"How High We Go in the Dark" by Sequoia Nagamatsu is a futuristic novel about a catastrophic pandemic that eerily mirrors current times. The first-time author, however, penned his story, which was released this week, before COVID-19 was on anyone's radar.
After the death of his grandfather in 2007, Nagamatsu said he flew to Japan to grieve and explore his Japanese heritage. It was there that he started writing the collection of individual stories that all tie together in "How High."
Nagamatsu's novel starts with the uncovering of a pathogen in the melting Arctic permafrost, but the emphasis of "How High" isn't about virus hunting — instead, it explores grief, loss, hope and the emotional toll taken on families around the world for decades into the future.
Nagamatsu, who attended Pinewood High School in Los Altos Hills, said the book is about hope. Writing the novel helped him deal with his own grief and feelings of isolation after his grandfather died.
"I was curious about exploring my own heritage," Nagamatsu said during a telephone interview. "I'd never really had an opportunity to do that. Being third-generation Japanese-American, I was disconnected from that past. I also wanted to use that time abroad as a kind of reset button to reflect about next steps and to grieve for my deceased grandfather, and think about ways I could honor him."
Initially set in 2030, "How High" chronicles the discovery of a 30,000 year-old corpse, dubbed "Annie," inside the Batagaika Crater in Siberia. Annie's remains are infected with a mysterious virus — one that everyone swears is harmless. Soon, the entire planet is decimated by the Arctic Plague, altering the course of history.
Each chapter is told from the perspective of different narrators. The time structure moves linearly through multiple generations, but perceptive readers are able to see the hidden connections among the characters. Among the cast of characters are a stand-up comedian who takes a job at an amusement park for terminally ill children and helps them ride a roller coaster that stops their hearts with crushing G-forces. A scientist who has a tiny black hole implanted in his brain. And a pig who learns to speak (His first word is "doctor") and becomes sufficiently intelligent enough to understand his ultimate fate as an organ donor.
Clever, intense and heartbreaking, Nagamastu's novel is a stylish and accomplished debut, suitable for any readers ready to expand their pop-culture horizons. (It's reminiscent of science fiction novels such as David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" and Emily Mandel's "Station Eleven.")
Some of the premises of the individual chapters may seem far-fetched, but Nagamatsu grounds the characters in realistic detail.
"While it certainly is a difficult read in a lot of ways, it is about everyday life and the connections that tie us together," he said.
Nagamatsu said the book's Asian American and Asian narrators reflect his own life experiences.
"I also wanted to give voice to people who are third- and fourth-generation Asian American, where maybe small aspects of life are different because of family heritage, but by and large are disconnected from the realities of grandparents or great-grandparents," he said. "My great-grandmother came to America in the early part of the 20th century. My grandfather was in a Japanese internment camp in World War II ... but those were their stories. I wanted to write the story of the kind of life that I lived."
Nagamatsu, who now lives in Minneapolis, spent most of his early life in Hawaii and Northern California. Nagamatsu said he was struck by the "writing bug" in high school while taking creative writing classes at Pinewood in Los Altos Hills.
"I really loved English, I was always very bookish and the education at Pinewood encouraged that in me to a large degree," he said.
After his sojourn in Japan, where he taught English for a couple of years, Nagamatsu returned to the U.S. and enrolled in Southern Illinois University for creative writing graduate school before accepting a visiting professorship at College of Idaho. He now teaches at St. Olaf's in Minnesota. He published his first short-story collection, "Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone," which contains a dozen stories inspired by Japanese folklore and pop culture. They feature Godzilla, ghosts and shapeshifters and act as tantalizing warmups for "How High We Go in the Dark."
Up next for Nagamatsu is another novel, "Girl Zero." The book is about how a family that has lost a daughter attempts to replace her with a shape shifter that is able to take her form. Nagamatsu expects the book to be published in 2024.