The Literature of Catastrophe

grew up in New Delhi and the suburbs outside Washington, DC, and now lives in Southwest Ohio with his wife and son. He works as a gardener at a teaching farm, and writes about food, plants, and the arts in their various wild and domesticated forms.

After London, or Wild England, Richard Jefferies (1885)
I’m with the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet (Verso, 2011)

In 1885, Richard Jefferies, the great British nature essayist, wrote After London, or Wild England, one of the founding works of collapse fiction. ‘The old men say,’ the book begins, ‘their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible.’

In Part I, there are no characters, only a description of the land returning to itself. Domesticated crops are overtaken by their wild brethren and trees move across the untenanted fields. When trunks are uprooted during storms, they sweep down rivers and batter the legs of the bridges, which fall one by one into the water.

This return to the natural order after centuries of human domination reads like the exhalation of a too-long-held breath. Only a few things remain from the old world: some books, pieces of glass, works of art. The abandoned cities of the Ancients are festering swamps that remain poisonous to almost all life. Maybe it is the chemicals that the Ancients used, the narrator suggests – but there is no implication that technology caused the collapse. There are, in fact, no implications of any kind.

This is one of the quietly extraordinary things about After London. What writer today could sweep civilisation away and resist providing an explanation? Jefferies, though, has no interest in mounting this soapbox. My guess, from reading a few of his other books, is that he is simply trying to get to a place where his imagination can work again. He must have looked at industrial London, as I look at parts of America, and thought: I may live here, but this is not my real home. It cannot be.

And so he writes himself to a place where his spirit can function again – a world where domesticated animals have wandered off and readjusted to a world without masters, and one of the country’s rivers has become so blocked with debris that a huge lake has spread across the centre of England. People begin to return, wilder now than the Ancients. Soon, the lake is filled with pirates. Around the shores are dense forests stalked by savage ‘Bushmen.’

This is the world of Part II. Set in something like the Middle Ages, it is a child’s world of adventure. After Part I (which everyone should read) and the extraordinary act of imagination needed to re-establish a wild world, Part II is simply – and I say this with some fondness – pulp. Young Felix attempts to find fame and fortune for his lady love, Aurora. There are archery contests, arrogant older brothers, dissipated kings – the usual.

Tellingly, after destroying the empire of the Ancients and creating a world of feudal states, Jefferies has his hero keep looking for ways to set up an empire of his own, planning for forts and new war machines that will allow him to rule the other fiefdoms. Eventually, one senses, the world of the Ancients will be re-created and begin accumulating weight for its own collapse.

Only one passage stayed with me from Part II. Aurora is arranging a performance of Antigone, which has survived the fall of the Ancients, and Jefferies describes the draw of the play:

In some indefinable manner the spirit of the ancient Greeks seemed to her in accord with the times, for men had or appeared to have so little control over their own lives that they might well imagine themselves overruled by destiny. Communication between one place and another was difficult, the division of society into castes, and the iron tyranny of arms, prevented the individual from making any progress in lifting himself out of the groove in which he was born, except by the rarest opportunity, unless specially favoured by fortune. As men were born so they lived; they could not advance, and when this is the case the idea of Fate is always predominant.

Fate: what kind of a literature do you create when you take it seriously? I am no scholar, but I don’t think it is a coincidence that the the novel rose to prominence along with industrial civilisation, when people felt their lives to be largely shaped by human forces and therefore responsive to acts of individual will. Jefferies himself doesn’t take his passage too seriously – when Felix feels trapped, he simply gets in a boat and sails off to new lands to make his fortune. He is almost entirely a free agent.

What kind of stories do you write, though, for a genuine world of fate, when people – even the ones with farsighted plans – are swept along tides too large to notice their struggling? I have started two collapse novels, awful ones, and failed to answer this question for myself. In search of guidance, I decided to read I’m with the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet, a new anthology made up primarily of such stories.

