The New World, essay by Bryan Walpert

The New World

By Bryan Walpert

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If I take a walk through this university campus in New Zealand, a country which has been my home for a dozen years, walk past the too-familiar center of campus, past the library, then veer toward the science towers, I reach a large white cylinder. It is labeled cryogenic tank. Standing before it, I can hear the refrigeration unit hum. On the security fence around the tank sits an orange haz-chem sign: Asphyxiant: Do not enter fog. I’ve no idea what research it supports.

Having taken just such a walk one recent sunny Friday afternoon and stood before it, the sign brought to mind all of the science fiction films and stories of self-preservation after death, a cryogenic process usually called cryonics, the freezing of the body (or just the head) and reanimation centuries later. Often in such stories, the person wakes disoriented to find circumstances have changed more dramatically than they had imagined a century earlier in signing their cryonics contract, and with the sharp, visceral awareness that all those they have known are gone, they realize that the avoidance of death is not the same as evading change.

I’m sure cryonics was on my mind that afternoon because I’d happened upon one such story recently: The New World by Chris Adrian and Eli Horowitz, a novel I’d pulled on impulse from the shelf at the small library branch in the village where I live. It’s a book that’s given me much to think about. In The New World, a man called Jim has died. A doctor-turned-hospital chaplain, he had arranged to have his head frozen by a cryogenics company, unbeknownst to his wife, Jane, who discovers the existence of the cryonics contract only after Jim’s sudden heart attack, when the company retrieves his body. The novel is in part about Jane’s anger towards Jim and the company for taking him. Jim, meanwhile, finds on reanimation in the future that he has trouble letting go of the memory of his wife, of the love that bound his old life, an attachment he is told he must relinquish in order to survive in his new body.

On my walk that afternoon, after moving away from the tank, I arrived at a spot I hadn’t had cause to see for awhile. For a period of several years, each day at about noon I’d cut through that small stand of pines, cross the road, and then climb a steep set of stairs cut into the hill to visit my son at the campus childcare. After my son had finished his pasta or sandwich, and we had kicked a ball or read a book, he’d beg me not to return to work. Sometimes a teacher would have to take him in her arms so I could leave, that small section of his world receding. It’s a troubling spot, and I didn’t linger there. Instead, I walked on, past windows through which I could see hoses and belts and equipment whose function I could not fathom. Originally an agricultural college, my campus remains dominated by the sciences, particularly by food technology and veterinary studies. Though sometimes I feel the humanities are a small and threatened island, I enjoy being around science (my wife, in fact, is an ecologist) and have done some writing about the connections as well as tensions between science and literature. I read a lot of science for pleasure, particularly physics, cosmology, and neuroscience books accessible to the lay reader.

At the annual city library book sale a couple of weeks ago, I handed over a dollar for a well-thumbed copy of 2005 Best American Science Writing. I was struck by one of the essays, which indicated that the earth’s magnetic field has been weakening, suggesting that the planet has started one of its periodic polarity shifts. Such shifts occur roughly every half million years. The shift in polarity could take hundreds or even a few thousand years, but the gradual weakening of the field could affect satellites and communications, remove the field’s protection of the earth from solar radiation, and disorient birds and other migrating wildlife. It would require a large-scale readjustment, though one that has not, according to fossil records, led to mass extinction in the past. Curious, I investigated further and found a more recent article in Scientific American that reports the magnetic field is in fact weakening faster than predicted. When it is complete, all compasses will point true south.

I was struck partly because the essay reminded me of North Pole, South Pole: The Epic Quest to Solve the Great Mystery of Earths Magnetism by New Zealand academic Gillian Turner, which I read several years ago. Returning to it, I found I’d forgotten that she briefly references the weakening magnetic field in a sort of coda at the end of her book. Referring to the many migratory species that count on the magnetic field, she asks, “In the weakened transitional field, would these creatures increasingly lose their way and end up wandering the world like confused drunkards?”

