Paul Di Filippo Reviews In Universes by Emet North – Locus Online


In Universes, Emet North (Harper 978-0063314870, hardcover, 240pp, $26.99) April 2024

I never would have predicted that the fantastika genre would be graced in 2024 with a novel that resonated so vibrantly with two classics from the 1970s: Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. And yet that is precisely the vibe that I feel confident in proclaiming emanates from Emet North’s debut book, In Universes. North’s book is absolutely of the contemporary moment, fresh and surprising, and yet, mutatis mutandis, it could almost have appeared in 1975 or 1976, along with those aforementioned peers. Displaying a deep humanism, lacking any kind of tendentious impulses, it explores the socially-embedded variable sexuality, and matters of will and kismet, of its protagonist with a kind of amiable, melancholy curiosity. Aligned with the style and modus operandi of her protagonist, North is like a scientist interrogating the universe without demanding certainty, just receptive to whatever the universe answers back.

We are introduced to the baseline version of our heroine in a sharp, succinct, and impressionistic manner. (Her distinctive, shifting first-person narration alternates with an omniscient POV.) Named Raphaela or Raffi or Raf, she is an intern at NASA, doing computer gruntwork with images of the starry sky. She lives in a boarding-house type setup with a whole rugby team, protective of their female lodger. One fellow, Graham, is her particular Platonic friend. She has a distantly located boyfriend named Caleb. Not wildly enthused about her life, at work or outside of work, Raffi putters along in a kind of quizzical anhedonia. “And then there were the days…I spent lying in bed, the weight of all the bones in my body insurmountable.”

Then she meets a fascinating sculptor named Britt, and Raffi perks up a bit. She begins to be fascinated by theories of the multiverse. But even these diversions ultimately fail to lift her out of herself. She chucks her job, her friends, and flees town.

Now, we cut away from this launchpad timeline and find ourselves with Raffi at age thirteen. But suddenly she is childhood friends with Britt somehow. We experience a tender, torturous tale of teenage friendship and betrayal, mostly revolving around Britt’s horse, Calypso. At the climax of this segment, Raffi thinks: “If there is a parallel universe where everyone you love is okay, then there must be also be one where everyone you love is already gone, and she wishes herself there, to the place where there is nothing left to fear.”

And so we jump to a postapocalyptic, VanderMeerian scenario, and meet a woman named Kay and her eccentric “taxidermy garden.” Kay is partnered with a man named Buck, but a tenuous romance develops with Raffi, causing another jump, to a continuum where Kay and Raffi are lovers.

At this juncture, we must cease rehearsing in detail all the different changes that Raffi will undergo, because North’s fecund imagination supplies an abundance. She becomes middle-aged, meets another pivotal figure, a woman named Alice, takes up snowboarding, jumps to a different timeline where Alice too has become otherwise, and so on and so on. Each successive metamorphosis digs deeper into Raffi’s attitudes, neuroses, aspirations, and potentials, peeling away layers, then adding layers back on. By the novel’s end, we feel that Raffi’s increasingly scattered desires and desperation might have brought her to a dead end—but then North shows us an exit that brings her protagonist to a culminative moment of grace and peace. One is reminded of the famous T. S. Eliot quote: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

North’s prose throughout every section is both understated and poetic, full of gravitas yet unpretentious. Perhaps a large chunk will serve to convey its flavor. (Raffi is referred to with they/them pronouns.)

Their senses are unusually acute as they approach the house: the wind through the trees is a roaring; the sharp, sweet scent of pine sap overwhelming. They drop the key twice before managing to unlock the door. They step over the threshold into an empty room and they realize that some part of them had believed the house would look the same on the inside as it did in their mind. The mudroom in the thought-House of Discontent had a large workbench on which a variety of dissection tools were arrayed. It was the place where they assessed their emotions, figuring out which ones would become rooms. It had a rainwater shower in one corner for washing off lingering confusion. The mudroom of the real house is just a small square, with dirty floors and a cracked window looking out into the overgrown yard. Okay, Raffi thinks. It has become a habit to think okay when nothing is. Okay, so it’s a skeleton. The flesh and blood are up to me.

They spend the day pacing around the house, making plans, panic prowling after them. The house is in a state of tremendous disrepair. Its boundaries have become porous: moss creeps in through the broken windows to carpet the floor, a tree reaches its branches through one of the living room windows, mold mottles the bathroom walls. There is an entire family—or perhaps village?—of raccoons residing on the second floor. Many of the rooms are empty, but others are home to a strange assortment of furnishings. A claw-foot tub stands alone in the center of one room. In another, a taxidermied buck hangs slightly crooked on the wall, one of its antlers broken off….

The effect is hypnotic and lulling, despite the recounting of various tragedies. It’s almost like the subdued effect of The Man Who Fell to Earth.

In the end, North’s debut novel succeeds in conveying the mutability and precariousness of existence very well. “I think, for some of us, there will be moments in this life when we stand balanced on the knife’s edge between here and gone, and which way we tip has little to do with decision or desire or fate and everything to do with circumstance. Which way the wind blows. Whether someone we love says something unbearably cruel. If a friend picks up the phone when it rings and rings.”

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over 30 years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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