Climate change is here. Trees are dead and dying, insects and songbirds are disappearing, wildlife has declined by 60 percent, glaciers worldwide are melting and ice sheets are collapsing, and weather patterns are shifting.
What will our future look like? How fast and for how long will things change? Are we mentally and physically prepared to deal with the impacts of these changes on our communities and socioeconomic structures?
In 2017, David Wallace-Wells wrote an article for New York magazine called “The Uninhabitable Earth.” He outlined the absolute worst-case scenario for climate change problems across the globe, including forest loss, sea level rise, changes in ocean currents, species loss, and more. At the time, he was vilified for overstating his case and misrepresenting the science—which he didn’t—though others argued that he had started an important conversation needed to avoid climate disaster.
Since Wallace-Wells was writing for a public audience, many people—readers unlikely to pick up a scientific journal—got his message, and they took it to heart.
Scientists themselves are also addressing the “what will happen” and “are we prepared” questions from a different angle: scenario development. They have teamed up with social scientists to derive plausible future scenarios based on both predictions of physical earth parameters (e.g., temperature, precipitation, biodiversity, wildlife, human populations), and how social scientists and humanities researchers think society will respond to those changes (e.g., economic, migration, political). In an interview with the LA Review of Books, seismologist Lucy Jones notes that the key question facing a post-disaster society is whether humans band together in communities to help each other or look out for themselves at the expense of others.
We don’t need more data to prove that climate change is a problem. Instead, we need to show people what life will look like under current and future climate-change conditions, and to share ideas about how to mitigate those conditions. We know that people are more likely to absorb information from stories than from data and lectures. Thus, like scientists collaborating with social scientists, authors of post-apocalyptic literature also apply scenarios to create analogues for our potential future, in the same way that George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are used as analogues for the current political climate.
Post-apocalyptic novels such as Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Eric Barnes’s The City Where We Once Lived, Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, and Sherri L. Smith’s Orleans could potentially prepare us for a future following either ecological and social collapse and/or a global pandemic. But how well do these books portray that future, and is that future realistic enough to engage readers after they’ve finished reading, to persuade them do something about adapting to and reducing the severity of climate change?
1. The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
This 2000 classic depicts California in the mid-2020s, where rain occurs only once every six years, and the country is falling apart both economically and socially. Residents live in walled and gated communities to protect themselves from the outside world, but protagonist Lauren knows they won’t be safe forever. As she teaches herself survival skills and caches an emergency bag, she is also pulling together her thoughts on a new philosophy of life called Earthseed. When her neighborhood is breached and her family is killed, she escapes with two of her neighbors to join the hundreds of people walking north on the main highways. Despite the dangers (drug addicts, thieves, slavers, etc.), Lauren gathers a group of trusted people with her as she walks, and shares Earthseed with them.
While the dangers of the post-apocalyptic world are clear, this is ultimately a hopeful book. Lauren has hope in humanity, which is why she connects with people on the road, helping them instead of isolating herself from them. However, Lauren is also a realist, and she and her group protect their own as necessary. The key is in deciding who is a threat and who might be an asset. Their group represents a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, giving them strength in numbers. The ideas of Earthseed also bring these travelers together and help them build a community they might not have otherwise.
2. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
This allegorical tale doesn’t necessarily give us a practical understanding of how to exist in a future world, but instead provides multiple thought experiments for readers to consider how they might behave in a similar situation.
Like Homer’s Odyssey, The Road follows a man and his son on their travels. Except they’re not traveling by ship, but by foot towards the coast, across a devastated, dead landscape that is permanently cold and either raining or snowing ash. It isn’t clear if theirs is a world stripped by nuclear winter, volcanic eruptions, or constant wildfires.
The world of The Road wasn’t made for children. In their travels, the child and his father meet characters who challenge their pre-apocalypse morals and values, and graphically illustrate to the boy what is required to survive. He finds it difficult to make sense of a world in which his father says there are good people out there, while also ignoring or killing the people they meet.