The topic appeals to me not just for the science, though, but for its metaphorical resonances: My own figurative compass has been fluxing between poles since my wife and I moved to New Zealand in 2004. As I’ve increasingly been drawn into this world, the events and lifestyle of home—Baltimore, then Denver—sometimes appear quite distant. But it’s not a quick transition. My thoughts and feelings still tend at times to point north, my life still drawn in that direction. My most recent poetry collection, Native Bird, deals with the experience of coming to New Zealand. My colleague Dr. Celina Bortolotto recently read it alongside another colleague’s collection, which has a similar thread; he is from Honduras. Her reading is that his is a book from the perspective of an immigrant, mine from that of an ex-pat. I can’t fault her insight, though I was surprised it was so evident.

Our two children were born here. For them, this might always be true south. Perhaps such a transition between poles does require generations, a shift not for me to complete—a Moses denied entry into the promised land—just as my grandparents remained still partly in the Old World of Europe, some part of my mother still in Israel, from which she emigrated with her parents and brother to the United States when she was 16. Though I think of myself first as an American, I am simply a part of a longer cross-generational migration story in which Baltimore and Denver are merely stopping points. I am just the latest in my family to “wander the world,” as Gillian Turner says of the migrating species, not drunk but uncertain, in search of something our instincts tell us a new place promises.

The crux of Jim’s problem in The New World is memory. Though the mechanism is never explained, he is told in no uncertain terms that holding on to his most cherished memories will prevent his transition to his new life in the future, will in fact kill him (again) by causing him to explode. Jim finds himself living temporarily in a sort of halfway house with other recent arrivals to the future, all of them looking for ways to forget the past so they can survive their passage. They find various processes, all dubious, of embodying their memories in some physical object or activity that they can then separate from themselves. One of the housemates paints his memories, for instance, then tears them up. Another creates pottery, which she then smashes against the wall as soon as they have cooled.

Jim decides to write his memories as stories, concluding them in ways that kill off their subjects. Unable to start with someone as important as his wife, he writes a story about a cat called Feathers in order to forget it, though even the cat’s death, or probably just the change its absence marks, leaves him in tears, boding ill for his own future. Jim has of course been given the promise of a new life at a high price, but also one that might be impossible to pay. To instruct someone to forget something recalls the old joke: Don’t think of a pink elephant. Memories are like magnetic poles, drawing us to them again and again if an associational impulse brings us too close. As Jim walks through the house seeking advice from his housemates about how to lose his memories, that very action recalls them: He is reminded viscerally of his past life, when he would walk through hospital corridors as a chaplain whose job was to comfort patients and families. Walking the halls of his new home brings to his mind the sounds of his shoes on the hospital floor, the stink of the wards, the squirt of the sanitizing gel on his hands.

During my own walk across campus, I headed toward the duck pond, past a huge weeping willow, its leaves brushing the asphalt, and suddenly recalled that, at four or five, my friends and I would jump from a small hill by the neighbor’s weeping willow, swinging from the ropy vines. The pond, at the center of campus, was populated by mallards, each with a blue diamond on its brown plumage, and by five students in pristine lab coats, stethoscopes around their necks. They abandoned their picnic table by the water, so I sat. The ducks showed a brief interest in me but soon wandered away when I produced no food. The students entered the veterinary sciences building. When I was very young, too young for memory to assign a year, our cat jumped from my father’s arms as we left the vet’s office, then vanished. My father searched the parking lot, stared down at the stream that passed behind the building, Western Run, which wound throughout our part of the city and through my childhood: At ten, a friend and I set out to walk its entire course (backpacks with gear of some sort, rubber boots) and didn’t get far, though we got plenty wet. Visible from the picnic table, a rippled white sculpture sat on a stone pedestal, as though someone had sprinkled art, like salt, around the science. A hand? No, a foot. When I moved closer, circled around, the sculpture became something else, unrecognizable, like much of the plant life, the bushy grasses and the trees. A dozen years here, and still I know few of their names. The sun had been filtering through the darkening clouds, but now it had fully clouded over, the wind cooler. As I walked, full sun again. A shifting terrain of weather, geography of sound: the complaint of ducks, swish of the willow, tap of a woman’s cane, crunch of my own shoes on gravel, and passing a building, another: air-conditioning, a hum recalling the humid summers of my Baltimore childhood, the thickness of the August air a physical manifestation of the slowness of the hours, boredom condensing into atmosphere. I’d wait in a white chair on the porch for my mother to return. I’d count the cars as they came to our corner: Two more cars, then shell be home.

