By Mike Meginnis
Drowning Practice is a book about a dream, and it also reads like a dream: melancholic and luminous, loopy and discursive, resistant to easy interpretation.
The premise of the novel – Mike Meginnis’ second, after “Fat Man and Little Boy” – is simple and strange: One night every person on Earth has the same dream that on November 1 there will be a flood that drowns everything and everyone. After that, there are “a few optimists, agnostics and well-meaning liars” who try to shake off the vision, but for the most part people are starting to prepare for the end.
Apocalypse fiction aficionados should be warned that “Drowning Practice” isn’t a tale of daring heroes uniting to save the day, nor is it a carefully rendered portrait of civilization’s collapse (though Meginnis does find moments for clever glimpses). of the America of the end-times: tiger parents who insist on dropping their kids off for school in the fall; ads that beam “YOU JUST HAVE 33 DAYS TO REFINANCE YOUR MORTGAGE”; etc.). The book focuses less on the end of the world and more on the end of a particular family: a depressed novelist named Lyd; her self-pitying narcissistic ex-husband, David; and their smart and sensitive 13-year-old daughter, Mott.
As the end begins, Lyd calls herself to action. She has spent years in isolation in her DC area apartment following the dissolution of her career and marriage. Now she picks up Mott from school, where the teacher is a checked out mess and Mott teaches, and takes her on a road trip. Lyd would like her child to see a little more of the world before it’s gone, but most of all she wants to get away from her ex-husband. As paranoid as he is in charge, David never let go of their relationship and decided to hire Lyd as his typist so he can keep her under pseudo-supervision, as he had apparently done all their years together. David is one of those who deny the certainty of the coming apocalypse, and he is determined to bring his broken family back together. It’s time, he coolly tells Lyd, they put an end to “this whole divorce experiment.”
The novel’s point of view rotates between Lyd, David, and Mott, and Mott’s sections are generally the most engaging. Unlike her parents, who were both deeply damaged long before the apocalypse began, Mott is charming and curious, full of love for a world collapsing beneath her. However, she is so obsessed with her vulnerable writer mother that she too is writing a book, hers about a mother and daughter who switch bodies. This book-within-a-book is also dreamy and is about dreams: “The mother dreamed of giving birth herself – coming out of her own body, taken out by the doctor – and the daughter dreamed of leaving her baby body to to remain in the womb, where she was warm and safe.”
As the days solemnly march toward November, Mott works on her novel; Lyd struggles with her sobriety; and they both hide from David. Meanwhile, David sits at his computer in Virginia, taking drugs and supervising an unnamed government agency investigating the nature of the November prophecy.
In general, Megannis seems less interested in what people to do during an apocalypse than in what it is feels like life during an apocalypse: how it feels for Lyd when impending death exacerbates her existing traumas; how it feels for Mott as she tries to reconcile her love for her father with her mother’s resentment against him. David’s feelings are here too, uncomfortable as they are – the obsession, his urge for cruelty, his deepening narcissism and paranoia.
The plot twists and turns, not so much accelerating speed as packing new, weird stories along the way. David poses as a therapist so he can collect and record the dreams of law enforcement officers; Mott befriends a troubled twenty-something named Meredith, who has her own dark stories from the past; David hires an actor to pretend to be him and takes to TV to find information about his missing family. Stories-within-stories come and go, not always with a clear resolution or purpose, while the central narrative question – will David catch up with Lyd and Mott? – dissolves suddenly and with a strange feeling of anticlimax. If this all sounds like the way stories work, not in novels but in dreams, my strong suspicion is that this is no coincidence.
What keeps the novel grounded through it all is young Mott. Readers will keep their fingers crossed: to write a book, read a book – she’s checking out †Little Women’ in the first chapter and carries it with her for the rest of her journey – and maybe even to end her life. “Drowning practice” often feels like a parable of unfulfillment, and Mott is our hope, our opportunity, our dream of the future.
And then comes November 1. Some of the most powerful lyrics in “Drowning Practice” appear on the enchanting final pages of the book, a loaded evocation of mood through the clear description of simple things: “all the clothes nobody wanted”, “all the coffee rings on stiff paper towels”, ’empty batteries in a disposable bowl’ And to the last it is the elusive way of dreaming that holds sway.
“Drowning Practice” is certainly slow in parts, and some of its quirky tangents may have been cut or reshaped to better serve the central story. But like a dream, it follows its own logic, and like many dreams, it has stuck with me in the waking hours since I emerged.