Books

Chasing the Healing Power of Queer Love in “The Earthquake Room”

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The joy of Davey Davis’s debut speculative love story, the earthquake room, is the sense of horrible recognition it engenders. bea and k are a young lesbian couple living in a near-future Oakland, California, contending with how to love each other. In this future, not much has changed, except that climate change, fracking, and gentrification have left the city prone to frequent earthquakes and tremors. k can’t sleep because of the tremors, while bea spends hours watching earthquake footage on YouTube (her favorite is entitled “UNBELIEVABLE EARTHQUAKE FOOTAGE FROM INDONESIA”). Both grapple with what it means to be queer, in love, and monogamous. They manage to love and fuck and argue, not in spite of, not quite because of, the eternal natural disaster that is their home, a place that seems both otherworldly and supremely inevitable.

The semi-omniscient third-person narrator Davis has built is adept at mimicking the browsing consciousness we’ve adapted to. In the middle of bea confessing relationship worries to a friend, a headline in parentheticals makes an appearance (“OP-ED: AUSTERITY MEASURES ARE WHAT MADE AMERICA GREAT!”). bea and k’s daily goings-on are often punctuated with similar alarming headlines (“DNC REFUSES TO CONDEMN PRIVATIZATION OF THE MILITARY”), always jarring in how casually they are dropped into the narrative. Surely these were Onion stories, I thought, before flashing back to a Slate headline I had read in January: “President of Russia Defends Incoming U.S. President From Rumor That He Paid Prostitutes to Pee on Each Other.” Davis’s canny ability to mimic the way we consume information confronts the drollery of existing in surreal times.

Davis, 29, makes sure to note that they are a Taurus when I ask about their age. A writer and editor in Oakland who has written about masochism, queerness, and the internet for Mask Magazine and Real Life Mag, Davis was raised in an evangelical Christian family in Northern California, where they suffered floods and waited for the end times. “The end of the world was always just around the corner, but it was something we were supposed to want desperately,” they say. The earthquake room, named for the California Academy of Science’s earthquake simulation “The Shake House,” was written a year before Trump took office, but seems incredibly prescient. Davis explains this by saying the book “is about things many of us have always known and felt, but also about the fact that being accustomed to anxiety doesn’t make it any less scary.” Davis’s characters go about their lives as peacefully as they can, their concerns assimilating seamlessly into their lives, worrying becoming yet another task to be checked off. Their Oakland residents check a news outlet called the Seismic Update for reports of tremors the way we check Twitter for the latest Trump tirade.

The author is careful when speaking about an apocalyptic future. When I asked them to speak about the banality of disaster, they wrote back, “It seems to me that, for all of our anxiety around the future…I have not lived in a war zone, a detention facility, a refugee camp, or as a colonized person, so I don’t know if I can honestly speak to the banality of disaster as anything other than a spectator because at this point I am more or less still anticipating it, at least in the sense of being personally affected.” But the novel itself does deal with the anticipation of apocalypse. This drive to crave a single end, or “get it over with,” as Davis puts it later, is present in the way the tremors affect bea and k.

bea and k hail from vastly different backgrounds. bea is cis and straightlaced, seemingly a stranger to polyamory and Oakland’s queer scene. “she’s kind of like a shy shane,” bea’s best hetero friend says of k the first time they meet, in an amazingly dated reference to The L Word. She was a geology major in college and now works a desk job at a nonprofit. k, on the other hand, ran away from home at sixteen and hustled as she became enmeshed in Oakland’s queer community, living for a time as a trans man. She met her best friend, an Oakland native trans woman named Glory, when “they were both trying to be boys.” She now pedals herself raw as a bike messenger for an Uber Eats–style company. bea and k cope through different means. bea is a planner, carefully studying footage of earthquakes, especially the moments before disaster. k, a doer, unwittingly fixates on a single herpes sore she accidentally passed on to bea, drifting away from the relationship as she plots to obtain a sore of her own on the internet. “the point is parity, not practicality,” k notes, explaining why it can’t be self-inflicted.

k in particular is compellingly feral, not at home in her body (she considers transition several times) or her relationship. Davis is an observant and meticulous writer, and their insights into k’s psyche cut because they expose k’s self-doubt so precisely. In describing k’s dysphoria, Davis writes, “food disappears rather than becomes digested. her eyelids close over nothing, opening and summoning back sight in a dark creation. there is no birth in it, no joy, only a strange occult surprise (now i see).” Their writing is both surgical and mystical, if at times cerebral, a perfect fit for the unknown dimension where k’s and bea’s insecurities lie.

These anxieties lead k to advertise on Craigslist (“female bugchaser. i want herpes in a certain place and NOTHING else!”), where Davis’s talent is put to use in comically depressing observations about exchanging intimacy online. k’s chosen partner is a man she’s instantly suspicious of: “such a normal email. too normal. anyone who bothers to project a veneer of normalcy in the pursuit of such perversion must be seriously sick.” In a way he is, as he forces her to act out a seemingly benign heterosexism. The moment k has been hungering for becomes the moment in which she must confront her self-destruction, escaping through through a seismic event the novel initially presents as The Big One, but what really might be a manifestation of k’s breakthrough. In general, Davis is at their best writing on the intricacies of sex and desire, but here, with k’s manic need to act hurtling her toward danger, their precision acts as a time bomb.

Throughout the novel, a phrase her friend had tacked up at one of his parties, “Queer love is healing,” haunts k, coming back to either her or the narrator’s mind when recounting moments of heartbreak and loneliness. When k escapes from her Craigslist encounter, she runs straight into the arms of bea and Glory, who set out to find k after receiving a troubling phone call from her. The scene itself seems like a giant exhale: “k calls to them, almost dropping her phone as she pushes it back in her pocket, and they turn together (two heads of Cerberus, conjoined at the heart), both seeing k in the same instant. they run to her and throw their arms around her in a single movement.” Perhaps queer love is not just about fucking or being monogamous, or being non-monogamous, but about showing up when the world seems to be ending.

The earthquake room, at its close, reveals itself to be less about The End than the possibility of multiple ends. The existence of The Big One that may or may not hit Oakland doesn’t matter. The earthquake room offers up any number of situations that might be perilous, but it also offers up many young, queer characters who survive regardless. Historically, queer love has been met with hostility. Members of the LGBT community have been targeted by state and structural violence, from concentration camps to the AIDS crisis (the former, unfortunately, not a thing of the past). When the world opens up to swallow bea and k, it also reveals new possibilities. “As dark as it can be, I wouldn’t have written this book if I thought things were hopeless,” Davis says. “I don’t think we can have a better world if we can’t imagine it first, and I’d like to think that [the book’s] ending leaves an opening for that.”

the earthquake room
By Davey Davis
TigerBee Press
204 pp.

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