In working on a response for a class, though, I found that the element was remarkably difficult to sublimate (or condense), to translate into any sort of consistent coherence. At first, I tried to read it in response to an epigraph pulled from Spider Robinson's Telempath, fixating as many of the book's reviewers have on its characterizations of and reliance on smell. Because the response was for a class framed by Greg Garrard's notion of apocalypse as an environmental trope, I was looking at each author's approach to smell as characteristic of either the comic or the tragic mode that Garrard describes. Robinson's text, for those of you who might be unfamiliar with it, describes a post-apocalyptic world whose crisis is entirely dependent on the human sense of smell:
It was early afternoon, and the same sunshine that was warming the forests and dorms and work-zones of Fresh Start, my home, seemed to chill the air here, accentuating the barren emptiness of the ruined city. Silence and desolation were all around me as I walked, bleached bones and crumbling brick. Carlson had been efficient, all right; nearly as efficient as the atomic bomb folks used to be so scared of once. It seemed as though I were in some immense devil's autoclave, that ignored filth and grime but grimly scrubbed out life of any kind….
Carlson had said one word to me that afternoon, and the word was "Hyperosmia."
Within forty-eight hours every man, woman and child left alive on earth possessed a sense of smell approximately a hundred times more efficient than that of any wolf that ever howled.
During those forty-eight hours, a little less than a fifth of the planet's population perished, by whatever means they could devise, and every city in the world spilled its remaining life into the surrounding countryside. The ancient smell-suppressing system of the human brain collapsed under unbearable demand, overloaded and burned out in an instant.
The great complex behemoth called Modern Civilization ground to a halt in a little less than two days.
Until the very end of the novel, it tends toward a tragic conception of good and evil, and Robinson's protagonist follows a familiar heroic narrative arc. But I was primarily interested in how Lai's text, also fixated on genetically modified human smell—in more than one sense—and with a similar geographic garrison structure (though Robinson's is set against the ruins of NYC and Lai's is primarily the Canadian Pacific Northwest), uses both smell and apocalypse in ways more suited to the comic mode.
Durian is one of the more obvious connections to make to smell, as it in many ways characterizes the novel's future protagonist, Miranda. Its redolence of cat piss and pepper, described as such throughout the novel, clings to this girl from birth, and, in ways that I will leave to Lai to describe, ultimately leads to her initial conception through complicated intersections of culture, gender, interspeciality, and sexuality. But it is her bearing of this symptom that makes Miranda a particularly apt protagonist, as her peculiar relationship with it helps to frame the novel itself as a sort of "dreaming disease," which refers to one of the post-apocalypse effects of genetic modification that insinuate themselves into the lives and landscapes of the human communities, a disease, in many senses, of history and cultural memory that is intimately bound up in the (supposedly contracted) particular scents of those afflicted.
This experience of the novel as dream-disease is heightened by its fluidity (and sometimes alien and seemingly deliberately alienating) in chronology and geography, especially as its protagonists are careful to leave questions throughout, especially as to origins and conclusions, weaving a sort of indeterminate cyclicality whose preoccupation is with fragmentation and rebirth, a rebirth which is itself fractional and dynamic. Its unapologetic celebration of the abject, and perhaps also implied criticism of the adherence to a Romantic individual, allows the novel to complicate readers' sympathy with both characters and corporations, landscapes and waterways, and deliberately shifts the naturalization of beauty and the sublime through subtle critiques of cultural assimilation and heteronormativity.
And now, I think I've chattered long enough, so I'll leave you with a taste of Lai's fluid prose that perhaps makes this novel's juxtaposition with Moreau more apt than anticipated:
The sound of footsteps came from around a bend in the corridor. Ian pulled me into a side hallway. Pressed against the wall, I watched another group of Janitors pass, their tired feet scuffing against the floor. In horror I watched their backs as they moved away from us. There were rectangular holes in their uniforms that ran from the tailbone to the base of the neck. The muscle and skin of their backs had been replaced with some kind of transparent silicone composite so that you could see their spines and behind them, their hearts pounding, their livers and kidneys swimming in oceans of blood and gristle. We had studied anatomy at school. I could see that the organs had been shifted, had been carefully arranged like stones in a formal garden, mimicking the asymmetrical aesthetics of nature, but with human intention. (76-77)