What an incredible way to kick off my 2016 reading. Not many novels achieve the kind of stylistic and thematic sophistication demonstrated by Greg Hrbek in Not on Fire, but Burning. This was an incredible novel to immerse myself in.
Multiple parallel timelines.
In one of them, a UFO appears above the Golden Gate bridge, severs all its cords, and then sets off a nuclear explosion. Skyler Wakefield, who is babysitting in Presidio Heights at the time, is one of thousands of unfortunate individuals far enough from the blast to avoid being incinerated, but close enough to receive a lethal dose of radiation, which leads to her demise within days.
Fast forward nine years to Skyler's little brother Damian, now age twelve, whose family relocated to the East Coast after the terrible events in San Francisco. Damian tries to grapple with the loss his sister, but the rest of the family is upset by his behavior. Not, as it turns out, because mom and dad are trying to repress or suppress memories of Skyler, but because Damian and the reader have actually shifted timelines–to a universe where Skyler was never born. Instead of being allowed to process his grief, Damian was diagnosed instead as "overly imaginative." He has somehow been accessing memories of his sister from another universe, with enough frequency and intensity to believe that his family is covering up her demise and her very existence. He was, after all, only three when she died.
On yet another universe entirely, Skyler Wakefield was born, and she went home the summer after her Freshman year, putting her one hundred miles distant from the explosion in San Francisco that would have killed her if she had taken that internship and done the babysitting that got her killed in the first universe.
And on yet another universe, no explosion occurred.
As the story progresses, memories of other universes flow into the narrative as though the pages themselves are crumbling, unable to hold their own against the erosion of realities. The presence and narrative voice of an unnamed quantum custodian guides the reader through an increasingly bizarre landscape of multiple histories intermingling, all the time suggesting that the thing that blew up over San Francisco, far from the terrorist attack most people think it was, was actually something far stranger, something capable of shattering reality.
Herein lies the real power of Not on Fire, but Burning: its dialogue with the ethnic bigotry and the fear of terror present in the real world. In the universe of Damian's memories of the sister who was never born, Damian finds a scapegoat for his frustration and grief in his society's Islamophobia. As that timeline goes, the center of the country was evacuated after the SF attack, and following a racial backlash against Middle-Easterners, many American Arabs were interned in states like the Dakotas.
Damian's parents are horrified by the attitudes he develops, and work with the local Muslim community to open up a dialogue and correct their son's behavior. And when a neighbor adopts a child from the internment camps, his parents jump on the opportunity to teach Damian better behaviors. But this particular universe feels socially compelled toward entropy. Despite the humanity evident in both Damian's and Karim's (the adopted boy) points of view, the culture around them is stuck in a perpetually worsening cycle of hatred that, while Damian and Karim resist it, is impossible for a single individual, or even a single family, to halt, and which eventually subsumes them both.
Most brilliantly, of all the novel's devices, none of these universes are ours. In all of them, America appears to be composed of colonies and territories ("Connecticut Colony", "the Dakota Territory"), as though their union into the "United States of America" never took place. All the modern marvels of twenty-first century life appear vibrantly–cell phones, the internet, social media, image manipulation, etc.–but a crucial social revolution is absent, an effect which aligns brilliantly with the rest of the novel's themes.
What universe, then, are we? Where do we fall on the quantum custodian's Cartesian grid? What kind of universe will we create for ourselves and those around us? Is it too late to escape the death spiral into racial hatred and warfare? Greg Hrbek's novel suggests that we examine these questions in detail, and therein lies the incredible power of its narrative.