Review: ‘Afterland’ — a novel that foreshadows the Covid-19 pandemic

Afterland by Lauren Beukes (Umuzi)

You know that thing that happens when you learn a new word? Suddenly it’s ubiquitous — you come across it in newspapers, online, in the novel you’re reading; you hear it on the radio, a character in a TV series uses it, a friend casually drops it into conversion. And you know that all these media and people have been using this word all the time; you must have heard it before, but somehow your mind glossed over it. 

I experienced something similar when reading Lauren Beukes’s fifth novel, Afterland. “Quarantine”; “lockdown”; “an unprecedented global epidemic”; “Sorry, hand sanitiser sold out.” Of course, these words and phrases weren’t new to me, but given the Covid-19 crisis — our own, real life unprecedented global epidemic — they were imbued with an added resonance. 

Across the world, thousands of writers are frantically working on their coronavirus pandemic novels. Beukes got a steal on all of them. Obviously she didn’t plan it. True, Afterland’s South African launch was brought forward to April 6 (in ebook form and accompanied by a Facebook live launch). “They [my publishers] thought it might be really timeous and relevant,” Beukes says, matter of factly. But the novel was completed last year. 

 “As soon as the first outbreaks were happening in Wuhan, I was like, oh my God, because, you know, I’ve literally spent like the last few years living inside this book,” Beukes says. “So my novelist mind was immediately on high alert. And I think I was more paranoid than other people, although it turns out maybe I wasn’t paranoid.”

A world without men

The premise of Afterland involves a world without men, after 99% of the world’s male population has been wiped out by the devastating Human Culgoa Virus. Cole is “road-tripping” through the United States, on the run with her preteen son, Miles — disguised as Mila for much of the book. There are a variety of bad guys (or, rather, women), chasing them, principally her sister, Billie, and the FBI. 

This is a tightly and satisfyingly plotted novel, but it also contains plenty of big ideas to ruminate on after reading, beyond the characters’ individual actions. 

The setting is a couple of years into the aftermath of the virus and although, in some ways, the world has been turned upside down; in others, the power structures are still in place, with a few tweaks. Under the Reprohibition Act, no one is allowed to get pregnant until a cure has been found for the virus, refracting the ongoing fight for reproductive rights (particularly in the United States). Although in Afterland it is falling pregnant that is banned, not terminating a pregnancy, women’s bodies are still to be controlled; still viewed as the property of the state.

And now, so are those of men. Miles, as one of the few remaining boys, is a precious resource — sperm is a hot commodity on the black market. Beukes flips the usual trope of the commodification of teenage girls’ bodies: everyone wants a piece of Miles. The state wants to study him, his Aunt Billie wants to get rich by selling his sperm and even the nuns who Cole and Miles spend much of the second half of the novel with fetishise him as a prophet when the truth of his biological sex is revealed. 

What if women ruled the world?

This is far from the first novel in which women have unexpectedly come to (some sort of) power; and, in real life, there are many opinion pieces and thought experiments on the theme of “What if women ruled the world?” But Beukes also writes against the cliché of putting so-called feminine characteristics on a pedestal. 

She talks about a fancon session with a writer who says he is always very careful to make his female characters the smartest people in the room. “I’m like, why?” she says. “Where are the women bad guys? Where are the incompetents? Where are the evil bosses like behind it? That’s a different kind of sexism.” 

Beukes warms to the theme and elaborates on Twitter talk a couple of years ago about an all-female remake of The Lord of Flies. “[People] were like: ‘Oh, what are they gonna do? Make friendship bracelets?’ Have you met girls? Like, are you kidding me?”

In fact, it was when Beukes decided to make the “bad guy” in Afterland a woman, after originally spending a year trying to shoehorn a man into the role, that writing the novel began to flow. “Even though my gut instinct was that the bad guy had to be a woman, for a year I [tried] to make that guy a man, and [was] trying to kind of engineer this relationship between Cole and either the baby daddy or her brother, who would also be genetic survivors. And it just didn’t work and it made the book paler. 

“And finally I was, like, ‘Okay, this is the way it actually needs to happen. I was right all along and I should’ve just trusted my gut instinct back in the day.’ Then suddenly it became much easier. And it just flowed and Billie as a character — it was like she was there waiting for me. She’s like: ‘Oh, great. You finally showed up for me. I’ve been waiting here’.” 

One of the ways in which Beukes presents us with fully formed, nuanced characters, both women and men, is by switching up the perspective between chapters, a technique used in four of her five novels (with the exception of Zoo City). In Afterland, chapters are written from the point of view of Cole, Miles and Billie. 

Unreliable narrators, multiple narratives

This enables Beukes both to employ dramatic irony, to great effect, and play with unreliable narrators. “I think that’s what’s so interesting about this idea of truth,” she says. “In fiction or in the real world, your truth is different to my truth. If I have a conversation with someone, they’re going to come away with different things than I will … We might disagree on what was actually said. The truth is subjective and that’s something I was able to play with in the novel.

“By having multiple narratives, you can see the inciting incident from both Billie and Coles’s perspectives, and that was also really fun to write,” she adds.

It took Beukes five years to write Afterland, although she was busy with other projects — from short stories to comic books and pitching TV series — in between. The time it took to create imbues the novel with an intensity: the reader fully inhabits the fictitious world; we can sense the depth of research and the backstory that didn’t make the cut. Much has been distilled to arrive at the smooth final product.

Just one example of Beukes’s dedication to what I’ll call “method writing” is the level of attention to detail she paid when planning the characters’ road trip. She drove across the United States, with a few flights along the way. “It was probably very useful for getting into Cole’s desperation and mindset,” she says. “You know, when you’re so tired and things feel surreal and strange and you feel a little bit panicky all the time because you haven’t slept properly.”

That’s a feeling we can all identify with in this current global moment. “It’s been quite discomforting to have emerged from a fictional pandemic into a real one, and I don’t like it,” Beukes says. “I’d like us to go back to where we were, please.” 
Amen to that. But, while we’re all still stuck in the interregnum of lockdown, Afterland provides good company. Discomforting as it is to read, seeing how the characters navigate the aftermath of their own epidemic provides a spooky kind of comfort in itself.

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