Act of Story Statement
In a world ravaged by an invisible malevolence that defies human comprehension—called The Shrewdness—anyone who gets farther away than ten feet from another person vanishes permanently. Against an unforgiving backdrop where “safety in numbers” is a matter of life or death, Maya and her partner Roger—official “testimony takers”— must race against a clever, charismatic villain who’s using the Shrewdness as supernatural cover for his own depraved agenda. Some people aren’t ever coming back; The Shrewdness took them. But Maya will stop at nothing to return the people who it’s not too late to rescue—the people who are still here—to get them back from a flesh-and-blood adversary and return them to their families.
One of the two primary antagonists in the story is the eponymous Shrewdness—an invisible malevolence that has changed the rules of human existence forever. The Shrewdness befell humanity two years ago as an apocalyptic event and creates obstacles in daily life for all remaining survivors; everyone worldwide has had to re-imagine their habitats and redesign the planet to accommodate the new rules that The Shrewdness requires they obey. Even though The Shrewdness is invisible and unknowable, it defines and constrains existence for our heroes. And although most people have adapted to the new rules of the post-apocalyptic environment, The Shrewdness is an antagonistic force that defines the backdrop.
The other antagonist—Maya’s chief adversary and the villain who drives a lot of the action—is “Big Joe” or Josef Mantinelli—a popular and charismatic TV personality who trades in “self-help” and motivational speaking. Because this book is partially a whodunit, Big Joe is not presented as an antagonist upfront, rather as a character in a pool of potential suspects. The reader knows Big Joe as an unsavory opportunist who employs inspirational jargon and psycho-babble to sound wise, thoughtful, authentic and helpful. In the initial wake of The Shrewdness’s effect on human existence, he was one of thousands of hucksters playing on people’s feelings of hopelessness and search for meaning in the face of an incomprehensible, life-changing event. At first appearing as nothing more than a run-of-the-mill unsavory grifter—slick but not deadly—as Willa chases clues to unmask the villain who has been abducting people and preying on the weak, Big Joe is ultimately revealed to be a dangerous psychopath, intensely competent, intelligent, and incapable of remorse.
Another antagonist is Maya's boss who repeatedly seeks to diminish and put an end to her investigation into the disappearances that cannot be attributed to The Shrewdness. Her boss doesn't believe her, thinks she's "crazy" and obsessed, and wants her to stay focused on her official business as a Testimony Taker.
A Ghost Did Come
A suspenseful procedural mystery wrapped in a dystopian thriller, The Shrewdness delivers an action-packed story that also explores timely themes with upmarket literary flourish. Muscular, meditative prose delivers juicy plot momentum while also exploring big questions like: What might our world look like if individualism and the cult of ‘me’ was removed by brute invisible force and community became the new paradigm—our survival intertwined, our relationships symbiotic and interdependent? What if humanity learned to thrive, despite insurmountable odds, on a planet now designed for groups to succeed together, rather than a place built for individuals to assert dominance over one another?
For comparables—think the post-apocalyptic desolation and dystopian narrative style of The Leftovers and Station Eleven meets the hardboiled detective dynamic and whodunit clue-chasing of Tana French’s Dublin Murders series.
The Shrewdness by Amy Federman
Two years after an incomprehensible malevolence known as The Shrewdness has ravaged the globe, a government-dispatched “testimony taker” uncovers a troubling mystery and must race against a charismatic villain to rescue survivors from his hidden compound.
Our hero, Maya, and her partner Roger are “Testimony Takers” and their task is administrative: They (and their other regional counterparts across the country) must create and preserve a record of all the souls lost to The Shrewdness for posterity. Maya is the Witness and Roger the Watcher. Together, with their Cluster, they travel around their assigned region in the greater Philadelphia area, interviewing survivors about their disappeared loved ones. When Willa uncovers a troubling mystery, a pattern in the testimonies that points to somebody wicked—a fellow human—using The Shrewdness as supernatural cover to abduct people, she’s told to let it go, that chasing hunches is not under her purview; “stay in your lane” is the clear message from the higher-ups. But it’s not in Maya’s nature to let well enough alone; she’s persistent. Dogged and determined to recover the people she knows in her heart are still with us on this earthly plane (unlike the millions who have been permanently vanished by The Shrewdness), Maya must navigate the ongoing conflict between what she knows is right and her orders from above. As her investigation continues, and her pursuit becomes obsessive, she alienates her bosses and even comes close to losing the trust of her closest confidant and ally, Roger. She’s already lost so much; can she solve the mystery without losing everyone she loves along the way?
Another conflict Maya experiences repeatedly is her intense desire to solve people’s pain; she is so empathetic, she can tend to over-relate to interview subjects, taking on and absorbing their grief, which compounds her own turmoil over the loss of her husband to The Shrewdness two years ago. But she’s powerless to do anything except listen, hold space, and record the memories. The deep powerlessness she feels in the face of these testimonies informs her obsession with tracking down the villain. Maya knows most people are never coming back; they’re gone forever. But the idea that some people who are believed to be casualties of The Shrewdness might still be with us on Earth, captured by a human villain, not a supernatural force—the idea that she might be able to save someone, anyone, and return them to their loved ones—consumes her and fuels her increasingly erratic and obsessive quest.
There is ongoing conflict between the tough post-apocalyptic environment and our heroes; life in this world is not easy. Maya, Roger, and the three attendants in their Cluster—Jess, Max, and Graham—must constantly make accommodations to survive. As long as they follow the rules and stick together, they can stay alive—but sometimes even the best laid plans can lead to heartbreak. This comes to full and tragic life towards the end of Act II when a dramatic life-or-death run-in with the Big Bad of the story results in the suspenseful and gut-wrenching loss of a beloved member of the Cluster.
Now, two years after the disappearances began, humans are tethered together, solitude has become obsolete, and everyone must travel, live, and work in Clusters of at least three in order to survive. But life beats on persistently; unlike in some other apocalyptic conceits, this landscape echoes the environ that existed before the world-altering event. Similar to the reality we’ve been living in over the past year—where everything is different in some ways, yet eerily the same in others—in this world, the setting maintains a veneer of normalcy even though everything is irreparably distorted, and life-changing rules must be followed in order to survive.
There is immersive world-building throughout the novel wherein entire cities, towns, commerce, public transportation, hotels, inns, and restaurants have been retro-fitted or re-designed entirely to adapt to the new rules. Distance markers everywhere to show ten feet. A cottage industry of hired companions, guards, sherpas has emerged rapidly to meet the most urgent demand in the new economy: the need for other human beings (solitude = death). Due to the preponderance of deadly conspiracy theories and misinformation in the aftermath of the initial appearance of The Shrewdness, the internet is heavily regulated by the government and almost all social media apps have either disappeared or have been altered to the point of being unrecognizable. There is basic messaging and photo sharing but the types of information that can be shared is closely monitored and often censored.
The rules of this world
"About a week after the first harrowing details trickled into our consciousness—a violent rupture annihilating our shared understanding of what it means to exist on this planet—we’d already reached a global consensus of what the new rules were: the rules this vague malevolence now demanded we obey in order to survive.
The first rule, and the most important, is: “Past ten feet, you’re dead meat.”
This is the most quoted and widely used rhyming summary of the supreme rule of our shared affliction; it’s been repeated and hammered into our heads—children and adults alike—and has now been tattooed on people’s skin, printed on t-shirts, and spray-painted on walls across the world in many languages. The rhyme is far too cutesy for what it describes: the fact that if you get more than ten feet away from another human being, you disappear forever. It happens abruptly, with swift finality. Your clothes go with you. Shoes, too. But anything you’re holding in your hands—a bag, or ball, or pen, or toy—remains in the place where you stood a moment ago. It becomes your grave marker, a grotesquely banal stand-in for the full and complete life you lived.
Some people believe the actual limit is a little bit further than ten feet, somewhere between ten and eleven feet, but to risk it is madness; ten feet is universally understood as the hard limit (and Roger and I observe it with militance).
The popularity of this particular rhyme has always struck me as twisted—not only because of its almost lighthearted tone—but also because becoming “dead meat” would be preferable; it would be more tangible and more comprehensible than the spookiness of ceasing to exist altogether. I wish so badly that the Shrewdness did leave us our corporeal forms. We could bury the bodies of those we’ve lost; we could be sure they were laid to rest. Instead, we are left with next to nothing.
