Luminous catastrophe: Act of God by Jill Ciment

Act of God

“A small phosphorescent organism, about as bright and arresting as a firefly’s glow, bloomed in the seam of the hall closet. It almost looked as if someone had chewed a piece of iridescence and stuck it, like gum, on the wall. But it wasn’t inanimate like gum; its surface was roiling as if something beneath were struggling to be born.”

In an ancient Brooklyn house, mushrooms start growing through the walls, defying Clorox and bleach. Government workers in hazmat suits order the inhabitants to evacuate the building. The house must be burned to stop the spread. The insurance company claims protection under an “act of God” clause and refuses to pay for anything, so our unlikely cast of characters finds themselves out on the street.

  • Meet Kat and Edith, aging twin sisters desperate to save their mother’s newspaper archives in the basement
  • Meet landlord and actress Vida, desperate to convince Kat and Edith to move out of their rent-controlled apartment so she can convert it into a master suite
  • Meet Ashley, an illegal Russian immigrant living in Vida’s guest bedroom closet without her knowledge

At first the fungus is a localized catastrophe: everyone believes the spread has been stopped after the house is quarantined and sterilized. But the mushrooms refuse to be contained – and spores start appearing everywhere. First the neighbouring houses are infected, then the whole block. The first round of survivors carry tiny glowing spores with them in their clothes and their lungs, unknowingly spreading the blight across the city.

From the cover and the synopsis, I was expecting magic realism – a longer and more thorough discussion where the mushrooms came from and what they represent. I would have been happy to see things take a turn towards sci-fi and plants taking over the world a la Day of the Triffids

Sadly, the fungi don’t feature much outside of the first chapter. On the other hand, they spark a discussion: how does a home or a city change in crisis? What transformations are brought about by an act of God?

We see just how quickly social standing can be stripped away, and how relationships fall apart or sprout up. While the neighbourhood physically falls apart, it remains emotionally whole and strong. Act of God reminds us that creation resides in the midst of destruction; calamity can be luminous.

Finally, I absolutely have to give a big salute to the hilarious, phallic descriptions of the mushrooms:

The could now see clearly that it wasn’t a plant or an animal. It was some kind of mushroom, a fleshy speckled stalk capped by a deeply oxygenated pink head. 

“It’s grown, hasn’t it?” Edith said breathlessly, staring back into the empty closet. 

The mushroom now stood upright and had tripled in size.

I’m sure I could write a paper about the allegorical meaning of the mushrooms. For now I’m content to recommend this book: short, sweet, Canadian. Find Act of God on Goodreads!

The header image for this post is a cropped and colour corrected photo from Joseph O’Brien, found on Flickr and available for use and remixing through Creative Commons. 


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