Portland author Julia Stoops started writing her debut novel Parts Per Million in 2002, when liberal America was trying in vain to keep President George W. Bush from going to war with Iraq. It's hard to recall now, after Occupy and Black Lives Matter and the Women's March and the March for our Lives, but 2002 made activism feel like a fool's errand. It seemed - to me, anyway, and to many of my friends - that the age of protest had passed, and that the people were powerless in the face of such relentless evil.
Parts Per Million is a kaleidoscopic novel composed of dozens of short chapters from the perspective of three activists in this time of little hope for activism. They're all compelling characters. Jen is an embittered computer hacker. Irving is a former soldier who dedicates his time to fighting the system he defended. John is optimistic but becoming exhausted that they're not making any progress. They record a radio show, but they're not sure anybody's really listening. They don't know if anything matters.
"The Marysville firebombing was the start," Ian warns us at the beginning of the book, "But what blew up in our faces that year was bigger than that blaze." The three activists find themselves at odds, serving as a kind of microcosm for the way progressives always tear themselves apart.
Parts Per Million is an ambitious first book: it's a thriller and a novel about a friendship in peril and it's a critique of protest culture and it's a love letter to those who are willing to earnestly fight for what they believe, even when it seems that everyone else has given up. (In case you were wondering where Stoops's loyalties lie, the book is dedicated to "environmental activists of every stripe," because "One day you will be considered heroes.") Fans of Edward Abbey's seminal The Monkeywrench Gang will enjoy the way Stoops rethinks and enlivens the concept for a new generation.
This Wednesday, April 11th, Stoops will read and take questions at Third Place Books Seward Park starting at 7 pm in the Seattle debut of her book. If you've ever felt helpless in the face of a giant, uncaring machine, you'll recognize something of yourself in Parts Per Million, and you'll likely find kindred spirits at the reading for the book.
Third Place Books Seward Park, 5041 Wilson Ave S, 474-2200, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.