S. Montana Katz
Guernica Editions, 2020
Side Effects: A Footloose Journey to the Apocalypse is a rollercoaster read through the Baby Boomer years, 60-80s, exploring the devil-may-care attitudes of a peculiarly quirky family. The narrator is the first-born daughter of that family, who offers a retrospective of past events.
The book captures a post-war optimism as a newly married couple from New York set out to travel the country by motorcycle for their honeymoon. When they reach California, they are seduced by the warm climate and intellectual counter-culture and vow to live there one day as political activists. A year later they have their first child and Side Effects is told as she traces her parents’ trajectory from California to New York to financial stability and happiness.
The novel examines the idealism and promise of the 1950s and 1960s while considering the effect of these decades years later. Katz is particularly interested in the novel products and technology that were supposed to make life easier, but were later proven to have dangerous side effects (hence the title) or very negative environmental consequences. TV dinners, plastic water bottles, tater tots, baby formula, and Agent Orange were rife with cancer-causing chemicals slowly poisoning bodies and the planet.
In an October 14, 2020 interview in The Berkshire Edge, Katz said, I “was really trying to understand both how and why we, as a global population, have arrived at this climate catastrophe situation when the devastation — if we look back, in hindsight — was preventable.”
Katz explores what allowed people to buy into the ideology of the good life and giving themselves permission to overconsume, to waste, to indulge the me-first ideology that lead to the current disaster
The 60s “was really the inversion of where we are now. There were jobs, people were building homes, building factories, building corporations. The expansion was seemingly endless; the sky was the limit. Out of the post-world war trauma came this exuberant sense of expansion…What people were doing in that era, having kids and building suburban tract homes, was creating this American Dream,” Katz says.
Her style is intimate, more suited to a memoir than a novel. The stream-of-consciousness narrative can be challenging to follow, but it trains you and then distracts you with the best kind of nostalgia, a cogent exploration of the politics of social justice and environmentalism.
These three decades had many successes, but also much hubris and dark moments, mirrored by the autistic narrator whose family history of terminal cancer could mean a childhood diagnosis. It is the story of a sickly girl growing up in a world that is poisoning itself.
The writing style is chaotic at times, but it did capture the feeling and energy of the era, and told a story that was compelling, particularly to those who recognize in the narrator’s vocabulary and speech patterns a uniquely autistic voice.
Montana Katz is a psychoanalyst who has also written Clytemnestra’s Last Day, a play (adapted from Clytemnestra’s Last Day by the same name), and books on psychoanalysis and gender bias.