We are all going to die. Most of us don’t know when. But what if we did know? What if we were told the year, the month, even the day? How would that change our lives?
These questions drive Nikki Erlick’s debut novel, “The Measure,” which weighs Emerson’s claim that “it is not the length of life, but the depth of life” that matters.
One morning, adults around the world find on their doorstep (or outside their tent, or next to their shelter bed) a box labeled with their name. Inside is a piece of string whose length, it turns out, represents their life span. Short strings, long strings, medium strings — every person over 21 receives one, delivered in strange containers that materialize out of nowhere. As the weeks go by and data is gathered, scientists declare the strings to be accurate in forecasting how long their recipients will live. Some people choose to look at their strings; others throw the unopened boxes off bridges, preferring not to know how much time they have left.
Where do the boxes come from? Why can’t anyone see them being delivered? Why were they sent in the first place? Erlick is less interested in technicalities than in the strings’ impact on her characters. Hank, an E.R. doctor whose life is spent handling other people’s deaths, must confront his own. In a romance where one string is much shorter than the other, Nina and Maura debate whether to marry and have children. Aimless young Jack finds direction when his uncle, a ruthlessly ambitious presidential candidate, starts spouting incendiary rhetoric against people with short strings. Two strangers, finding themselves accidental pen-pals, forge an intimacy that will have enormous consequences. Prejudice against short-stringers gains traction — their despair is seen as dangerous — while Jack’s uncle and other politicians make hay from the long/short divide, and a weekly support group for short-stringers becomes a makeshift family.
“The Measure” gives us the perspectives of several characters, alternating viewpoints at a brisk, staccato clip. Many chapters are only a page or two long. The most intriguing story line belongs to Amie and Ben, strangers who begin leaving each other anonymous letters in the classroom where she teaches by day and he attends a short-stringer support group by night. Their tender, thoughtful notes are a welcome counterpoint to the novel’s speedy pace.
Recent American fiction is rich with dystopian explorations of real-life horrors: racist violence (Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s “Friday Black”), toxic patriarchy (Jessamine Chan’s “The School for Good Mothers”) and climate catastrophe (Omar El Akkad’s “American War”), to name just a few. “The Measure,” in contrast, stays firmly in the comfort of the imaginary. Although it is set in an otherwise familiar present-day America, the strings effectively become the only problem, eclipsing sociopolitical issues to such a degree that String World begins to seem, well, not so bad. Erlick writes, “At least the future they had been doled seemed more promising than those on the shelves in front of Amie, in which women’s bodies were stripped solely to their reproductive capacities and children murdered each other on television at the government’s behest.” She goes on, “If those were the alternatives, Amie thought, perhaps they should feel lucky that the strings were all they got.”
With Roe v. Wade now overturned, and children with semiautomatic rifles mass-murdering other children, readers of “The Measure” are living in the futures on the shelves. Despite its chilling premise, Erlick’s novel is an escape from — rather than a window into — our own terrifying reality.
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