Every cryonics story is an immigration story. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there, the novelist L. P. Hartley famously wrote. When you take the long way into the future, day by day, the adjustments occur naturally, the changes gradual. But to reawaken in a new century is to cross a border into a new culture. Cryonic stories are the latest iterations of an imagined scenario that goes back centuries, tales where someone falls asleep for a long time only to find when they wake that everything has changed and no one remembers them. Rip Van Winkle, the old man who falls asleep for 20 years to wake with a long beard to discover his dog has gone, his wife is dead, and he has missed the American Revolution, is one of these. But they go much farther back. In a story from the Talmud, Honi ha-M’agel comes across a man planting a carob tree, which takes 70 years to grow. He falls into a deep sleep and wakes to find the tree fully mature. He returns to his village to discover no one believes him when he claims his identity, that all sense of who he is torn from him. Rip Van Winkle and Honi ha-M’agel have different attitudes toward their situations. Van Winkle is recognized and, though his wife has died, he is pleased to live the relaxed life of an old man, finally free of his domestic responsibilities in this new world. Honi ha-M’agel, however, is despondent to be alone and unrecognized, and begs God for mercy. Rip Van Winkle was an immigrant to his new decade, Honi ha-M’agel an ex-pat.

My grandfather was an immigrant, my grandmother, I think, an ex-pat. When they arrived in Baltimore from Israel, in 1959, they set up a grocery store and deli. It was robbed twice. After one robbery, the news cameras came, and the reporter asked my grandfather if he hoped to get the money back. As the story has been told to me, my grandfather looked at the camera and responded, “The hell with the money. God bless America.”

Long after he died my grandmother returned to Israel, which I think she felt was her truest home. She lived there during her final few years, living close to my uncle, who had also returned many years before. She would never return to Poland, which she fled in the 1930s for Israel, what was then British-owned Palestine. It turns out she took that journey to escape the pogroms, not Hitler, something we were surprised to learn very late in her life. Hitler? she said, surprised at our question; she waved her hand: he was still in Germany. But her entire life in the U.S. she was haunted by survivor’s guilt after belatedly receiving the news that her entire family had been killed by the Nazis. When she moved with my grandfather, my mother, and my uncle from Israel to the U.S., she caught up with her younger sister, Miriam. Miriam had worked hard to assimilate, even her accent much less noticeable, but my grandmother’s remained thick, and she never forgave Miriam, taking her assimilation as a form of intentional forgetting. My grandmother managed to get into Palestine through an arranged paper marriage to a citizen, with the understanding this would be dissolved. There, she met and legitimately married my grandfather, who himself had fled what was then Czechoslovakia for Palestine during the war with false citizenship papers. There weren’t enough papers to go around, so his older sister insisted he take the last. She vowed she would follow, but he never saw her again.

In our 30s, when my wife and I arrived in New Zealand, we expected to return someday to something very like the United States we had left. But a dozen years later, of course, it is not the same place socially, politically, or personally, and between visits the changes seem abrupt. Because you are always looking back to a place that is also a time, perhaps every ex-pat’s story is a cryonics story. My parents are now in their 70s. They are both very active, physically, intellectually, socially—my father a watercolor painter, my mother still working part-time as an advanced practice nurse specialist and taking a Great Books course—but they endure between them the inevitable complaints of age: knee replacements, sciatica, a cancer scare, among others. Each time we visit, the social and interpersonal dynamics have shifted in some way, and this is not reversible. They have come many times to visit, but a recent health issue forced them to cancel their latest trip, with no clear indication of when another will be possible. I worry of course about how my parents will cope over the next decade if we are still in New Zealand. My grandmother, back in Israel by the time we moved to New Zealand, laughed over the phone at my vague intentions to return the States at some point, saying that way leads to way and that I would find myself entangled in my life here for quite a long time, if not forever. Time has proven her right so far. The people left behind are of course the other side of any immigrant story. Though half the chapters of The New World focus on Jim, the other half in alternation are about his wife, in the past. His death is one source of grief, but what appears the greater one is his willingness to leave her behind, to have created a future for himself via his cryonics contract without her, without even alerting her.

