Kimi Eisele’s debut novel, The Lightest Object in the Universe, is a love story set against the background of societal apocalypse—which means it is a narrative of hope in the face of despair. Eisele, an author and artist living in Tucson, Arizona, is compelled more by how extreme circumstances bring us together than by how they pry us apart. Here is how the novel begins:
At the end of a long and narrow street not far from the sea, right around the time of the spring equinox, the sun rose as a sliver between two skyscrapers. Carson Waller could see it if he stepped out onto the tiny balcony of his apartment at precisely the right time. One morning in mid-March, he woke just as the light was shifting, the beige color of his bedroom walls warming to yellow. Time to rise. To admire the light and to tend to the tasks of this strange new life: fill water buckets, forage for food, track down supplies. In a few days, he’d leave this apartment—this whole city—behind.
He rolled onto his back and exhaled. The inhale came of its own accord and, with it, a surprising and fragrant tang. Sweetness. The smell was unmistakable. Citrus. Oranges. How was that possible here, right now, near the end of winter? He breathed in again. There it was.
He thought immediately of Beatrix. Her smile, her auburn hair, her hands, the sound of her voice. Closing his eyes, he inhaled again and imagined her next to him, the weight and warmth of her almost real. He lay still. The cold morning fell over him. When he opened his eyes, the light had shifted and the smell of oranges was gone. All that remained was a cavern inside his chest.
Shivering from the cold, he dressed and went to the bathroom sink, where he scooped enough water from a bucket into his hands to rinse them. Since the rooftop cisterns had emptied, he’d been hauling water up from the street.
He toasted two pieces of stale bread over the gas flame of the stove. Another temporary luxury. It would probably go soon as well. He sprinkled some salt over the dry toast, cut up a mushy apple, and carried his breakfast into the living room.
From the window, he could see the vendors below setting out their goods on the sidewalk. This was part of the adaptation: you could simplify and run to the country, or you could buy and trade and sell. The marketplace was immortal, but it, too, had changed. Now the collections were random and personal, spread across blankets on the ground. Coffee makers, monogrammed towels, heirloom tea sets, little motors that no longer turned, tangles of useless electrical cords. Even a good find carried a certain bitter aftertaste. And yet there was no telling what might become suddenly useful. An extension cord made for a fine clothesline. Large Tupperware storage bins could hold gallons of water.
He held binoculars to his eyes. One of the vendors was on all fours, reaching across the blanket to arrange pots and dishes and utensils into tidy rows. She was portly and blond and encumbered by a long, heavy coat. A small dog curled up near her feet. She placed clothing into piles and arranged books by color. At the far corner of the blanket, she’d put the things not easy to categorize—a game of Trivial Pursuit, a stack of file folders, a computer keyboard.
A bulky man in a leather jacket moved swiftly along the sidewalk, and Carson tracked him through the binoculars. It was Ayo, one of his building’s doormen, before the layoffs six months ago.
Ayo, a Nigerian, had immigrated to the States with his wife nearly a decade ago. He was an educated man, once a student activist. “It is not always a good idea to advertise one’s political ideas, but sometimes it is necessary,” he once said.
Carson had crossed paths with Ayo a few weeks ago on the street—the first time he’d seen him since the layoffs.
“Mr. Principal!” Ayo had called out from half a block away. “It’s you! I thought maybe you had dissolved in a solution of vinegar. You are holed up in your apartment like a mouse?”
“I have not dissolved, no,” Carson had said, smiling. “It is nice to see you, Ayo.”
“Every day is a blessing, yes,” Ayo had said.
From The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele © 2019 by Kimi Eisele. Reprinted with permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.
• By Kimi Eisele
• Algonquin Books, 336 pages, $26.95
THREE QUESTIONS: KIMI EISELE
How does your work in other disciplines inform your writing? There’s a movement practice I’ve done for years called compositional improvisation. It’s very experimental. It’s a good reminder that the space of creating is just a laboratory.
Many apocalyptic novels traffic in hysteria, but yours is rooted in hope. What was your inspiration? I was tired of doomsday scenarios packed with violence and mentalities of scarcity. We’ll be better off if we help rather than harm one another while we work to survive.
What was important about Carson’s journey to Beatrix? That in the event of a major calamity, we might rise to the occasion and find ways to lend a hand, trust, improve someone’s situation. Maybe that is the flip side of the American dream.
What Others Are Saying: