One of our recommended books for 2019 is The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele

THE LIGHTEST OBJECT IN THE UNIVERSE

A Novel


What if the end times allowed people to see and build the world anew? This is the landscape that Kimi Eisele creates in her surprising and original debut novel. Evoking the spirit of such monumental love stories as Cold Mountain and the creative vision of novels like Station ElevenThe Lightest Object in the Universe imagines what happens after the global economy collapses and the electrical grid goes down.

In this new world, Carson, on the East Coast, is desperate to find Beatrix, a woman on the West Coast who holds his heart.

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What if the end times allowed people to see and build the world anew? This is the landscape that Kimi Eisele creates in her surprising and original debut novel. Evoking the spirit of such monumental love stories as Cold Mountain and the creative vision of novels like Station ElevenThe Lightest Object in the Universe imagines what happens after the global economy collapses and the electrical grid goes down.

In this new world, Carson, on the East Coast, is desperate to find Beatrix, a woman on the West Coast who holds his heart. Working his way along a cross-country railroad line, he encounters lost souls, clever opportunists, and those who believe they’ll be saved by an evangelical preacher in the middle of the country. While Carson travels west, Beatrix and her neighbors begin to construct the kind of cooperative community that suggests the end could be, in fact, a bright beginning.

Without modern means of communication, will Beatrix and Carson find their way to each other, and what will be left of the old world if they do? The answers may lie with a fifteen-year-old girl who could ultimately decide the fate of the lovers.

The Lightest Object in the Universe is a moving and hopeful story about resilience and adaptation and a testament to the power of community, where our best traits, born of necessity, can begin to emerge.

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  • Algonquin Books
  • Hardcover
  • July 2019
  • 336 Pages
  • 9781616207939

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$26.95

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About Kimi Eisele

Kimi Eisele is the author of the Lightest Object in the UniverseKimi Eisele is a writer and multidisciplinary artist. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, LongreadsOrion MagazineHigh Country News, and elsewhere. She holds a master’s degree in geography from the University of Arizona, where in 1998 she founded You Are Here: The Journal of Creative Geography. She has received grants from the Arts Foundation of Southern Arizona, the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the Kresge Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Tucson and works for the Southwest Folklife Alliance. This is her first novel.

Praise

“A near-future apocalypse forms the backdrop for an intense, moving romance in Eisele’s smart debut . . . Fans of Station Eleven will particularly enjoy this hopeful vision of a postapocalyptic world where there is danger, but also the possibility for ideas to spread, community to blossom, and people to not just survive, but thrive.”Publishers Weekly

“This is Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain crossed with Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Filled with luminous writing and messages of love and hope, this story will motivate everyone to sharpen their ham radio skills.”Library Journal

“A compellingly realistic depiction of the world after the collapse of civilization, although at its heart, it is a love story told in the vein of Cold Mountain . . . The Lightest Object in the Universe is an intriguing and engrossing debut novel that will leave readers thinking about their own ability to survive, their own capacity for love, and their willingness to face catastrophe with hope.” New York Journal of Books

“Kimi Eisele’s first novel is a love story set in a landscape where everything (government, history, infrastructure) has collapsed—except our need for one another and the struggle to persevere. In such a world, love may be on the run, but it can still  be a transforming force. What’s required is a kind of faith: in ourselves, in one another, in a future that is no more or less uncertain than it has always been. The experience of humanity, in other words, which Eisele brings to every page of this deeply moving narrative.” David L. Ulin, author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles

“It might be an oxymoron to call an apocalyptic novel hopeful, but The Lightest Object in the Universe is a testament to the power of love in the darkest times. Like a near-future Cold Mountain, it’s the story of a man’s epic journey to reunite with the woman he loves, and a woman’s determination to reimagine and rebuild after the fall. There’s horror, yes, but more moments of ingenuity, generosity, and grace. I couldn’t put it down.” Sheri Holman, author of Witches on the Road Tonight

“A tale told in sentences starkly declarative of the gone world they describe, The Lightest Object in the Universe offers characters that linger long after the final page is turned. This is a novel with that exact balance of heart and momentum. Dazzling.”Christian Kiefer, author of The Animals

“Post-apocalyptic stories are all the rage, but Kimi Eisele’s novel is a rarity. Her people don’t merely wander across a blighted wasteland; they form communities, till the soil, send their voices into the ether, and cling tenaciously to hope. The Lightest Object in the Universe is a triumphant story for anyone with a shred of faith left in the human spirit.” David McGlynn, author of One Day You’ll Thank Me

Excerpt

From The Lightest Object in the Universe

by Kimi Eisele

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.

Ayo was a hustler now, with access to the new black market, where he could get soap, butter, coffee, meat, flour, batteries, fuel, and almost anything else. “Run by Africans,” he had explained that day. “That is why they call it the ‘black market,’ sir. We Africans are quite adept at adversity. Or maybe, sir, because we are such good con artists.” He had laughed and jabbed an elbow into Carson’s ribs.

With the supermarkets stripped and dark, it was a lucky and necessary thing to have a supply man. The shipping containers had become bloated whales stuck up on the sand. It was vendors like Ayo who kept people fed, rolling shopping carts up and down the streets, selling canned beans and stale rice they’d hoarded, or vegetables they’d somehow grown or gleaned from farms outside the city.

