Thirty years after Don DeLillo’s White Noise comes Wasp Box, the debut novel by Jason Ockert. The novels vary greatly in tone, but share the theme of unusual events intruding upon daily existence. The aftermath of the “airborne toxic event” in White Noise creates the need for constant simulation evacuations and comprehensive data collection of citizens. (DeLillo might be a lapsed Roman Catholic, but he is a practicing prophet). Afterward, even domestic disturbances are ominous: “The time of spiders arrived. Spiders in high corners of rooms. Cocoons wrapped in spiderwork. Silvery dancing strands that seemed the pure play of light, light as evanescent news, ideas borne on light.”
Wasp Box begins with William Gent, a veteran back in the states. Gent hops off a moving train and runs through the woods, tearing through spider webs. Ockert trades domestic arachnids for foreign insects: “Something is scuttling around inside his skull, and no matter how deeply he digs he just can’t root it out.” The soldier hopes for a fresh start — “It’s unwise to carry ghosts across the ocean” — but instead falls to his knees and hacks what look like prunes into his hands. Eyes tearing, he struggles to watch “tiny red-tinted wings unfurl and the creatures unsteadily take flight.” Instead of being afraid, “For a baffling moment, the soldier thinks this is all rather beautiful. He has made something here.”
What he has made, or rather incubated, are wasps. They fly from his mouth “like wicked words — the soldier’s confession — made manifest. They rise away and whisper to the moon.” Ockert’s opening chapter manages to be both lyric and menacing. Gent physically disappears from the novel, but he has brought a nightmare to New York state. Nolan Baxter, divorced from his wife, lives on the Muller family vineyard in the Finger Lakes. Nolan’s son Hudson comes to stay for the summer, and his younger step-brother, Speck, comes along. Hudson is there to work, while Speck “could use the fresh country air.” World War II veteran Gus Muller, now widowed, lives with his daughter and granddaughter, Madison. Gus straddles the line between quirky and strange, crossing into the latter when he pinches his wife’s ashes into a glass of Pinot.
Hudson is attracted to Madison, but she hides the secret of her suicide attempt. In fact, Hudson’s interest in Madison takes time and energy away from Nolan, who thought this summer would repair his relationship with this son. When not thinking of Madison, Hudson takes his brother into a forest that abuts the vineyard. Ockert’s description is atmospheric:
Hudson climbs into a faded yellow harvesting truck and sits behind the wheel. He lets the smell of oil, gasoline, baked-in sweat, and the faint waft of cigarette smoke seep in. The cushion has been slashed and stuffing spills around the pedals. Plastic on the dashboard is peeling off. The glove box handle is hot to the touch. Hudson uses the tips of his fingers to open it. Inside are a half-dozen charred Barbie dolls that have melted into one grotesque body. All of the hair has been singed, and the faces are smooth and expressionless.
Wasp Box reads like a sequence of graveyards; the portrait of a place and family that is headed toward trouble.
On one journey through the forest, Speck drifts off with the Mullen family dogs. He finds a nest of wasps, the entire tree “infested and thrumming.” The wasps descend and blanket the dogs, who flee. Speck has been stung, but seems to be spared the worst. The dogs are not so fortunate. This attack, coupled with the novel’s ominous opening, made me think Wasp Box would become apocalyptic, the latest novel in a successful litany of recent airbone toxic events. Ockert’s focus is a bit more narrow. The wasps thrash, but they are boxed in, bound to the slow science of spreading. This allows Ockert to tell a taut but evolving story with many threads. Hudson’s subplots are the most interesting, including his attraction to Madison, his uneasy relationship with his father, and his fear of Crowley, his co-worker for the summer who is increasingly unstable. Hudson’s narration is so charged and profluent that Nolan becomes a bit lost in the novel. It is almost as if Hudson has already become his own man.
Nolan gives Speck a journal that he claims was thrown from a train. The journal belonged to William Gent, the infected soldier who brought this plague to the region. Ockert often excerpts the journal in the novel, though this parallel narrative is less effective than the more subtle touches of the book. Scenes showing the frenetic, almost cunning wasps are the moments of the novel that hearken to DeLillo’s White Noise. The sections are written in an essayistic voice, and despite their coming dread, are somehow calmer than the tension of the novel’s main characters. In one section, the “vibration along the tracks disrupts the wasps long before the Amtrak train arrives.” While some wasps merely “bounce among the passenger cars,” some more “determined insects” sneak into cracked windows:
while the brief, terrorizing five minutes of distraction on the train causes baffled travelers to shake their heads in wonder, and several victims are treated by the on-board nurse for the minor stings on their arms, this incident will not be merely anecdotal — you’re not going to believe what happened on the train ride — because one of the workers made good. All the stinging and bussing is a distraction. To fell the giant simply takes a single, Q-tip-sized queen that, during the melee, dropped down onto a shirt collar.
Ockert calmly describes the coming moments of the queen wasp’s “soft, unassuming, anesthetic bites,” which will deposit an egg sac in a woman’s ear canal. This is controlled, not detached, prose. There have been several fine novels in recent years that sketch the coming apocalypse, whether arriving by land or by air. The wasps make their mark in Wasp Box, but Ockert has some surprises in store for the reader in the novel’s final acts.
At 179 tight pages, Wasp Box is an argument for the short novel in the vein of The Burning House by Paul Lisicky and A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison. There’s not an ounce of bloat in this book. Ockert’s masterful usage of first person contributes to the story’s immediacy. Ockert suggests that the wasps’ agitation merely elevate the swarm that resides within all of us. By exercising control over his prose and his content — by making the focus of the book how Hudson’s search for independence pushes against his father’s desire to strengthen their relationship — Ockert manages to tall a narrow tale that pulses wide. Wasp Box is a measured documentation of destruction. In one scene representative of the novel’s tone, “Nolan has no way of knowing that three days ago a curious red fox was attacked by a small platoon of wasps that had advanced from the railroad,” nor did he know that the fox died beneath ripening grapes, or that one of the Mullen dogs had been rolling in the fox’s remains when itself was attacked. Ockert reveals how sometimes evil arrives not with a bang or a whimper, but with the calming buzz of the inevitable.