Honi ha-M’agel’s encounter with the man planting a carob tree was a source of confusion for him. Why would a man plant a tree he would never see? It was, of course, for his children’s benefit. Rabbi Hyim Shafner, writing in the journal Kerem, suggests the deeper significance of the story lies in part with a parallel between Honi and Moses. Honi’s last name, ha-M’agel, means “the circle-drawer.” He received this name when, during a drought, he drew a circle, stepped inside it, and told God he would not leave the circle until He provided rain. Shafner sees in this story an allusion to Moses. He tells us that Moses, refused entry into the Promised Land by God, draws a circle, steps inside, and refuses to leave unless God retracts his decree. The parallel, then, extends to the Jews wandering the desert. Honi had been perplexed his whole life by Psalm 126, which says, “When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like dreamers.” The psalm, Shafner tells us, is not referring to a literal sleeper but to the nation of Israel who had been as dreamers while in exile for 70 years. Moses had to die in exile. Honi ha-M’agel found himself exiled from his own time and asked for death; God obliged.

In her late 90s, by then in Israel, my grandmother said that God had forgotten her. My mother visited her each year in a town near Tel Aviv, and when my grandmother grew very sick between visits, my mother made a quick airline reservation to get to her bedside. But my grandmother, 99, passed away while my mother was en route. I made my own solo, hastily arranged trip to see my parents in the States a year ago when my mother was recovering from a surgery that proved more complicated than expected. She told me not to come, but I was glad I did. I joined her for medical visits, preparing questions and typing out the answers. One night during my visit, I heard a faint trickling sound. My parents heard nothing, and my mother was tempted to dismiss it. But my father, a former engineer and ever the handyman, said simply, “Follow it.” I did, to find water from the air-conditioning system leaking over the basement floor. I was there to help clean it, to lift the heavy tub of the wet-dry vacuum over the basement sink. If I hadn’t been there to hear it, the flood might have continued all night. I’d always told myself that I would be easily available to my parents in times of need, as they have been always for me, but now I find myself with work and domestic commitments a world away.

The New World concludes with a memory of Jim and Jane’s wedding and their vows, which they were constructing together, working out how many to have—18, nine, three? The book doesn’t say how many it turned out to be; Jim and Jane agree not to count them: “Because it was really just one thing they were promising, which was to stay, stay, stay. ‘I want to be together with you always, so I’ll never stay apart from you long. Though everything will be different, I promise that nothing will change.’ Every moment of this life, I’ll love you. Even beyond death, I’ll love you.” Every promise, even one to ourselves, is a message from the past to a future whose outlines we can hardly imagine, let alone construct from afar.

I could hardly have constructed this future from the fragments of my past—the still-strangeness of this country, though now a simple walk tells me the various corners of this campus have developed the pockets of memories that make a place home. Sometimes the dozen years here seem to have passed like a dream. Paddock, I say, not pasture, takeaways not takeout. It is more natural to drive on the left now, driving on visits at home the harder adjustment. Poles shift. My father stared a long time into the stream waiting for a cat who never returned and was never replaced, one hand above his eyes, the other on his hip. The chant of the cicadas, their monk-like monotony, as I took my walk that day, returning to my side of campus. As my son clung to me at childcare, I’d remind him, Daddy always comes back. Daddy always comes back. When I disentangled myself and left through the child-proof gate, he’d scramble to the highest point on the climbing frame, calling and waving to me from above the fence line. I’d wave my arm high overhead as I walked down the footpath, no longer able see him behind the trees, waved in case he could still glimpse me, waved until I began to descend the steps, though some days I could still hear him call. Walk long enough and you may return, but to a different place, the price a passage through regret. Asphyxiant: Do not enter fog. It will be okay. I’ll come for you.



Bryan WalpertBryan Walpert is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Native Bird; a collection of stories, Ephraim’s Eyes; and a monograph on science and poetry. His book Poetry and Mindfulness: Interruption to a Journey is forthcoming from Palgrave in November 2017. He is an associate professor of creative writing at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand.
Header photo by MDARIFLIMAT, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Bryan Walpert by Nancy Golubiewski. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.