Carson tracked Ayo from the window, watching him flow down the sidewalk.

 

[section break]

On the other side of the country, in the back of a wagon, Beatrix Banks felt as if she were on a choppy sea, as if all she had to do was yield to circumstance. But what circumstance was this? No metro rail to shuttle her through the city and over the bay; instead, horses. When she’d left the US nearly two months earlier, no one had yet thought to attach a horse to a cart and haul passengers around. At this moment, despite the bumpy ride, she was grateful someone had.

Exhausted and disoriented, Beatrix dug in her backpack for her cell phone. She should call her housemates, Hank and Dolores, tell them she was on her way. But the phone, of course, had been dead for weeks. She held it in both hands, like a fragile, lifeless bird.

Across from her in the wagon, a woman, about fifty, wrapped in a purple shawl, gave Beatrix a sympathetic frown.

“You can kiss that phone goodbye,” said a man next to her. He coughed once, and Beatrix stiffened. Was there still flu here?

“No phone service at all? Landlines?” she asked, inching away from the man.

“Only if you’re willing to saw off an arm and a leg,” the woman in purple said.

There was some murmuring among the other passengers about radio communication and solar power. “What about the almighty generator that preacher uses?” someone said.

Beatrix put her phone back in her backpack.

She watched the sun inch higher into the sky. Things here had unraveled quickly. No more phone service. Intermittent power. Horses on the highway. She felt panic rise inside. Just get me to my people, she thought.

The wagon dropped Beatrix a few blocks from home, and as the sound of the horse hooves receded into the distance, she felt herself relax a little. Despite her fatigue, she walked quickly. Her house glimmered like a beacon, sunlight bouncing off the windows and warming the front porch. Beatrix headed up the walkway just as a tall man with shaggy hair came out the front door carrying a bicycle. Her downstairs neighbor—Joe, was it?

It took a moment before he recognized her. “You’re back. Where were you?”

“Mexico City,” she told him. “A fair-trade convention. Or what was supposed to be a fair-trade convention.” It dawned on her that what she’d maneuvered—flying south across the border in the midst of a global meltdown—was more of a miracle than she’d realized.

“That was brave of you,” he said.

“Or just dumb.”

He looked up from the bicycle and held out his hand. “Beatrice, right? I’m Dragon.”

“Beatrix, with an x,” she said.

“So how did you get home?”

“A complicated hitchhike,” she said, explaining how the airlines had folded, and then the bus lines, and how what was supposed to be a ten-day trip had turned into six weeks, until she’d finally found a cargo trucker with enough room, fuel, and business smarts to transport her, along with a tired diplomat and a handful of US soldiers, to Tijuana. “As soon as we crossed the border, they all knelt to kiss the fucking pavement.”

“Well, that was lucky,” he said.

Beatrix nodded, feeling grateful. “Isn’t your name Joe?”

“Yeah, formally. I go by Dragon now. A resurrected nickname. Fiercer, I guess,” he said, lifting one of his eyebrows and making it disappear behind a dark curl on his head.

She had the urge to pull him into a hug. But they barely knew each other. “It is good to be home,” she conceded, picking up her backpack.

“You know they’re gone, right?” he said as she started up the stairs. “Your roommates.”

“Hank and Dolores? What do you mean?”

“Yeah. They went north.”

“North?” Beatrix said, feeling like she’d just been punched in the stomach.

“A whole group went together,” Dragon said. “They loaded all their stuff into a wagon and headed toward wine country. More fertile, I guess.” He scoffed a little as he said this, then shrugged.

“What? You don’t think it’s safe?” Beatrix asked. “I mean, if everyone’s going.”

“If everyone were jumping off a bridge, would you?”

“So you don’t think it’s a good idea. To go north.”

“I just told you what I thought,” he said, and turned back to his bicycle.

Beatrix went upstairs, the punch to her stomach now a grip in her chest.

Essay

A Different Light

by Kimi Eisele

During the few years I worked as a middle school geography teacher, I’d begin a lesson on the hazards of cartography by giving every student an orange and instructing them to draw on it a map of the world, as accurately as they could. When they’d peel the orange and press it flat on their desks, their map would split apart. I’d bring their attention to the breaks. This is the fundamental plight of the cartographer: how to project the three-dimensional globe onto a flat surface. To keep a coherent image, you have to fill in the gaps, you have to stretch and distort countries and continents.

The world map I grew up looking at—the one you might have, too—was created in 1568 by the Dutch cartographer Gerhardus Mercator. Designed for navigation, it preserves angle and direction, but distorts size and distance, particularly toward the edges. The projection places Europe and North America at the center, so less distortion occurs there, but all in all, the Northern hemisphere appears disproportionately larger than the Southern. In reality, for instance, Africa is fourteen times larger than Greenland, but on the map, it appears much smaller.

Which means the map is something of a lie.

In 1989 various geographic associations called for a ban on all rectangular coordinate maps like Mercator’s, recognizing that its distortions contributed to an inaccurate and ethnocentric view of the world. But by then, the map had been imprinted on the brains of millions of schoolchildren around the world.