The father often returns to his memories, which is how readers learn his wife killed herself because she couldn’t bear this life anymore. This memory—plus other events—make the reader reconsider what makes life worth living. “[The father] thought about his life but there was no life to think about…”
Why do they keep walking in such a dead world? How do you raise a child in such a world? What lessons is the father teaching his son—not just with his words, but by his very actions? What morals and values will you have to change or set aside to survive in such a world?
3. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
Hig is a small-engine pilot and Bangley is a munitions expert. They live in an abandoned airport that they’ve set up to defend from marauders. The world has been emptied of people by a flu pandemic, followed by a blood disease that kills most people and leaves those who survive in quarantine. Climate change is also a problem, with minimal winter snow pack, low summer streamflows, hot summers, and animal extinctions.
Hig and Bangley represent opposite sides of a community: Hig is more likely to talk to a stranger and try to build a relationship, while Bangley is more likely to shoot first, as he believes it’s every man for himself. As Higs says, “Follow Bangley’s belief to its end and you get a ringing solitude. Everybody out for themselves, even to dealing death, and you come to complete aloneness.”
Following the death of his dog, Hig finds himself increasingly lonely and decides to fly to the last airport from which he heard a transmission several years ago. On his way there, he discovers a woman, Cima, and her father living off the land in a box canyon far from the main roads. Here the book takes on an Edenic tone: the one man on earth finds the one woman on earth and they get together.
Like The Road, The Dog Stars asks hard questions about what you need to do to stay alive, and about what is enough to keep a person content and happy. How do you justify killing people who had planned to attack you first? How do you engage with a community of people under quarantine instead of avoiding them as most people would? How do you reconcile the memories of your previous life with this entirely different, unexpected and unplanned life? It suggests that in a post-apocalyptic world, you take what you can get or go without.
4. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven is rich in the connections it makes between far-flung people and their past and present lives. The narrative switches between the present—20 years after the Georgia flu has wiped most of the population off the Earth—and the past, in the years prior to the flu outbreak. It centers on a group called The Symphony, a travelling caravan that brings music and Shakespearean theatre to the many communities that have sprung up around the Great Lakes in the wake of the pandemic.
In the present, the world has largely returned to a peaceful state. There are small settlements in places where people decided to stop walking and make homes. People hunt, grow gardens, and make their own bread. Life has not returned to what it was, but to something that most people can manage. In this case, community rather than individuality is the key for survival.
Station Eleven offers tips for dealing with the aftermath of an apocalypse. Stay put for some time before you start moving, to allow for some of the violence to die down. Move out of urban areas and into rural areas where it’s easier to hunt and grow food. Connect with like-minded people and settle in groups. Parse out work so everyone has a task and things get done. Most of all, have compassion for other people. Remember that everyone has their own set of haunting memories. As one of the characters says, “…doesn’t it seem to you that the people who have the hardest time in this—this current era…the world after the Georgia Flu—doesn’t it seem like the people who struggle the most with it are the people who remember the old world clearly?…The more you remember, the more you’ve lost.”
5. The City Where We Once Lived by Eric Barnes
This book is somewhat allegorical—the characters have no names, and are instead defined by their occupation: the writer, the gardener, the minister, the scavengers, the pressman, etc. They live in the North end of a city that has been largely cut off from the South—it was the southerners who decided to separate from the North, which they saw as dangerous and broken. Rather than see the value in the community the North has created, a political commissioner says “it is places like this and people like you that distract us from the work we should really be doing. The support of good people and good places, that’s what we should be providing.”
This narrative represents an example of community over individuality: For the several hundred people living in the North, there is no violence, looting, or stealing. The North has a sense of calm, quiet order. People take what they need where they can find it and leave the rest in its place. The irony is that people in the South imagine the North is a lawless place where violence is rampant and survival difficult. But readers are still faced with tough questions. What is your “capacity for violence?” How do you keep living in a city where all your family has died? How do you motivate yourself to get up every day and have a purpose?
6. Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
In Gold Fame Citrus, climate change has reduced western water supplies to a few small reservoirs that are guarded around the clock. The landscape west of the 100th meridian is completely arid, and a massive dune complex called the Amargosa Dune Sea has formed in the interior of the continent.
The main characters leave the California coast for a community they’ve heard exists at the southern edge of the Amargosa. Ultimately, the female protagonist ends up in this community, which is a cult run by a charismatic, polygamous leader to whom all community members must submit. He claims to find water in the desert via dowsing, when he’s really raiding Red Cross caravans to steal water and food. As Watkins writes, “It seemed possible, as he spoke, that his words might summon thunderheads, that his voice might bring rain.” This novel reminded me of Mad Max: Fury Road, where the keeper of the water is also a keeper of women, and where the leader chases away undesirables by forcing them into an arid and deadly landscape.
This book also asks hard questions: How do you trust people after the apocalypse? How do you decide whether to stay or to go? How does a country manage climate migrants? Is looting ever justifiable? How do you reconcile the person you were before the apocalypse with the person you are now? How do you build up mental fortitude to survive these new times?
7. Orleans by Sherri L. Smith
Smith’s novel is set in a southern United States that was hammered by seven major hurricanes—beginning with Katrina in 2005 and ending with Jesus in 2019. In the aftermath of the hurricanes, death and disease—particularly Delta Fever—are widespread. In 2025, the U.S. government withdraws from Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia, and builds a wall to keep southerners and Delta Fever out.
The people (mostly of color) left in the south organize into tribal units based on blood type, as Delta Fever affects people of each blood type differently. It is 2056 when protagonist Fen de la Guerre delivers her tribal chief’s newborn daughter during an unexpected raid on their camp. After the Chief dies in childbirth, Fen must decide what to do with the baby. Dodging blood harvesters, members of other tribes, and an old friend who has betrayed her, she finds an unlikely ally in a northerner named Daniel Weaver, who has crossed the Wall illegally in an attempt to cure the Delta Fever. He is ultimately the last hope for the baby girl, and she sells her intricately braided hair to help save him.
Smith’s book explores the lengths that people will go to survive in a hostile environment, and the importance of building communities to support and protect each other. It portrays peoples’ adaptability in the face both of natural and man-made disasters and it shows how government misinformation spreads.
Ultimately, post-apocalyptic fiction pushes us to the extreme, to the worst-case scenario, just like Wallace-Wells’s New York magazine piece. It forces us to consider how far we’ll go to stay alive, how much we’ll sacrifice, and what we’ll do. Are you willing to steal or to fight if necessary? To kill if necessary? This type of fiction shows us how society might organize itself—from every person for themselves (The Road, The Dog Stars), to small self-contained and interconnected communities (The Parable of the Sower, Station Eleven, The City Where We Once Lived, Orleans), to cult-like communities run by charismatic would-be prophets (Gold, Fame, Citrus; Station Eleven). But post-apocalyptic fiction also gets us off the hook when it comes to climate change and social breakdown. In these books, the apocalypse has already happened and there’s nothing we can do about it. The flu pandemic has wiped out the population, climate change has completely altered the earth, the city has been abandoned, society has fallen into ruin, the nuclear winter is upon us. We are tasked only with surviving these conditions—not with preventing them.
If we focus only on the apocalypse, aren’t we, in effect, accepting that climate change can’t be stopped? That millions of people worldwide are doomed to climate injustice? As Kathleen Dean Moore writes in Great Tide Rising, “The burdens of climate change—hunger and thirst, poisoned air and water, inundation, disruption, and wars—are imposed disproportionately on the world’s poorest communities and those that are the least responsible for its effects.”
