There’s a lot to be said for a good story cycle. I was entranced by Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth, about the disappearance of two girls on a remote Russian peninsula and how that crime both rocks a community and hardly affects its petty problems at all. Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go in the Dark is officially called a novel, but its interconnected stories cycle through many facets of an imaginary plague that hits a little too close to home. And instead of localizing a story to a single peninsula, Nagamatsu tackles the whole world.
As we open How High, Cliff Miyashiro leaves behind his wife, Miki, and granddaughter, Yumi, to finish what his recently deceased daughter, Clara, started: a discovery of mummified remains buried beneath Arctic ice for millennia and freed now due to climate change. But the discovery also unleashes a deadly virus that quickly escapes the research facility’s attempts to contain it and then, well, plague.
For the rest of the book, we meet many (many!) characters affected by the plague in various ways, including Skip, a comedian turned euthanasia-park staff member; Dorrie, a mother whose researcher ex missed their son’s last moments in a futile search for a cure; and Dennis, a family disappointment who tries to do right by his mother in the end (there are a lot of family disappointments here, come to think of it). There are voice recordings saved on robodogs whose parts are failing, and a sentient laboratory pig. Bodies donated to science and tattoos preserved even as the body they belonged to is liquified.
Most of all, there is grief of many kinds. Of what wasn’t said but should have been, and of what was said but shouldn’t have been. The weight of choices when options are limited, and how futile it all seems. Nagamatsu notes that he scribbled the “first hurried concept notes” for How High more than a decade ago, but everything feels so prescient even beyond the idea of a global pandemic that wipes out life as we know it (with covid, we got off easy in comparison). Again and again, the book shows us just how quickly life can change, and what falls away—and remains—when that change comes.
I loved How High We Go in the Dark, and I loved the threads tying the stories together more tightly than just their shared concept. Characters have a tendency to reappear down the road a little, even if they aren’t the focal point. For this reason, I suggest reading How High as fast as you can, so you can remember where you last saw so-and-so. But so many of the stories are heartbreaking in their own way, which is why I suggest you read them one at a time, appreciating and recovering from one before moving on to the next. In this respect, there is no winning with How High, but neither is there losing.
For most of the book, each story feels as though it is chosen deliberately, carved out of stone to show a specific facet to the world Nagamatsu has created. However, two of the last three stories feel superfluous, taking us beyond the natural end of the arc. It may be that I read either too quickly or too slowly to understand their place, but instead of seeming like necessary components for comprehension, I was reminded of the end of Return of the King.
Those stories, though, are easily forgotten in the heft of beautiful prose and heartbreaking emotion that Nagamatsu delivers in the other dozen or so chapters. Stories. Tales. It is a stark reminder that all that matters only matters because someone decides that it does. That we are the creatures who decide what is special and what is worth remembering, and what to do with that remembrance. That memory and commemoration are life rafts to the past and that have equal power to define and confine us. It’s a beautiful world Nagamatsu shows us, even if it’s also one that will bruise you with its touch. And in showing us the joy and pain and worry of so many people, we have a cacophony, a symphony of all it encompasses.