For those of us born in the US after World War II, that map provided a perfect optic for where we stood, given the reach of cultural and economic imperialism abroad and machinations of the military-industrial complex. There we were—the United States—front and center, the most powerful nation in the world, the place everyone wanted to be.

Or was it?

From my grandfather, who’d worked for the US State Department in Latin America, I’d inherited an orientation toward the Southern hemisphere. When my mom came to live in the States from the family’s post in Ecuador at age seventeen, she was startled to see that poor people lived here, too, and soon after, that “Whites only” could drink from certain water fountains. My father was no blind patriot either, having left New York in his twenties for Paris, then working in Guinea, West Africa, where he saw the ongoing impacts of colonialism, which changed not only how he viewed himself, but also how he understood Europe, America, and whiteness.

In my mid-twenties, I went to live in Ecuador. In the quiet observation that can come from living in another language, I saw that consumption wasn’t the only path to fulfillment and that generosity could be offered up plentifully in a bowl of watered-down soup. I saw, too, that while the 1970s Ecuadorian oil boom had been a boon for the US-owned Texaco, it had left parts of the tropical forest and indigenous communities in ruins and had done little to pull the majority of the country out of poverty. I returned to the States before the end of the millennium, even more preoccupied with the uneven forces of global economic development.

I took that preoccupation to graduate school in Tucson, Arizona, the city where I stayed after earning a master’s degree in geography. By the mid-2000s, when I began writing The Lightest Object in the Universe, the United States was at war with Iraq and Afghanistan, and I felt sick about it. As the bombs landed in Baghdad, I added the explosions to the long list of the US’s economic and political assaults abroad.

And yet, my country had been so good to me. I owed personal privileges not solely to my race and class, but also to my country’s global position: access to education; a safe neighborhood where I could ride my bike and roller-skate in the street; access to birth control; freedom from drone bombs; clean air and water; a passport.

There was no way to reconcile this.

One day, an issue of the culture-jamming, anti-capitalist magazine Adbusters came in the mail and postulated a fictional catastrophic event, one that abruptly ended the capitalist, corporate, cheap-oil world system. The magazine was a collection of philosophical musings and tirades about the “crash” and readers’ letters, both personal (“I stay because New Yorkers are good at surviving, because we pride ourselves on our resilience”) and practical (how to raise chickens, clean wounds, treat water).

The issue, a collective exercise of the imagination, also fueled my own. I admit to being thrilled by the idea that it could all just suddenly end. Not that I really wanted the world to collapse. New York was only a few years beyond the smoky hell of 9/11, and within months, Hurricane Katrina would bring New Orleans its own apocalypse—more of these horrors was nothing to wish for. But I felt a lightness in imagining the possibility of some kind of redo.

And a collapse didn’t seem all that far-fetched. Peak oil was being projected. The housing market bubble was just a few years away.

There were ways to live with less, I knew, both from my time in Ecuador and in my home neighborhood, where people raised chickens and goats and tended gardens. We were all riding our bikes as much as possible. Even a good-deeds bicycle group called the Superheroes came through one spring and built a compost toilet in the backyard next door. But could such small changes really rearrange our systems of thinking and living?

As I flipped through Adbusters, two pieces in particular intrigued me. One was a letter to a long-distance lover lamenting the length of the miles and the loss of the internet. The other was a hand-drawn map of the US railway system with a call to go west, saying that “Train tracks make for sweet travel.” Accompanying the map was a series of hand-drawn hobo symbols used to communicate helpful information (water, safe camps, threats, etc.). “Pick up a piece of chalk and spread your own messages,” the contributor implored.

I began to daydream. The Union Pacific line passed a mile from my house, and the graffiti-splattered trains often interrupted my daily bike commute. One day, I envisioned a man walking down the tracks, a man who’d already lost what he most loved, a man for whom the loss of everything else might be an invitation to start anew.

So I followed him.

It was a relief to hand over my irreconcilable angst, and later, my own personal grief, to fictional characters and let them wrestle with it. I followed them along the tracks, around the neighborhood, and toward the real myths that reveal the many shapes of our faith. The widowed man on the tracks led me to a fierce activist who led me to bike-riding superheroes who led me to a messiah who led me to a girl who would, in losing everything, find her voice.

With the power out, I noticed nothing needed to be sold in quite the same way. If, as Bill McKibben writes, the main message of television advertising is that you alone are the most important thing, the heaviest object in the universe, then without this advertising perhaps we are lighter. And if we are lighter, then perhaps we can rise in such a way that other things come into focus—things like neighbors in need and teenagers with something to say and expanding pots of soup and gaps in the map and a sense of home.

I stayed on the tracks, writing the novel, for well over a decade. I knew what resilience looked like and I knew about rage and persistence. So I kept going, past the housing crisis and the bank bailouts, past the Paris climate accord and the 2016 US election. Past the nagging notion that we’d somehow tire of stories about the end times. But it wasn’t really the end times that pulled me. It was thinking about what we’d do after the end times—together, with our creativity, not just out of necessity but also out of love, in an altogether different kind of light.