Debut novelist Ariel Djanikian builds to a devastating series of climaxes in ‘The Office of Mercy’

August 26, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Aug. 26, 2015

The Office of Mercy, the 2013 debut novel by American author Ariel Djanikian, depicts the journeys of two members of a future American community that is both highly insulated and extremely fascistic.

The main character is Natasha Wiley, a rebellious 24-year-old resident of a primarily underground habitat called America-Five. The residents rarely leave the settlement; even less rarely do they have any wish to step outside its antiseptic corridors. Wiley works in the Office of Mercy, where she monitors migratory tribes roaming a harsh environment that was scoured centuries ago by a violent storm — the result of climate change, perhaps.

The agency’s functions are hardly limited to monitoring, however. The office also conducts sweeps — a euphemism for killing. Ideally, the office confirms that all members of a tribe have gathered together and clinically destroys them with a tactical nuclear strike. If there are stragglers, either the sweep is postponed or things get…messy.

Wiley’s mentor is Jeffrey Montague, a respected elder member of the habitat who is fervent in his adherence to the community’s ideals. Here, in the book’s opening pages, he discusses the recent sweep with his protégée:

They had been watching the Cranes for nearly a month now — from mid-June until this morning, the twelfth of July — watching their bodies shrink and their faces grow long and hollow.

“It’s better now,” Jeffrey said. “Better nonexistence than pain.”

But it wasn’t helping. Natasha was willing herself not to cry.

“What did they look like,” she asked, to change the subject, “when they realized the men [in the tribe’s returning hunting party] were alive?”

Jeffrey hesitated. “They were…overjoyed.”

“And did they eat the deer?”

“No, we swept them while the first chunks of meat were still cooking.”

“Oh.”

Natasha could not help but feel disappointed. She and Jeffrey had been on shift together when the Crane hunters and the second group of young men had reunited and made the kills. They had watched the hunt play out on the sensors and it had given Natasha such a thrill to see it, she had almost forgotten to pity the deer.

“We couldn’t have let it go a second longer, Natasha,” Jeffrey said, as if reading her thoughts. “Besides, the food wouldn’t have brought them as much enjoyment as you’d think. They probably would have gorged themselves. Their bodies wouldn’t have been able to handle that much protein at once. They would have eaten too fast. It would have made them sick. In this case, anticipation of the meal was much preferable to fulfillment itself. The smells, the sight. It shouldn’t matter, ethically speaking, but the Cranes did leave existence at the moment of highest pleasure.”

The further we go into Djanikian’s dystopian future, the more disturbing it becomes. America-Five is one of a series of similar domed habitats that span the continent along the 39th parallel. (That’s latitude 39 degrees north for those, like me, who have forgotten most of their grade-school geography.) America-Five happens to be the eastern-most settlement: “Americas One through Four had been tragically lost during the Storm, when the ocean surged miles inland, in defiance of all computer models and calculations,” the author notes in an aside that becomes far more chilling once additional details about the nature of this cataclysmic weather event are revealed.

It is not, however, all that surprising to learn that the Alphas — the first of the settlement’s five (and soon-to-be six) generations — have deceived America-Five’s inhabitants about the intelligence of the tribes. This is a discovery Wiley makes when she’s selected for an excursion to the exterior that goes badly wrong.

Soon, Wiley finds herself increasingly drawn to two groups of outsiders, both figurative and literal: Dissidents within America-Five who object to the sweeps and tribal members who exert a powerful influence on Wiley when they claim to hold some secret information about Wiley’s past.

As The Office of Mercy approaches the midway point, what had been a relatively bloodless, pedantic narrative gains momentum. (Several pages in the third chapter are devoted to Wiley’s skimming through the Ethical Code, the de facto bible of America-Five.) The book gains some urgency that had been lacking as a number of questions develop: Can the tribe be trusted? Should the tribe trust Wiley? Will Wiley’s growing emotional intimacy with Montague end up ruining one or both character’s careers and lives?

Djanikian builds to a series of powerful climaxes, some of which involve literal battle but most of which involve psychological conflict. The ultimate effect is devastating, conveying a sense of despair much as George Orwell’s 1984 or Philip Kaufman’s brilliant 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers did. Not only does the conclusion contain an unexpected role reversal, the finale contains a sharp sting. The book’s concluding sentence demolishes a key hidden assumption that underlies America-Five’s foundational philosophy.

In her first novel, Djanikian has crafted a world that is equally engaging and dismaying. The Office of Mercy should be enjoyed by science-fiction lovers who like a certain intellectual edge to their fiction. I’ll be very interested to see what she does next.

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