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The Prepper Room
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B : reasonably successful thriller with dystopian trappings
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
The original German title of Karen Duve's novel is Macht -- 'Power' -- but, as translator Mike Mitchell explains:
during the editing period we became aware of the wide discussion of Naomi Alderman's novel on the same topic of women taking over -- The Power -- and thought we should perhaps look for a distinctive title. I did consult Frau Duve, who said she was happy with the change -- though I do still think ‘Power’ would have been better, had we not wanted to keep it distinct from Alderman’s novel.I'm surprised 'Might' wasn't considered, since the ambiguity of the English works nicely with the story. But a 'prepper room' -- a safe- or panic-room cum survivalist shelter -- in the basement of narrator Sebastian 'Basti' Bürger's home does figure prominently in the novel, and the drama that plays out there is suggestive of the power-plays that are the focus of Duve's novel. (In the original it is, in fact, also referred to as a: 'Prepper-Raum', and the German usage seems more widespread than the English one; while it was easy enough to surmise what the title might mean, I hadn't consciously ever registered the term 'prepper room' before I saw this book.)
The Prepper Room is set in northern Germany in 2031. Climate change has taken full hold and the end is nigh: the temperature doesn't sink below 35° Celsius (95° Fahrenheit), the intensity of storms is devastating, and everything is rapidly getting worse: "in five or, at most, ten years Homo sapiens will snuff it, so abandon hope". Nevertheless, life goes on much as usual, at least in this corner of the world. Sebastian even goes so far as to suggest (in a wild rain storm):
I can't help it, but the end of the world is fun. At least it still is at this point.There has been a shift in society -- notably a movement towards egalitarianism of the sexes (which Sebastian sees as a full-blown feminist takeover) -- but for the most part society still functions much as it long has. Germany remains an orderly nation -- though Sebastian is annoyed by its nanny-state tendencies -- and there hasn't been a broad societal breakdown. People go on living and working as usual -- though, for example people now see: "what in previous times used to be a tedious task -- shopping -- as recreation".
Among the few major changes that Duve envisions in her dystopia is the discovery of a rejuvenating potion, a pharmaceutical cure for aging: Ephebo -- Ephs, for short -- that lets people turn back time. Among the major events in the book is Sebastian's fiftieth high school class reunion -- but he: "can pass for a man in his late thirties", thanks to regular doses of Ephs. If he increased the dose (as he eventually does) he would look and feel even younger. The only drawback to the state-sponsored medication is that taking it increases the probability of getting cancer (and the one catch to taking the prescription is that it comes with a waiver: users can't turn to the state health-service if they do get cancer, and have to accept wasting away in hospice care).
Because global warming is the major problem facing the world, there are also now restrictions on the use of anything related to carbon-emissions, with a carbon-emissions-market in place: each citizen gets a periodic ration of CO₂ points, which can be used however they please -- for gasoline, if they still have an internal combustion engine vehicle, meat, air travel, etc.
In this world it's probably not surprising that people would be nostalgic, but Sebastian does seem to be a bit of a standout in wanting to return to the days of yore. While hopeless on the larger scale, at least domestically he can give it a shot: he lives in his parents' old house, and has redecorated it entirely (except the kitchen) as it was in his childhood, right down to the now antiquated appliances: a recent pleasing addition is a rotary landline telephone (though even he has a cell phone -- here called an 'egosmart').
Women play a much more significant role in this society; the chancellor is a man -- real-life Olaf Scholz (who happens to be the vice-chancellor in present-day Germany) -- but women hold many other high positions -- including Sebastian's wife, Christine, who was a government minister. Was, that is, until two years ago, when she disappeared. A group claimed to have kidnapped her, but Sebastian knows better. He knows better because he's the one who locked her away, in his hidden 'prepper room' in the cellar .....
Sebastian was a do-gooder activist -- he worked for Greenpeace -- and, for thirty years, a vegetarian:
Then I gave it up from one day to the next. Everyone else was stuffing themselves with meat like the Tasmanian devils and it was fairly clear that my abstention wasn't going to save a single pig, never mind the world.He has also long worked for the Democracy Centre -- helping over the years to facilitate that women can play a greater and more equal part in the world. To say that he's had second thoughts would be putting it mildly. He hasn't joined MASCULO yet -- he: "always assumed it as an association for frustrated male victims of divorce" -- and while he is put off by old, feared classmate Ingo Dresen's militant arguing, the basic idea does resonate with him:
What's happening here is a radical feminist attack on our values -- and that when our history is a history of men, not the 'herstory' the femi-nazis keep going on about.As Sebastian ultimately comes to see it, looking at the world falling apart around him:
Now we can see what a stabilizing effect the repression of women had and how important it is to bring back that inequality. Civilization can only be sustained if every man, poor or incompetent, is allocated a woman whom he can tell what to do. Otherwise its just violence and chaos.Of course, he isn't thinking very clearly here: if all that's left is, at best, a decade of life on earth as we know it ... well, then that and all the other ships have sailed; subjugating women or, for that matter, sacrificing them to the sun gods won't make one bit of difference, except in the very shortest term.
