By Xander Miller
When we speak of a world, we are often speaking of both the most intimate of human interiors and the land and nations that surround it: our ribcages and throats and dreams, yes, but also our neighborhoods, our hillsides, our harbors ending in seas. Considered in this light, is there anything capable of surviving the apocalyptic wreckage of a world? It’s one of the central questions in “Zo,” the debut novel by Xander Miller. And while Miller seeks the answer in a situation whose narratives are so familiar as to feel quotidian — romantic love, desperate to cross socioeconomic class — the novel’s setting, Haiti, may yet have something surprisingly new to say.
We meet the novel’s namesake as a 5-year-old orphan in a humble coastal village, from which he quickly decamps as a young adult, on a string of throwaway jobs that help establish the tone and terms of his world — including, apparently, a central concern with the carnal. There are at least three sex scenes in the first 20 pages, more than one of his partners of advanced age. But then he meets Anaya, a dazzling young woman who hails from a privileged upbringing and will become the focus of the rest of Zo’s life.
The real strength of this opening section lies not in the interiority of the characters or the chance of a surprise plot twist. Instead, interest and momentum emerge from the specificity of place Miller establishes around us: the daily rhythms of Haiti, the stark demands of a life lived amid capricious, grinding poverty, and the marvelous, salty exchanges that occur alongside it all: “I was hoping you’d be the one to help,” Anaya says, as she’s building a makeshift children’s clinic. He asks her why, “because you’ve seen me naked?” She grins at him: “Because I’ve seen how well you carry furniture into the grass.”
Still, the novel’s arc is largely familiar: Boy meets girl, boy pursues girl, boy encounters the apparently insurmountable gulf of their class differences. The characters deepen some, but not in ways that truly drive the plot. Passion — almost entirely physical, it’s worth noting — yet wins the day. Anaya’s father intervenes, of course, and we wonder how the lovers will triumph; only once they do, the pace starts to flag. The novel’s perspective often appears troublingly traditional and masculine, Zo’s lovesick ambitions rendered in colonialist terms: “Zo looked on that city like the first conquistadores looked upon the New World. To sack it, to burn it, to destroy every last soul, would be nothing in pursuit of the treasure and the dream.”
But then there is a schism. A disaster occurs, truly harrowing in the scale and severity of its damage. Everything appears lost. Here the language is particularly arresting, its power at once direct and nameless; as elsewhere in the novel, Miller’s writing manages to be both passionate and economical, and when dialogue and physical scenes pop, they pop off. If the notes of drama here are occasionally struck too hard — in this scene’s climax, Zo is momentarily too superhuman — it’s nevertheless effective.
What’s more important is what we see on the other side. Witness the ambivalence with which many Haitians might experience the arrival of the West in moments of crisis: “Their conversation was full of acronyms,” Anaya and her fellow nursing graduates think. “M.S.F., W.F.P., UNICEF, DINEPA, M.D.M., I.O.M., U.S.A.I.D. The country had been overrun by international aid organizations, and what the girls wanted to know most of all was who paid best.” The survivor’s calculus is frank, even as we witness those same nurses muscling their way through spartan university conditions, knowingly graduating into the teeth of the disaster’s wreckage.. If anyone’s going to get Haiti through this, Miller seems to be saying, it will be Haitians themselves.
The novel’s final third carries some of the bleakest moments of the entire story, full of emotional self-immolation and death. For a while, one wonders if the conclusion will be as bad as it seems, but thankfully this isn’t that sort of novel. In the end there’s much that satisfies, not the least of which is bearing witness to tenderness and heroism, the depths of loneliness and peaks of romance — and, perhaps most important, the courage of an entire nation.