If you aren’t reading Cara Hoffman’s fiction right now, you’re missing out on some important writing.
Her vision is demanding. She writes about broken systems (the patriarchy, America itself, and in Running, broken families). Her characters are people who live in the cracks–assault survivors, veterans, the homeless, the mentally ill. She gives them a kind of freedom, a savage independence despite their extreme vulnerability. Her first-person protagonist, Bridey, articulates what exactly is needed to survive not only a nuclear holocaust, but the world as it is:
You have to be strong to be one of the last people on earth. Strong enough to see if there are other survivors. Strong enough to live alone for years, looking.
I’ll grant it: reading her is a tense space. Yet I admire her work exactly because there’s something unrelenting about it, a kind of “Where do we go from here, broken as everything is?” She doesn’t put up with illusions or luxury. Her writing is strongly moral in its dead rejection of status quo and unearned privilege. There’s a hardness to her fiction, no place to rest unless you’ve already given up on the system in question and proven that you can survive on your own. Hoffman wants us to be uncomfortable.
The discomfort, though, is part of what makes her work so thought-provoking. And in Running, she gives us a trio of sharply imagined expats in Athens, whose hustle for basic necessities take them further into dangerous territory, toward a decision that resonates across decades. She uses first and third person, multiple points of view, and an unpredictable plot structure–it’s a technically very complex novel that is somehow still straightforward, thanks to its characters and the urgency of its vision. There’s the dark humor too, and of course, the writing about Athens–which creates the city even as it becomes a metaphor for the human being:
People leaving the train, once exuberant, looked stunned, sweat already pouring down their faces after one block of walking. I knew that feeling of heat-drenched desolation. They’d come from far away dreaming of philosophers and baklava and Athens looked like a bad B movie about the apocalypse shown on daytime TV.
All around the low white postwar architecture and empty plazas and crowded ruins, the temples built by slaves, like an internal landscape at last made visible.
And finally, as Jasper says,
“People are in awe of these things, you know. In absolute awe. But it’s the damage they love, really; they say it’s the history, but it’s the damage.”
If you read it, I’d love to hear what you think!