Of course, that is what Sebastian is clinging to. The world is all out of order, and he's lost any feeling of control, so he asserts it the only place and only way he can: by locking up his wife in the cellar and treating her like a sex slave. It does him and his pathetic ego good:
I've become attached to this little room that's outside time. In there I never have to prove myself, I'm never rejected and I enjoy all the privileges that are due to me by virtue of my gender. Okay, there has been some backchat, even physical attacks, but they all ended with me victorious and Christine getting what she deserved.So, yes, The Prepper Room is a queasy-making mix of Emma Donoghue's Room and Houellebecqian fantasy. Along with Dresen's militant group, there are also religious fanatics such as the Disciples of St. John of the Trumpets of the Seven Plagues, a sect which Sebastian's brother Uwe is a prominent member of -- and naturally all these disparate elements eventually crash together as the novel comes to its conclusion. Even Sebastian's clinging to old-fashioned ways plays a significant role in his fate, as he insists on sending a letter -- which means putting it into one of the few remaining mailboxes -- rather than scheduling an e-mail to be sent in twelve or twenty-four hours .....
When the book starts, Sebastian has already been indulging in his fantasy successfully for some two years. His mother-in-law watches the two kids most of the time, so that they're not underfoot, making it possible for him to hide their mother's fate from them. Everything is more or less routine -- an ugly, unpleasant routine of domination and humiliation, but it works for Sebastian. His fiftieth high school class reunion, however, upends his life. Not only does the girl he had a crush on back then, and still pines for, Elli, show up, but the two of them really hit it off. He wonders:
Can a teenager's dream be fulfilled fifty years later ? Can time simply be switched to reverse, as on a cassette recorder ?Thanks to Ephebo and the circumstances, the answers would appear to be: yes.
Sebastian embraces this new-found possibility of a very old happiness -- "If there is any possibility at all of being happy, then it's having the dreams and longings of your youth fulfilled", our pining nostalgist convinces himself -- but, of course, this then makes the wife-in-the-cellar awfully inconvenient. Sebastian has a solution for this too, but acting with (typically male ?) ineptness he stumbles from one slight misstep to the next, each with catastrophic results. Things do not go well. (Though, given that the world is coming to an end, it all seems pretty relative, from the reader's perspective.)
Many of the German critics absolutely hated this novel. In a way, it's admirable they did: they treated it seriously, and condemn Duve for falling so short with her sensationalistic, limited treatment of such important subject-matter. (Duve's literary reputation, as well as her recent prominence in arguing for a vegetarian lifestyle certainly came into play as well.)
Another way of reading The Prepper Room -- the way I suspect most US/UK readers would approach it -- is simply as a B-grade conventional thriller (man keeps wife locked in cellar, and then another woman comes into the picture) with some nominal dystopian trimmings. What political and social commentary there is is too basic to be taken too seriously, and Sebastian's so limited focus on his immediate surroundings allows Duve to avoid really examining what the world has and will come to in her scenario. It's pop-thriller action -- and what action there is is solid enough: the novel is reasonably fast-paced, the twists clever enough, and there's even a fair bit of humor to lighten what would otherwise be (indeed should be ?) an unbearable situation.
It's true that there is no getting around the fact that Sebastian's unconscionable treatment of Christine is unpleasant to read. It fits with the story, but it is, simply, awful. Pure sensationalism ? Perhaps. But, again, taken as a thriller -- a cat-and-(captured-)mouse game -- it's almost justifiable. (Almost; for many readers this sort of treatment of one human by another may well be too ugly to deal with.)
As a story of male frustration in what some men consider an increasingly feminized world, The Prepper Room can seem fairly silly -- though given the whining of many American men and the existence of terms (labels ? badges ?) such as 'incel' even argument at this cartoonish level might strike a bit of a chord. But it's frills, a little window-dressing that barely even passes for thought. This isn't engagement with the subject matter, it's blunt pricks -- so blunt you have to believe the author is simply needling her audience.
The fact that the world is coming to an end is a basic flaw that Duve never really gets around. That in the face of this she can posit such stoic German stability, the acting-out nothing more than today's consumer- and protest-society already engages in regularly there, shows how weak her dystopian imagination is: she can't conceive of a world more radical(ized) than one in which the occasional nutball goes and locks his wife in the cellar -- behavior sadly familiar enough from yesterday's and today's news.
Seen merely as a thriller -- and really, that's all it can be seen as -- The Prepper Room is, in part, unpleasantly disturbing, but on the whole pretty solid. Sebastian is an amusing enough narrator, his mix of haplessness and misplaced confidence working quite well, and his deep nostalgia and the ends to which he will go to recapture a lost world quite well deployed by Duve. The arc of the story is good too -- a simple pop-thriller arc, with enough twists and varied characters to make for an engaging story.
Is it an offensive book ? On some level, and in quite a few scenes, certainly -- but also no more than any number of stories in which characters violate others in the most fundamental ways. For all that, Duve doesn't dare make it an entirely immoral book (which might have been more interesting): its conclusion is as tidy and safely system-affirming (i.e. modern-bourgeois) as one could conceive: the German end of the world is apparently going to be the most civil, orderly anyone could ever wish for.
- M.A.Orthofer, 9 October 2018
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German author Karen Duve was born in 1961.
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