Louise Erdrich, author of "Future Home of the Living God"

Louise Erdrich, author of "Future Home of the Living God" Credit: Hilary Abe

FUTURE HOME OF THE LIVING GOD, by Louise Erdrich. Harper, 269 pp., $28.99.

Louise Erdrich’s 16th novel, “Future Home of the Living God,” presents itself as a diary kept by Cedar Hawk Songmaker, 26, for her unborn child. It begins on Aug. 7 in an unnamed year. “Apparently — I mean, nobody knows — our world is running backward,” she reports. “Or forward. Or maybe sideways, in a way as yet ungrasped. I am sure somebody will come up with a name for what is happening but I cannot imagine how everything around us and everything within us can be fixed.”

This is a little hard to parse, but it’s only the first page. Surely things will clear up.

Unfortunately, they don’t. By the last entry, made in February of following year, you will understand only a bit more about what’s going on. Evolution is running in reverse, human reproduction is seriously malfunctioning, pregnant and fertile women are being taken prisoner by the quasi-Christian state. So far, it all sounds sort of like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” looming large in the culture right now due to its television adaptation on Hulu. But while Atwood imagined her dystopia in nauseating specificity, Erdrich’s remains unclear and oddly derivative.

For her 15 novels, most with American Indian characters, Erdrich has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (“The Plague of Doves”), won the National Book Award (“The Round House”) and won the National Book Critics Circle Award twice — for her 1984 debut, “Love Medicine,” and for last year’s “LaRose.” Her career has been recognized by the Library of Congress Prize in American Fiction and the PEN/Saul Bellow Award. Her legions of fans were excited to hear she was breaking her mold with a work of speculative fiction, and expectations for this book are high.

The characters are the best thing about “Future Home of the Living God” — first among them, its complex, deeply intelligent and witty narrator, Cedar. She is an American Indian who was raised by adoptive parents, Glen and Sera Songmaker, “truly beautiful people” whose lyrical last name is of British origin. Ironically enough, as Cedar has learned from a letter from her birth mother, her original name was Mary Potts. In fact, she is third in a line of Ojibwe women named Mary Potts, with a sister who is named Mary Potts as well.

Cedar has not told Sera and Glen that she is pregnant, and for the moment, she is not divulging the identity of the father. In the first diary entries, she writes about driving north to visit her Potts family’s reservation home, despite Glen and Sera begging her not to go, telling her “things are taking a more ominous turn,” “the president is talking about declaring a state of emergency” and “this could be a new kind of virus.” It never gets much more specific than that.

The characters of three other Mary Pottses (Cedar’s grandmother, mother and sister), as well as her native stepfather, Eddy, are the saving grace of the novel. Eddy himself is writing a book, too: an argument against suicide, every page containing a reason not to kill yourself. Many excerpts from this book are included, and they are great, sometimes reminding me of Joe Wenderoth’s fabulous but little-known “Letters to Wendy’s”: “Today I did not kill myself because of the sweet foam on the top of a cheap cardboard cup of cappuccino. . . . Malt dextrose and a resonance of airplane glue with a scorched plastic finish. My senses fully awakened. Awful and Superb!” (Maybe Erdrich should separately publish Eddy’s book — I would definitely buy it.)

A lot of suspenseful action clicks into gear when the government, represented by an omniscient entity called Mother (must be related to Big Brother, because she works just the same), starts coming after pregnant women. Cedar goes on the run and into hiding. Because no one uses cellphones anymore — to avoid government surveillance — she loses track of everyone she knows. Incarceration, escape and life-and-death situations ensue. This part of the book was so chilling that it gave me nightmares.

As Cedar puts it at one point, “Instead of the past, it is the future that haunts us now.” Next time the future comes to haunt her, Erdrich should pin it down a little more thoroughly. In the meantime, her wisdom, her humor and her storytelling fire make even one of her lesser works worth reading.

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