up their numbers but eventually there will be no one left. They deal, trade, and war with other tribes of children. They fuck freely, attempting to reproduce in the short years between puberty and passing. They do the best they can with what the world has left. It goes on like this until Ice Cream Star learns that her older brother Driver, the leader of their tribe, the Sengles, has the ‘posies.’ He’s not long for this world. When your parents die before you’re old enough to write your name a brother becomes more than a brother and Ice Cream knows she can’t let posies take Driver’s life.
And then they find the roo who will become Ice Cream’s mentor figure. White-skinned, yellow-haired, and thirty years old, he looks like the Sleepers they’ve seen in pictures and he says he can take the Sengles to the cure for posies. So begins Ice Cream’s quest to save her brother and all of her people.
Nolan chose space, science, wormholes, and a leading man who manages to maintain a radiant hue after years in space to shape his story. Newman chose language. Ice Cream and her Sengles speak not-quite-English. They use simple sentence structure, words adapted from French and Spanish, always limiting the number of syllables one must utter to be understood. The prose in this language, all 600 pages of it, keeps you off balance, requires closer reading and second stabs at sentences. In the language of the Sengles, Ice Cream can contemplate things like love, sorrow, and desire entirely without cliché. On the man she loves but cannot have:
Then every wisdom be behind. I stare my lonely eyes. NewKing Mamadou bell severe like blackness in a starry night. His every move go graciose as fire.
The hero’s quest requires a home tribe. In Newman’s novel, the very languages her characters speak tell you where they belong in this version of America. The Sengles know they aren’t speaking regular English and it’s a point of pride. It’s language that differentiates between the different tribes. Another tribe speaks Sleeper English; the proper English of the dead Sleepers that the Sengles find in books. To slip into this language and begin to use multi-syllabic words like “contemplate” is to forsake your Sengles.
Halfway through her story, Ice Cream finds herself in the middle of highway 495, heading towards Washington D.C., now called Quantico. These places are like McConaughey’s cornfields, a piece of the past recognizable from before it all went wrong. Newman doesn’t linger on these places with sentimentality but only hints at them, again through language. New York, now a stronghold of a tribe of ultra-religious Panish children who live throughout the Loisaida, makes an appearance, but no one talks about the beauty of the Empire State Building. It’s all just there, an idea of the old United States for the reader to fill in. The country, its wasted land and cities, is tragic but it is not what Ice Cream goes to war for.
I thought Interstellar was just ok—except for one scene that I thought was exceptional. McConaughey has just returned from a space mission and for space reasons thirty years have passed on earth but he has not aged at all (nor has his tan faded). He sits down to thirty years worth of video messages from his children and watches, wracked with grief, as their childhood disappears before his eyes. He undertook his mission for his children but he is left with nothing. It is only in this moment, this human moment, that the film transcends the formula.
The hero’s quest is almost always for the love of family. As Ice Cream’s journey continues, Driver just gets sicker and sicker until the inevitable happens. That’s not a spoiler—you saw it coming 400 pages ago, 10 dystopian novels ago. The hero has to continue with her quest even though what motivated her is now dust. But first she grieves in the painful poignant manner of a fifteen-year old warrior who has known only loss, who now has only a group of unrelated children to call family. Her Sengles, who climb into bed with her and hold her while she weeps and dreams of death and Driver, are her family. But she feels all alone in this moment, this human moment.
The Country of Ice Cream Star doesn’t have an airtight backstory or an innovative plot. But because of this human-ness, it works. The children in this novel rape and are raped, love and are loved, kill others and die themselves. They do terrible and beautiful things in the worst settings and circumstances you can imagine. They act as children. And they tell a gripping story.