In October of 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special climate change report. Their tone was uncharacteristically urgent, giving us only 10 to 12 years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Right now, the global temperature is already 1°C warmer than it was in pre-industrial times, and we’ve already seen the impacts: hurricanes, wildfires, flooding. To prevent significant future change, we’ll have to maintain a temperature increase of only 1.5°C. Unfortunately, there is only a small likelihood we’ll meet that goal—instead we’ll likely end up with a temperature that is 2.0°C warmer than in pre-industrial times. The difference between 1.5 C and 2°C might seem small, but it has major impacts on global climate—particularly because it sets off feedback loops built into the climate system due to the reflectivity of sea ice and snow cover, the impacts of forests and wildfire on the carbon cycle, and the increasing acidity of warming oceans and their impacts on corals/shelled organisms.
We need literature that bridges the space between the present and the apocalypse. That considers the immediate future and the hard decisions that must be made to avert, or at least minimize, disaster. This is where a new genre called climate fiction—aka cli-fi—comes in. By writing novels about ongoing climate change and other environmental disasters, cli-fi allows us to explore what the near future might hold.
Books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (about climate change), and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (about rising sea levels), and Omar El Akkad’s American War (about civil war, race relations, and climate) paint a picture of what our not-so-distant future may hold.
The apocalypse may be coming—and authors have envisioned it for us in many different ways—but its actual shape depends on the actions we take in the here and now, before the end of days.
This is the 14th year that the Year in Reading series has run at The Millions. It’s the third year that I’ve blearily written the introduction to kick off the series the night before it’s set to begin, and I’m running out of ways to say it: this is the best thing we do here at the site. There are so many things competing for our attention, and most of them are bad. So at a time of year when people are recovering from family drama or girding their loins for more, when election results are being processed or contested, when writers are licking their wounds or thanking their stars about the year-end lists, Year in Reading feels like a place for enthusiasts to gather and compare notes about the things that brought meaning to life as we hurtle into the future. 2018 was the year of solastalgia; Year in Reading is a place of solace. The series is a record of love and this year, as ever, I am grateful for it.
The names of our 2018 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published (starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson later this morning). Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry — we’ll run at least three per day.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ling Ma, author of Severance.
Bryan Washington, author of Lot.
Elizabeth McCracken, author of Bowlaway.
Shobha Rao, author of Girls Burn Brighter.
Brandon Hobson, author of Where the Dead Sit Talking.
Ada Limón, author of Bright Dead Things.
Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman.
M.C. Mah is a writer in Brooklyn.
Samantha Hunt, author of Mr. Splitfoot.
Crystal Hana Kim, author of If You Leave Me.
Colin Winnette, author of The Job of the Wasp.
Laila Lalami, author of The Other Americans.
Brian Phillips, author of Impossible Owls.
Lauren Wilkinson, author of American Spy.
Jianan Qian, The Millions staff writer and author of Say No to Eggs.
Hannah Gersen, The Millions staff writer and author of Home Field.
Il’ja Rákoš, The Millions staff writer.
Edan Lepucki, The Millions staff writer and author of Woman No. 17.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee, The Millions staff writer.
Nick Moran, The Millions special projects editor.
Jordy Rosenberg, author of Confessions of the Fox.
Angela Garbes, author of Like a Mother.
Neel Patel, author of If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi.
Hernán Diaz, author of In the Distance.
Adrienne Celt, author of Invitation to a Bonfire.
Donald Quist, author of For Other Ghosts.
Lisa Halliday, author of Asymmetry.
Ayşegül Savaş, author of Walking on the Ceiling.
Octavio Solis, author of Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border.
Namwali Serpell, author of The Old Drift.
Chelsey Johnson, author of Stray City.
Daniel Torday, author of The Last Flight of Poxl West.
May-lee Chai, author of Useful Phrases for Immigrants.
Casey Gerald, author of There Will Be No Miracles Here.
Etaf Rum, author of A Woman Is No Man.
Lucy Tan, author of What We Were Promised.
Lisa Brennan-Jobs, author of Small Fry.
Garth Risk Hallberg, The Millions contributing editor and author of City on Fire.
