It is a truism that certain aspects of life in present-tense America are best understood by reading Charles Dickens. Pick up Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey & Son or any of his other novels: they all vividly depict the effects of extreme income inequality and the sickness of an overly stratified society in which the rich reap the rewards of empire while the poor live physically miserable lives. Alternatively, care to know what life might be like in a western society without electricity, or modern conveniences and medicine? Read Dickens and understand that, while love and friendship can be found under even dire conditions, without the material benefits of fossil fuels life will not be as lovely as some utopians would like to believe. Death abounds.
Dickens inhabited a pre-peak-everything world. For him, heir to the Romantics, nature in all its parts was an inexhaustible matrix from which life—and his novels—emerged. In his fully realized fictional world, all those descriptive bits that high school students yawn over when forced to read, say, Great Expectations, are completely integral. For how else would one get such a sense of people existing completely within nature—out walking or riding in heat and cold, in snow, wind, rain, a balmy spring morning, under trees and among flowers; and how else would Dickens be able to use weather and landscape as outward expressions of his themes and his characters’ emotional lives? In his novels, nature is eternal, abundant and taken for granted, the world still large enough to contain humankind and all our sins, our cruelties, our wastefulness, and our glories, to little deleterious effect.
However dystopian, Dickens’ was a society on the way up, in which the full effects of the tech/fossil fuel revolution were yet to be realized. We moderns, on the other hand, are living on the downslope, learning to our sorrow that, keep pushing nature’s limits too far and dire consequences inevitably accrue. The times are out of joint—ours is an uneasy age, haunted by memories, in many cases not our own but told to us, of “before,” when there was still a "freshness deep down things,” earth systems had not yet had to adapt to our manifold excesses, and whatever trashing we did could easily heal. Nature may still be vast, but no longer is there a sense that it forms an abiding cradle for human civilization.
Two Novels Worth Reading
There’s no shortage of modern writers who are exploring our modern dystopia by, as someone has put it in a different context, “remembering forward.” Recently, I happened to read two such novels back to back, both quite fine and both illustrative of that something in the zeitgeist that makes our grinding apocalypse worth writing about. Neither is a techy, sci fi, plot-driven novel such as those of William Gibson or Paolo Bacigalupi, nor are they fully akin to sociological horror stories such as 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale. They are less didactic than World Made by Hand or The Road.
Arcadia (Voice, 2012), by young, prize-winning author Lauren Groff, tells the story of a boy, Bit, who grows up in a commune in up state New York; the book carries him forward into manhood through the the year 2018 as climate disruption and disease carry on their insistent dialogue but haven’t yet shouted down our civilization. The Dog Stars (Knopf, 2012), by prizewinning, adventurer/environmental journalist Peter Heller, is set nine years after full collapse. Nearly everyone has died of a swift disease and the western landscape the protagonist Hig loves is ravaged by heat and drought, whose effects on local flora and fauna are thoughtfully, plausibly described (mountain streams too warm for trout, for example).
These are sister and brother novels, chiming, rhyming novels– down to the protagonist’s names—full of differences, yet clearly kin. It is as though some workshop writing assignment filtered through the invisible connections that form our distinctive cultural-historical moment: write a story in which the protagonist searches for love and meaning in a fallen world, set it in the United States, give it a lyrical, poetic tone full of nostalgia, and end with hope. These novels are what two of the brightest students came up with.
Both novels feature peace-loving, thoughtful men who have lost their wives and ultimately find love with women who happen to be doctors (symbolic embodiments of the healing fact and process of love itself). Both include as significant secondary elements groups belonging to small, “old-timey” Christian groups—Mennonites and Amish– that demonstrate the persistence and hope of faith-based community (which I, a Quaker, find somewhat amusing, seeing it from the inside out, as it were). Both are beautifully written, using rich, allusive, metaphorical language that illuminates our human predicament in ways that much non-fiction, whether historical-analytical or journalistic, simply doesn’t. They are neither bound by “facts”, nor the conventions of style that emphasizes their “factualness.” Nor are they bound by the dictates of argument and rhetoric, free to present their views in a rich, complex way that illustrates and reflects rather than defines and explains.
Arcadia: A Bildungsroman
Arcadia treats time was and time is in a straightforward chronological manner, told in the present tense. The first half of the book is gorgeously written, compulsively readable, the story of before, Bit’s childhood in a commune called Arcadia in upstate New York on property where another idealistic experiment in utopian living had been tried and ultimately failed. The book is steeped in fairy tale and nature: Bit finds an old copy of Grimm’s terrible fairytales that he teaches himself to read, and promptly falls under a “spell” himself. The woods surrounding Arcadia combine beauty and magic in a way very real to a child: “… Out of nowhere a doll’s-eye plant with great white eyeballs watches him. Through a hole in the trunk of one tree he sees a whole and early moon and it reminds him of a pie. But when he looks closer, he sees the face embedded there. Why has no one ever told him that the man in the moon is shouting in alarm?”
Though really, almost anyone alone in a wood, especially after dark, will feel that sense of sheer otherness and mystery brought on by immersion in a non-human landscape in which beautiful and terrible things could potentially happen. In those enchanted woods, Bit, lost, meets an old woman with a white dog who morphs from witch to very mortal friend and keeper of memories of the place, yet still fulfills the archetype of the old woman living in a cottage in the woods, comfortable with the mysteries that others might fear. Other things happen that blur the borders between a child’s imagination and reality.