It is a disappointing collection, and most of the stories wouldn’t be worth writing about if there weren’t certain patterns to their failure. Bill McKibben, in his introduction, provides some hint of what’s going wrong: ‘These are the jolts we dearly need,’ he writes. ‘This is a serious business we’re involved in.’

Literature can certainly provide jolts – history is filled with books, good and bad, that have catalysed changes in policy and behaviour. To warn, though, you have to believe in the possibility that catastrophe will be averted – and you have to have faith enough in the public to make an appeal. Both of these attitudes tend to rob your vision of some of its reality. In Bears, I kept getting the sense that most of these authors, to paraphrase Charles Bowden, are not really living in the futures they write about.

Toby Litt’s story Newromancer depicts a world where kids must have secret raves because of energy rationing. It is tough to get the music loud enough without electricity for amplifiers, so the ravers must steal it. The challenge for young party-goers then becomes finding such a rave. Anyone who receives a jolt from this deeply pointless story must be delicate indeed.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s contribution – called, erroneously, ‘Sacred Space’ – describes four wealthy guys flying across the country to hike the Sierra Nevadas. They grill filet mignon, observe the consequences of the ongoing drought, and feel vaguely nervous about the future for their children. Robinson’s prose achieves, throughout, the emotional intensity of a vacation brochure: ‘Only the Sierras had all the qualities Troy deemed necessary for hiking, camping, scrambling, and contemplating mountain beauty.’

The characters discuss, at great length, how to classify the difficulty of various hikes. You soon realize that these mountains do not mean much to them – they are, like amplified music, a pleasant diversion that they are worried they might lose. Unsurprisingly, nothing much happens on their hike, and they return home to continue feeling anxious while living exactly as they did before. I sensed no conscious attempt at satire.

In Helen Simpson’s story, ‘Diary of an Interesting Year,’ at least a genuine collapse has occurred. It is 2040 and everyone is eating tinned food supplied by the government. When someone needs to deliver a baby, the diarist says, ‘All I remember from old films is that you’re supposed to boil a kettle.’ The baby dies, of course. After that, it takes only a few pages for our narrator to be kidnapped and turned into a sex slave.

Apparently no one has ever grown food, hunted, or learned much of anything in this world. How could you, after all, without an Internet connection? The piece does not strike me as an honest look at the future but a city person’s anxiety that the only thing on the other side of continuous electricity and nice crispy biscuits is complete chaos. (Note: one of my collapse novels was bad in precisely this way.) One also senses that Simpson doesn’t believe that any of this is going to happen. Notice the blandness of the title – ‘Diary of an Interesting Year.’ Would anyone who anticipated such a world choose that word?

Lydia Millet’s ‘Zoogoing’ – which, by the low standards of this anthology, is one of the best stories – describes a wealthy, melancholy man who breaks into zoos at night to see some of the world’s most endangered animals. He wonders about the species being lost in the wild – ‘how different could it be,’ he wonders, ‘when the death was a last death? … Did the world feel the loss?’ Lest we become too invested, though, soon after he thinks these thoughts, our hero becomes ‘so bored’ that he falls asleep, and wakes up (sadly) unharmed.

There is watered-down guilt of Millet’s variety, and then there is guilt that is much too grand. In Margaret Atwood’s ‘Time Capsule Found on a Dead Planet,’ the sorrow is tied to no particular place or actions, and posits another scenario so extreme (a lifeless planet, with a rather high-toned parable left in a canister for visiting aliens) that it feels intellectualised and entirely unreal. All of this is simply a way for comfortable people to give themselves a pat on the back for feeling bad – isn’t it sad, what we’ve done to the world? – and then move on, perhaps after signing an Internet petition.

You can make literature out of sorrow and you can make it out of terror. We should all feel sorrow for the life everywhere departing around us, and we should feel terror about the wave that is gathering over our heads. Such writing would be worthy of human beings. There is not much you can do, though, with the half-emotions and half-people that these authors are working with.