Carolyn Quimby, The Millions associate editor.
Thomas Beckwith, The Millions staff writer.
Sonya Chung, The Millions contributing editor and author of The Loved Ones.
Lydia Kiesling, The Millions editor and author of The Golden State.
Adam O’Fallon Price, The Millions staff writer and author of The Grand Tour.
Jacqueline Krass, The Millions intern.
Pitchaya Sudbanthad, author of Bangkok Wakes to Rain.
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, author of A Kind of Freedom.
Steph Opitz, founding director of the Loft’s Wordplay.
Katie Kitamura, author of A Separation.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras, author of Fruit of the Drunken Tree.
Hisham Matar, author of The Return.
Anna Wiener, a writer in San Francisco.
Dave Cullen, author of Parkland.
Jen Gann, editor, New York Magazine.
Tommy Orange, author of There There.
Anisse Gross, a writer in San Francisco.
Tara Marsden, co-founding editor of Wolfman New Life Quarterly.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar, author of White Dancing Elephants.
Emma Hager, a writer in California.
Chris Power, author of Mothers.
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of Friday Black.
Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers, a writer.
Rachel Khong, author of Goodbye, Vitamin.
Kamil Ahsan, reviews editor at Barrelhouse.
Marta Bausells, a writer and journalist in London.
Anne Yoder, The Millions staff writer.
Michael Bourne, The Millions staff writer.
Ismail Muhammad, The Millions staff writer and reviews editor at The Believer.
Matt Seidel, The Millions staff writer.
Ed Simon, The Millions staff writer.
Kaulie Lewis, The Millions staff writer.
Emily St. John Mandel, The Millions staff writer and author of Station Eleven.
Nick Ripatrazone, The Millions contributing editor and author of Ember Days.
Kirstin Butler, The Millions social media editor.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
It’s been 18 years since Alyson Hagy and I both won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Nested within the list of grantees was a scattering of addresses. I wrote to Alyson. She answered.
We’ve seen each other just twice in all these years. Our correspondence is legion. “I’m buried in a fat, loosely written Minette Walter crime novel just now,” she’ll write. “But Alice Munro and Madison Bell are next.” Or “I’m going to have to tweak the dramatic arc of the book in a significant way, but I think it’s the right way to go.” Or, “We have had a little cold rain here, and the skies have been huge and glowering—enough to tinge the aspens in town just a little.”
Her notes are like miniature novellas. Her gifts—shells, cards, carved stones—populate my windowsills. Her emoji choices can be quite hysterical, and once the sound of her voice on the phone insta-cured a migraine. When an Alyson Hagy book makes its way into the world (Ghosts of Wyoming; Snow, Ashes; Keeneland; Graveyard of the Atlantic; others), I try not to read too fast, for I know that with all the other things Alyson does in the world—her teaching and leadership at the University of Wyoming, her hiking and fishing, her tennis and travel—it will be too long before the next new Alyson Hagy comes my way.
A few weeks ago, Alyson’s new book, Scribe (Graywolf Press, October), arrived. I read this slender novel while storms pummeled the lily lake near a vacation cottage and before Kirkus, in its starred review, called it an “affecting powerhouse.” Rooted in Alyson’s Appalachia and yet otherworldly, bound by symbols and held just slightly out of time, Scribe is a storyteller’s book about the radical power and responsibility of words. It’s about a woman who believes she has nothing to offer but the words she can put on a page, and about those who ask for the favor. It’s about dogs, too, and tribal politics in a bartering culture. It’s about power and who wields it and who loses it, too.
I asked her questions.
The Millions: In a leaking red pen that has left my fingers looking bloody I began to circle all the places smell becomes story in your book: “the peppery scent of her best ink,” “the torched scent of sugar,” “the air-burned hints of lightning.” Why does that sense become so crucial in Scribe? I guess I can’t help but think about how dogs come to understand and navigate the world, and how large a role they play in your book. Is it the same for these characters? That they smell their way toward knowing?
