Plague Journal: A Novel
by Michael D. O'Brien (Ignatius Press, 1999, 275 pages, $19.95)
The most effective revolution,” Nathaniel Delaney writes in his newspaper column, “is one that appears as liberation.”
Delaney, the narrator and main character of the near-futuristic Plague Journal, is a small-town newspaper editor in rural British Columbia. Throughout the 1990s he has fought with little success against a postmodern totalitarianism with a soft face that has seeped into his backwoods hometown. The growing central government, bent on re-educating its citizens in the ways of evil, takes a dim view of his doings, slapping him with “hate literature” fines and even engineering a break-in at his office.
A lapsed Catholic, Delaney nevertheless has a fondness for the Old Faith, and for the traditional way of life once lived by his Canadian Indian, Irish and English grandparents. He sees disaster in the new culture's attitudes toward sexual intercourse, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, consumerism and entertainment.
But while he believes himself a right-thinking “realist,” his obsession with his crusade costs him — his wife Maya, an overeducated daughter of the New Age, has left him, taking their youngest son but leaving their two other children behind. The disintegration of his world, large and small, makes him emotionally unstable, at times threatening his sanity.
Plague Journal is the second of a trilogy within Michael D. O'Brien's larger Children of the Last Days series. It touches the hot cultural themes of our time — life-and-death, government, religion, school — and timeless personal themes — loyalty, generosity, love, betrayal, redemption and salvation.
As the story begins, Delaney's daughter Zoe gives him a sort of scrapbook to collect his thoughts and secrets. Eventually he names it “Plague Journal,” after Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year. The entries form breaks-in-the-action of the larger narrative, which Delaney apparently composes near the end of his adventure.
The characters he meets and remembers along the way are interesting, believable people. Delaney's son Tyler, 12, and daughter Zoe, 10, are good kids with lively minds but not angels. There is the chatty English physician who likes chess and sarcasm; the hard-working, friendly Vietnamese father whose family endured eye-popping hardship to escape communism; the loyal oldest son of the Vietnamese father knowledgeable in the ways of survival; Delaney's wise Irish grandfather Stiofain, “the sort of Catholic who goes to the gallows rather than step on a crucifix.”
You have probably met or seen Ms. Parsons-Sinclair, the persnickety school principal bent on “values clarifying” for students who might otherwise come to wrong conclusions about sex, sexual orientation, race and religion. After tangling with the officious bureaucrat to get his kids exempted from the school's social engineering class, Delaney concludes: “This lady has an attitude problem. I would send her to the principal's office, except that she is the principal.”
This is the inmates-running-the-asylum world that Delaney sees closing in on him — faster than he imagines, as events quickly determine. An odd warning and a false charge set Delaney and his kids on a great adventure through the snowy northern wilderness to escape the Thought Police thugs.
Plague Journal's plot is absurd, even for Canada. But reality isn't the driving force of fiction. The story line is interesting and moves the reader along. Though the novel starts a little slow, it speeds up around page 35. From there it becomes a page-turner, impeded only by flashbacks to longish dialogues and commentaries that are rich with analysis and imagery.
Stylistically, the novel sings, though persistent computer and technology metaphors from a Canadian can't help conjure up images of a Rush concert. Unlike that estimable rock band, however, the lyrics in this book are usually both thoughtful and wise.
There is at least one uncut diamond among Delaney's gems. “What is the difference between the capitalists and the socialists?” he asks his atheist father during an intense flashback discussion. “They're both materialists, after all.” Later, Delaney by implication praises his Vietnamese friend Matthew's disgust with “both North American materialism and marxist materialism,” observing he is “one of the few people who knows in essence they're the same thing.”
But they're not. In purely ecclesiastical terms, capitalism is the freedom to make lots and lots of money and then give it all away to a charity. Marxism is theft by the government, robbing a man even of his chance to be charitable. There are no plenary indulgences for donations of this kind.
Yet most of Delaney's insights are sharper. Here he is explaining how intellectuals can delude themselves with sophisticated superstitions: “When educated people are subjective, they can be so in a highly articulate fashion; they can sound eminently reasonable, and thus they become unable to see what the underprivileged have seen so clearly.”
The book is full of original aphorisms. Grandfather Stiofain tells Delaney “our hearts are like stone, and only suffering carves them into bowls big enough to catch the joy.” An old woman, Turid L'Oraison, comments on her Christmas cake: “It has to be all good, or it's no damn good at all.” I made a defensive mental note to myself when I read Delaney's claim that “The use of the word facilitate is the sure sign of an infected brain.”
Little observations are the stuff of great novels. Even on the run, Delaney notes that among the rustic log cabins “with broken-down pickups in the lane,” not one lacks a satellite dish.
Perhaps what's most impressive about Plague Journal is its ability to step outside its ideology and inside the soul of a man. Feminists claim the personal is political. For author O'Brien, the political is not the personal, and perhaps ultimately not as important.
For all Delaney's troubles with the evil other, his main problem is with himself. He allows his justifiable anger to become rage, which wreaks havoc on his soul.
As his grandfather Stiofain once told him: “If you hate them, you'll become like them, and maybe worse than them, no matter how many things you get straight in your mind.”
Delaney's wife Maya's beliefs, for instance, are stupid and are presented in all their silliness. But Delaney eventually realizes he is at fault, too, because their rift was not so much a head problem as a heart problem. She fails any useful head test that could be given; he failed the test of the heart.
“Maya left me because she was pumped full of every distorted perception that our century has been able to produce,” Delaney recalls ruefully. “But she also left me because I was not listening and because I failed to love, and she needed to be loved very, very much in order to resist the distortions. But I was too busy.”
Charity, as they say, begins at home.
Matt McDonald writes from Mashpee, Massachusetts.