To compensate, it’s very common for people to construct makeshift memorials in the very spots in which their loved ones vanished. Often they’ll use the object the now-gone person left behind as the centerpiece of the altar: their purse, their water bottle, the book they were reading, an envelope they were heading off to mail. These meager piles, built around some devastating commonplace trinket, are further adorned with pictures of the departed, little tokens and gifts, and bottles of their favorite drink or packages of their favorite chips. They’re not a substitute for graves, but for many they’re the next best thing, and they litter the landscape everywhere you go. Sometimes you will have to walk around, or step over, hundreds in single walk down a long city street.
These shrines to the departed are meager offerings, insufficient homages to human life; they make me sad—but in a bittersweet way because they are also beautiful. And they are widely cherished, visited, and cared for by mourners. Sometimes Roger and I will stop and observe these tributes, really taking them in and reading the notes people’s loved ones have left them, letting the heaviness creep down my spine, and nest into my stomach. But most days, I walk right past them. There are simply too many to look at them all. And, besides, I’m doing my part to keep people’s memories alive (in my own way); I do believe there is some nobility in taking testimonies.
The second rule is: Humans only.
You can’t use animals as a buffer against the Phenomenon. Early on, some people thought they could simply remain within ten feet of their dog or their chickens or their flock of sheep or their many cats to keep safe. Nope. For whatever reason, animals don’t protect humans from being vanished into the void. Non-human living things aren’t subject to the same rules at all; they’ve been spared entirely from this grim whim of fate. If, say, a zebra or a bear wants to take a solo sojourn more than ten feet away from its brethren, it is more than free to do so. We’re not so lucky; we’re stuck with other humans in maddening perpetuity.
The third rule is: Two won’t do.
This is also called acerbically, "the new rule of three’s," a reference to the rule of three’s in comedy; it’s a dark twist on that idea because it’s not funny at all. Sometimes, people who are old enough to remember sitcoms from early eighties also call this the “Three’s Company” rule, a reference to a long-forgotten TV comedy by the same name.
This rule piggybacks on the premise of rule one, which essentially boils down to: “Solitude = death.” Because solitude equals death, humans must live, travel, and generally exist in Clusters of at least three people.
Trying to survive in pairs or duos is too risky because if one of you breaks off or gets out of range for some reason, you’re both screwed. After the first wave of disappearances, people adjusted their behavior in observance of rule one but didn’t change their behavior enough, because many only had one companion to prevent deathly solitude. This caused a tragic “second wave” of people lost to the Shrewdness. Now, it’s established and universally understood that you always need three people, at a minimum, so there’s a buffer against unforeseen tragedy. But three people is still too few for my comfort. That’s why I’m relieved that the ministry recommends five-person clusters as a default for Testimony trips: A witness, a Watcher, and three attendants. Strength in numbers is the name of the game."
In most places, things are seemingly still the same, just askew, slightly distorted. Commerce still hums in the larger towns and in the cities. Trains honk and choo across the landscape. Planes fly overhead and dogs bark and people wave to one another as they walk down the streets in their clusters. But then there are places, smaller towns, more remote, that are frozen in time—stuck in an eerie tableau.
In one ghost town, we came across an abandoned house in the woods still festooned with Christmas decorations—dangling lights and a half inflated blow-up Rudolph acting as sentinels, guarding its empty ramshackle. You could sense it was uninhabited even before entering. It was hollow and lush with hushed overgrowth. Whoever lived there must have been lazy that year about removing the baubles, allowing the pageantry to linger through early spring, never suspecting the doe-eyed reindeer and twinkling lights to become the décor of their tomb, a shrine to the life they lived in these woods.
Disturbing the scene had a pall of sacrilege, but we did it anyway, checking to see if any people remained. Rustling through the brush, we knocked on the rusted door, and shouted “Hello? Anyone home?” knowing the futility as we bellowed, feeling the dearth of humanity in our skin and the hair on our neck and being answered only by the breeze passing through the trees overhead. We waited too long on the stoop, the tarnished brass knocker blocking our entry. Eventually, we nodded wordlessly at each other and left, leaving the dilapidated gravesite behind.
The country town we’re in today also feels that way, discarded, left behind."