Schulman read over 70 books as a background to distill into Three Weeks in December. There’s a fine selected bibliography at the end of the book. That’s rare for a novel! She also mentions a UN estimate that by the year 2030, the African habitat of gorillas will be 90% destroyed and the animals unable to survive except in captivity.
But this isn’t one of those trendy stories where animals talk or are token metaphors for elevated human vapors. It’s a parallel adventure plot with each line of narrative being led by a social misfit, alternating chapters.
One story takes place in Dec 1899 and is led by Jeremy, an engineer from Bangor, Maine. Jeremy discovered an emotional refuge in the even planes and formulas of railroad and bridge building. He’s been assigned by the last gasp of British imperialism to build a rail line into central Africa so that, by building this line, the Brits could claim the space.
Maybe it’s running away that makes people brave. That’s a strange thought. But it’s 1899 and Jeremy doesn’t fit in at home because he’s gay. Even his immediate family disowns him when they find out.
Jeremy befriended the local priest, in part, because everyone else their age is paired up or trying to be. But there’s more to their friendship than being the last guys left over from a game of community musical chairs.
J becomes aware of his repressed feelings when the boys take a plunge in the local pond. The priest seems to be waiting for something to happen, as if he felt just the same way as Jeremy, but wants to show his greater discipline.
Jeremy finally cracks, plants a kiss on the priest’s cheek, and receives a fierce slug on the jaw in return. Now everyone will know. J is ostracized. If you live in a smallish town in Maine in 1899, I guess you have to move somewhere else. The African job comes up and Jeremy takes it.
The second parallel plot takes place in Dec 2000. Max Tombay is a botanist under the severe burden of Aspergers. I think she calls it asparagus at one point. Max is the second social misfit in this story, a century apart from Jeremy.
Aspergers? Max wouldn’t let her own mother hold her when she was growing up. The most Max could manage would be parallel play with her Mother a few inches away. Max flash glances at people. I love that expression. She can’t stand to look at anyone in the face for more than a second. She can’t look into anyone’s eyes.
In Max we have a character who rubs down a cucumber with a condom if it’s not organic, to remove the pesticides. Then she talks to the cucumber, reporting on how her day has gone. Is she a child when she does this? No…she’s in graduate school.
Max finds her solace in plant life. She’s a brilliant botanist with an edge as a scientist because of her exceptional awareness of scents, an offshoot of her extreme inwardness. Some soulless drug execs commission her to investigate the habitat of a family of African mountain gorillas. There are rumors that the apes have found a vine that contains an extraordinary coronary drug. Many great apes in captivity are on lipitor. That’s an extraordinary line from the novel. The ape family in this mountain retreat are free from coronary problems.
So both Jeremy and Max have assignments in Africa, each a century apart. Each story is as riveting as hell and the stories never intersect except at one small point which I won’t reveal. See if you can catch it.
Jeremy’s story line is based on historical events from the annals of colonial Africa. It’s an account of a pair of lions, working as a team, that devoured around a hundred people.
It’s funny how freakish handicaps can turn into crazy assets. Max goes on this dangerous botanical quest thinking she’s not afraid of death. Death to Max is a sort of gauzy grey state, rather soothing. She’s almost looking forward to it. And Max will never have anyone. She can’t be touched except under the most clinical of conditions. You’ll find out how that works out if you read the book.
Social freaks sometimes relate better to animals than to people. Max finds when she gets to the mountain retreat of the embattled apes that she has a lot in common with them. In their society, the direct approach or direct eye contact is considered scary, either among their own kind or with humans.
The mountain ape family are characters in the novel. We learn the names that the scientists have given them and their specific characteristics. I find I’m with them emotionally still, as I write this post.
They are pushed higher and higher up their inhospitable mountain, where there is, progressively, less food and more frigid cold. Forced to risk starving to death and die as a family, rather than to be devoured by what’s below: crazed human child armies on heavy drugs, shooting everything in their sights, Rwanda imploding.
They are just buying time, trying to hold their family together for a little longer. Prospects? Nonexistent.
As for Jeremy back in 1899, his threat comes from the two lions who are devouring his coolie work crews. The lions natural prey are herd animals in the wild. But diseases brought by the Europeans have killed their natural prey off. So the two predators, four hundred pound cats, as gigantic and terrifying as they are desperate and starving, have teamed up to hunt the human laborers instead.
There seems to be a tragedy ahead for every wild thing that’s confronted with our kind. Jeremy will have to face down his lions. But it seems that they have become stand-ins for his own repressed feelings. Max finds herself with a family where she belongs at last. Even if there’s a price to be paid for it. Social misfits and terrified animals. Realistic story telling that seems more fantastic than any sci fi. It’s an illusion that reality is normative, conventional. Convention and reality are not the same thing. Reality is wild, not tame.
This is a moving story, told with great sympathy for the empirical facts, which doesn’t stop us as readers from getting our guts kicked out by Audrey Schulman’s great voice.
You’ll tear up if you don’t watch yourself, both for the animals and for the people. Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman will be available in Feb 2012 from the very distinguished and irreplaceable Europa Editions.