Your world is just beginning to descend into turmoil, you see the signs and you want out. Visa for Avalon starts with two retirees, Lillian and her lodger Robinson, in a small country town, and but quickly changes when the government declares they are going to tear down Lillian’s house to build an expressway. They spend a day or so trying to figure out if there’s anything they can do, but when they realize they can’t they decide to emigrate to Avalon. There are only a few visas given each year, and the rest of the book takes place in the following week of political and civic turmoil as they travel to the City desperately hoping for those visas.
This novel fell out of print until 2004 when it was rescued from used-bookstore obscurity by Paris Press; and I first heard about this novel in Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. I also recently read The Handmaid’s Tale and it was fascinating to read that dystopia and then immediately read a different dystopia-in-progress. When the novel takes place, in an unnamed future in an unnamed country, you can see fanaticism taking root but it’s definitely not there yet. There are mobs and protests and crackdowns, but, for most citizens living in places outside The City, the status quo is relatively uninterrupted.
The interplay between rushing and waiting is a particularly effective aspect tension-builder. Bryher plays on everyday life and everyday stresses and fears (like being stuck in traffic) to generate that feeling of restlessness. Perhaps this worked so well on me because of my anxious nature, but I found myself reading faster and faster as the characters are kept on tenterhooks waiting for a visa, for traffic, for their departure time. “Waiting is a form of death, waiting is a form of death, Robinson repeated the sentence as if, like a child running downhill too fast, he could not stop himself.”
The prose is very interesting too. Some of the imagery might be a little much for some, but there are many small details of everyday life that I find very alluring. You get these snippets of how people interact with their environs. Not just their house or nature, but their offices, cars, traffic, technology, etc. Since you don’t get many big details of where the unnamed country is located, you get a lot of small atmospheric details. While you don’t know a lot about the specifics of The Movement, you know they are rebelling against technology. In these glimpses of everyday life, you don’t see any threatening machines, but you do see the prevalence of plastics and other trappings of modern production. Those kinds of details are really what draw me in.
A lot of the novel deals with the characters examining their life in the aftermath of making a very quick decision to emigrate to Avalon. They think of their attachments – to place, to people, to things – and reflect on their situation. They don’t know what their new lives are going to be like, they just decided to pick up and go. In their rush to get out of the country, there are periods of waiting wherein the characters are left with only their thoughts. Reading their internal reflections forces you to look to your own internal life. How quickly could you leave? Would you? What would you take? Who would you tell? I doubt I would do very well, and I doubt I would be able to handle the stress.