There are, of course, writers who believe wholeheartedly in the coming crisis. Strangely, though, their books and stories are not more engaging for this reason. Like James Howard Kunstler in World Made by Hand and several authors in Bears, a subtler problem enters the narratives: the desire to predict. So, in Bears, we find that gas will cost $800 a barrel and suicide pills will be handed out to the elderly; cities in the American Southwest will be abandoned, with camels for transport and water tunnels to prevent evaporation. Places X, Y, and Q will be underwater. And so on and so forth. In World Made By Hand, all I remember now are such details: in the Northeast, we’ll drink rose hip tea for Vitamin C, people will ride horses again, but there’ll be no more dogs kept as pets (no dog food factories, apparently).

This was the mark of my other bad collapse novel – most of my energy went into figuring out ‘what it would be like.’ Certainly this is something stories can do, but it is worth noting that there is often an inverse correlation between the quality of speculative literature and its predictive value. These books are written with what I would call the surface of the brain – that sense of plunging into a deeper world, the dreamlike wakefulness that has always marked real imaginative literature for me (and is, I think, its unique value) never seems to occur.

I floated along this surface while writing my own bad books, and I felt myself reading along this surface in the anthology. I thought intriguing or how intelligent but never the wordless sensation I get from actual art. Instead, I felt like I was gathering data which had been needlessly embedded in a narrative. To quote Ursula K. Le Guin, one of our great living writers, ‘extrapolation … is far too rationalist and simplistic to satisfy the imaginative mind, whether the writer’s or the reader’s.’

As I read through Bears, I kept wondering why the nobility and urgency of the cause – the proceeds from the book go to McKibben’s organisation – did nothing for the quality of the stories. Wouldn’t one expect authors with some ecological consciousness to produce more arresting work than writers of what D. H. Lawrence memorably called the ‘not-quite-dead past,’ for whom the really burning question of human existence is whether or not to cheat on your spouse? I was ready to end this review with a sweeping remark that the times are no longer suitable for prose fiction – that a world of fate is one where we return to older, less sedentary art forms: song and recited poetry and drama.

It is always silly, though, to set such limits. Instead, I would like to end this grouchy catalogue with my favorite story from Bears. It is about a woman walking through a post-collapse Italy. Yes, there are a few predictions, but there is no phony anxiety and no phony guilt. There is real sorrow, though, and for something specific – a lost language, the Ferrarese dialect, and all of the parts of the natural world that it named, like hares, which went extinct during the Crisis.

‘The ruins of a language are heart-wrenching,’ the narrator writes. ‘Every word that dies out is a house that gives up, sags and sinks, becomes buried in the sand.’

The story is called Arzèstula, the word in Ferrarese for a great tit (the bird). I don’t know how to summarise this piece – it is too strange, so much larger than the other stories. The narrator is going back to her hometown to engage in a ritual, a kind of contact with the distant future – not simple soothsaying, but a way to tell these worlds that we exist, and to hear from them in return. There is a sense of escaping the pettiness of the present and feeling our lives in relation to the cosmos. Throughout, there is a sense of events unfolding outside of human control.

The story is written by a member of Wu Ming, a name for a semi-anonymous collective of Italian writers. I was impressed, went searching for an interview, and found this quote from Mr. Wu Ming I:

The question is: are cautionary tales still useful? Or should we authors write stories that are already… post-cautionary? Stories that take the catastrophe for granted, and try to figure out how people could go on and live and find a new sense of community after the world we know has fallen down? That’s really what Arzèstula is about.

A post-cautionary tale. What a beautiful term! There, I thought, that’s what’s missing in the rest of the anthology. A post-cautionary world is one in which you’re no longer scaring people or trying to assuage your own guilt – you’re just trying to live in the world that’s coming and letting your imagination expand into it. Maybe the world will be enchanted or terrifying – fluttering flags at a jousting tournament or roaming death squads, whatever your spirit and sense of reality demand – but when you give up on warnings (which will go unheeded) and predictions (which will probably be wrong, and will accomplish very little if correct), you can, like Jefferies, start making art again.

  1. A wonderful cover from the early 20th century. Much more striking than the originals of the 1880’s.



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