Later the scene shifts to Bit’s life in New York, the story of his love for and loss of his troubled wife and his relationship with his daughter. This is where the novel, fine as it is, could have stretched out a bit. Groff is not concise—her gifts are, like Dickens’, those of prolixity—of vocabulary, setting and character. For full development of the many characters, in particular, the doctor and for a full evocation of Bit’s modern life, Groff could have expanded, giving her gifts full rein.
At one point, Bit tells his father that he lives in the city because that is where he can find the sense of community that he knew within the commune. Yet when he returns to the disenchanted land that was Arcadia, to the house his father built in the woods, where his mother is dying, the landscape comes alive again in a way that the city streets haven’t—and he, himself, at last reawakens, spell-free. At the end, about to return to the city, he sits under a tree in the sweet afternoon air: “peace, he knows can be shattered in a million variations…there’s no use in anticipating the mode. He will wait for the hushed spaces in life…” Ultimately he will leave the city and come back to this place that is home.
The Dog Stars: An Adventure Yarn
If Arcadia is expansive, The Dog Stars is concentrated. The time present is about nine years after the final deadly, flu-like disease, almost as if it’s a continuation of the trajectory begun in Arcadia. Bit and his daughter could even be holed up in their inherited house at Arcadia while Hig’s story plays out in Colorado in one of those suburbs with an airport for owners of small planes. He somehow didn’t die, and made it there where he had done his flying in the time before.
There are few characters, the time is limited to a few months, and the syntax is spare, full of fragmented sentences, one-line paragraphs, narrative gaps and time shifts so that memory blends with the present. And, too, it is a tougher, “manlier” book than Arcadia, in which violence plays its part. Hemingway lurks in the background. Hig thoroughly understands hunting and fishing, a dog is his closest companion and he knows his way around all kinds of mechanics, including the 1956 Cessna which carries the plot; and two other men, ex-military, are expert in the ways of defensive survival. But Hig isn’t of their ilk. He only kills the animals he hunts out of necessity, he likes to cook, he keeps the garden, and poetry laces itself through his thoughts and observations.
The book is full of homely descriptions of the everyday life that is sometimes possible among the wreckage—everyday life that persists, for no matter what happens, we live in a landscape, we must eat, we seek companionship. Early in the book, Hig cooks up some catfish, dandelion salad and potatoes on a woodstove, remembering how he has salvaged wood and olive oil from the suburb’s empty houses, and verbally sparring with the expert marksman with whom he shares this domain, who teases him about his evident enjoyment of cooking and the fact that he is singing as he works. These descriptions are as moving, for similar reasons, as when Sam cooks a meal of rabbit and herbs in Ithilion amid great danger and loneliness. Later, when Hig ruminates, “…same as yesterday standing in the garden. It caught me sometimes: that this was ok, just this. That simple beauty was still bearable barely, and that if I lived moment to moment, garden to stove to the simple act of flying, I could have peace,” Heller has earned the right to these sentiments through his attention to physical detail.
We Need Our Stories
One reason we read, and need, fiction is to understand how and why we are living now while imagining our way forward. One source of power for both these books is their verisimilitude: both are earthbound, not relying on extreme extrapolation of technology or social trends, but instead offering an almost old-fashioned focus on character. Both, centered on landscape, the meaning of place, and the protagonist’s emotional development as he moves through space and time, paint a familiar, still beautiful country. Colorado and upstate New York are home territory for the authors, and it shows in the knowledge they bring to bear. Particularly if you have lived into and love your own ecological place, both novels will ring true. They contain aspects, whether oblique or overt, of what we are all experiencing/remembering forward now, in real time around the world: displaced seasons, our droughts, floods, fires, and crop failures. And it’s personal, whether for a homesteader I know of in Australia, a friend in the UK, relatives on the East Coast or here in my own Chicago region, pinned between drought to the west and a shrinking lake to the east. We carry on living our lives as “normally” as possible while the ecosystems in which we live keep shifting dynamically, losing equilibrium: this forms an entry point into both novels, an imaginative treatment of what is now a very real circumstance in our own lives.
Neither book says “global warming.” Neither book says “biodiversity loss.” Neither book much exaggerates in terms of climate and disease. Even Hig’s adventures are plausible—though way beyond most people’s experience, they are matched by the exploits of modern-day soldiers or adventurers, as footage from any BBC or National Geographic nature documentary will testify. Both books take for granted that our society won’t take action soon enough or drastically enough to make a difference and they cut close enough to how things are right now to make this believable—and in fact it is the most believable scenario, judging by how most complex societies have reacted to such existential challenges in the past. Though one hopes otherwise.
In a way, both are sentimental novels, as Dickens was sentimental, and both validate the hard-won bonds of affection. Both carry the message that Dickens and many other storytellers put forth, that ultimately we endure because of these bonds, this capacity for love and the manifestation of human virtue in caring for one another despite manifold obstacles. In a kind of reverse, Hig and Bit, like Sleeping Beauty, are each awakened by a kiss, these seekers who have been painfully aware they’ve been asleep, even imprisoned in sorrow. It is this personalizing that particularizes the bigger story we are all living. By looking clearly at what we are at risk of losing, both books catch those feelings so many people, the ones who are perhaps at present most awake, walk around with today: grief, loss, nostalgia, anxiety about what is to come. Both writers are sending true dreams back from the future that is now, even if it hasn’t happened yet, treating the future as the stuff of memory.