Brooklyn BookBeat: Brooklyn lawyer meets doomsday preppers in ‘The Survivalists’
In her debut novel, “The Survivalists,” Kashana Cauley lends the wit and cogency she’s known for on social media to describe Aretha, a young and perpetually single Black lawyer, who, in finding a seemingly perfect man, tumbles into the world of illegal firearms and doomsday preparations.
The novel opens with a believable and often relatable portrait of Aretha’s struggles as she attempts to fill in the gaps left by her tragically deceased parents. But partying, an exhausting pursuit to make partner at the law firm where she works, and the occasional lackluster date can only do so much to fill the void in her life. She quickly meets and falls for Aaron, a coffee entrepreneur and fellow orphan, and is reluctantly charmed. Aretha falls for not only the man Aaron is, but the life in his Brooklyn brownstone that being with him promises. In her desire to be with Aaron and to live the idealistic life she feels so far removed from, Aretha ignores the red flags of Aaron’s strange roommates, the guns that seem to multiply every time she looks away, and the doomsday bunker in their backyard.
Aretha’s perspective is witty and engaging. She is determined to achieve the life to which she aspires, and to overcome or adapt to any barriers that stand in her way. Two such barriers are Aaron’s, and eventually Aretha’s, roommates in the Brooklyn brownstone, two die-hard survivalists who dedicate their lives to preparing for innumerable world catastrophes. Like the survivalists, Aretha yearns for control over her uncertain future, however, in her pursuit to exert control, she does not avoid her ruination but steers it in new directions.
As the novel progresses, the structure begins to loosen in a manner that, while allowing for more insight into the minds of the other primary characters, is unbalanced. Without signposts, the narrative jumps from stream-of-conscious cultural insight, to exposition, to character background, and has an unpredictable omniscience that loses the reader along the way. The unpredictable narrative style puts the reader on edge, creating a kinship with Aretha’s own emotional state as her life unravels.
While the immediate thoughts of the protagonist are understandable, engaging, and often relatable, her character’s journey has less credence. The sharp transformation of her disdain surrounding firearms and survivalism into not only acceptance for the lifestyle but enthusiasm to participate is jarring. Rather than Aretha driving the plot of the novel, her inner monologue, while compelling, post-hoc justifies the choices she needs to make for the plot to occur. This disconnect between character voice and action distances the reader from the previously relatable Aretha, emphasizing Aretha’s sharp descent from playing along with the survivalists for her own benefit to beginning to buy-in to their drastic lifestyle. While the sudden switch in Aretha’s logic is jarring, it is not unfamiliar. The phenomenon is reminiscent of the gradual descent into conspiracy ideologies that most have helplessly witnessed in select acquaintances, friends, or online personalities.
While the plot and structure of “The Survivalists” leaves something to be desired, the novel’s strength lies in the relationships between characters and the shining moments of realization Aretha has about both herself and her place as a cog in the corporate machine. Aretha’s newfound fascination with walking her way around every corner of the city, allows the reader a unique and roaming perspective of her Brooklynn neighborhood and the surrounding areas. The Brooklyn life Aretha strives for is contrasted sharply with the cold affluence of the neighborhood Aretha works and visits. Themes of class and familial wealth appear frequently throughout the novel, and, to Aretha, Brooklyn is a land in which her modest upbringing does not portend a modest future.
Cauley’s voice as an author and writing ability shine, and, overall, her debut is an effective portrayal of contemporary adulthood, class, race, life in Brooklyn, and how the uncertainty of the future can turn idle thoughts into a delusional lifestyle.
About the author: Kashana Cauley is a former Midtown antitrust lawyer and Brooklyn resident. She is a writer for the Fox comedy The Great North, a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, and a GQ contributor. She’s written for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and Pod Save America on HBO as well as The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Pitchfork, and Rolling Stone, and has published fiction in Esquire, Slate, Tin House, and The Chronicles of Now. Kashana now lives in Los Angeles.
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