Chris Benjamin Reviews David Huebert’s Chemical Valley
Halifax author David Huebert’s fiction explores various ways in which we make ourselves sick by first inflicting damage on the environment. Our habitat.
There’s the obvious cancer, and infertility, and the less obvious twisting of the mind, taking forms like violence and survivalist planning for the apocalypse–a psychosis that almost seems reasonable given our possible futures.
His characters are sensitive, and thus troubled by the sicknesses they experience directly or indirectly–sometimes through stark imagery, like bones floating where they shouldn’t be, or “thousands and thousands of smelt” washing up on shore. They live just outside Sarnia, in the titular “chemical valley,” a 25-kilometre stretch surrounded by more than 60 chemical plants and oil refineries. Huebert describes them simultaneously off-gassing: “a tail gas Disneyland shimmering through river-limned night.”
It was once a point of pride, this industrial area, for the work done and the people who were employed at living wages. Oil is what they knew. At least at the level of economics.
The area includes the Aamjiwnaang First Nation. One character calls it the “Incredible shrinking territory … slowly whittled down through centuries of sketchy land deals.”
I once wrote in an article for The Coast that “40 percent of Aamjiwnaang’s children use inhalers and some residents are in a state resembling post-traumatic shock from near weekly off gassing rocking their houses.” A recent study called the cancer rates in the area “strikingly high.” If this is an apocalypse in Huebert’s fiction, it’s a very real one.
So no wonder his characters are troubled. They are also beautiful people. Some of them are twisted, but their internal deformities synchronize perfectly with the realities they live.
A man who lost his mother to cancer, and is now losing his partner, takes desperate measures to preserve what has been taken from him. A teen troubled by the same poisons in her environment, and surrounded by adults who are better stocked with problems than solutions, becomes involved in a revenge plot that mistakenly schemes against an individual, instead of a corporation or some other dirty system.
One teenager makes a statement that “everyone lives in Chemical Valley.” It is both the narrow perspective of the young, totalizing the whole world within a minute time and place, and at the same time a truism of our shrinking world. Nowhere is safe.
The survivalists are some of my favourite characters, with their whacked out bug-eating schemes and mildly consistent paranoia. A story told from the perspective of one of their life partners entraps that narrator in a desire to leave his love when he’s most vulnerable, and my heart breaks for both of them.
Huebert also explores how the narcissistic take advantage of such vulnerable humans, exploiting their neediness, in a story about “an IVF maniac injecting you and sixty-one other women with his sperm.” More so, actually, about one of those women, who is likely much more interesting than the perpetrator, and certainly more sympathetic.
She spends her days caring for the terminally sick. Huebert provides a considered look at what she calls “all the things we take in, take on.” In the context of his overall theme, I see that as another response to the common crisis we face: serve the world, make it better somehow. But even that takes its toll.
Huebert’s characters, like all of us, are trying to live their lives through the existential threat hanging over us. They are falling in love, working, reproducing, mourning, celebrating, dying.
But the presence of the chemical–the ancient life we’ve turned into energy [“plants and animals, microfauna and zooplankton stewed for hundreds of millions years in gaseous chambers in the bottom of the earth”] at great cost–jarringly manifests itself.
In one story, a protagonist inflicted with a serious fungal rash finds love in artificial intelligence. It’s normal life. Yet it’s not.
Huebert ends on something of a hopeful note, when a mother mourning the loss of her baby’s other mother–the one who birthed the child–and struggling to face the anarchy rising around her, is brought a message from her dead partner:
“This will pass, one way or another. You are but motes in the eye of time.” That may be the perspective we need in the face of myriad crises. That dose of humility couldn’t help but reduce our negative impacts anyway.
Huebert is a gifted short story writer. His characters do contain multitudes, each story a set of worlds. Collectively, they reflect our times, and help us contemplate the most dire of threats to our singular habitable planet.