Alyson Hagy: I suspect smell is vivid in Scribe because the story is set on the farm where I grew up, and I experienced that world as smell and sound as much as sight when I was a child. My parents and neighbors were extremely attentive to the natural world and how it expressed itself. They marked the arrival and departure of birds. They read their gardens and their fruit trees as if they were books. They knew what the neighbors were up to—harvesting, burning, fertilizing—based on smoke or stink or sweetness. I’m lucky I grew up around such attentiveness.
I’ve also lived with dogs my whole life. There is nothing like watching animals navigate the world to remind you what you’re missing. Being with animals makes real how many layers there are to the world—layers that aren’t visible but are true and essential. Dogs do smell stories. And they hear them, too. I am probably more obsessed with that kind of “story radar” than I realize.
TM: There are circles of evil in this book and circles of redemption. A rise and fall and meshing. Did you map these deliberately as you wrote? And does redemption always necessarily win in story?
AH: I didn’t map much of anything when I was writing Scribe, not until I tried to balance a few things out in later edits. The idea for the novel came to me in a flash as I was driving from Charlottesville, Virginia, to my home in Franklin County on the back roads. That country is beautiful and verdant and littered with the remnants of small family farms. People could live there sustainably again if they had to. So I began to wonder what the post-Civil War barter culture must have been like—and what might happen to women who didn’t have a practical skill or trade in an economy like that. I immediately imagined a woman who had nothing to trade but her literacy. I saw her as both mysterious, because of her power with words, and vulnerable.
Redemption does not always win out in stories. And it shouldn’t. I’ve tried to write about the costs of belief in books like Boleto and Snow, Ashes. I wanted Scribe to be a tale right from the get-go, something that reflects the inventiveness and mystery of the stories I grew up hearing, those Appalachian remnants. A lot of the strangest tales I absorbed as a child come from the Christian Bible. Evil and redemption are big things in rural brands of Christianity. So I probably plugged directly into those rhythms without even thinking about it much. I didn’t know what the scribe would find at the end of her journey until late in the first draft of the novel.
The work of other tale-tellers definitely hovers behind Scribe, too, books like The Long Home by William Gay and almost anything by Louise Erdrich.
TM: The sections are brilliantly labeled as the parts of a letter. Did the section titles come first or the story? In other words, did the titles bind you, shape your imagination, or did you discover that superstructure only in the wake of early drafting?
AH: The first working title for the book was The Letter Writer, and the word “Salutations” came to me almost right away. It was a blast from the past, from the days when girls at my high school took Typing (I kid you not) and boys took Shop Class. Anyhow, as I recalled the parts of a letter, I thought I might be able to use them. I tried not to let them dictate too much. I wanted the “Alphabet” section to contain only 26 segments, for instance. But it wasn’t working. So I drafted as many segments as I thought I needed and kept the title. It was definitely fun to mess around with concept of enclosures.
TM: The dangers of authoritarian rule are made abundantly clear in Scribe. Did current political fever shape the tale? Is compassion the only fix for now?
AH: Believe it or not, Graywolf accepted Scribe in December 2015 before the political fever spiked, at least in this country. But certain anxieties and evils made their way into the book, probably because they have been stewing in my home culture (and elsewhere) for a very long time. Appalachians are tribal, and tribes often take comfort in authoritarian rule. It makes defining who is “in” and who is “out” simpler. Christianity, as defined by some folks, can exacerbate the tribal, too. Also, the evils of slavery still haven’t faded from that land—and instinctive distrust of outsiders or migrants of any kind remains very high. I want Scribe to be universal in the way tales are. I hope it translates beyond the Blue Ridge. Billy Kingery is the kind of leader who appears to make life easier. He’s an eloquent populist. And he will take all the power you are willing to cede, just like any devil will.
Compassion? If we cannot find it, we will see those who aren’t like us as “other,” as enemy. Literature—all art—is essential to human empathy.
TM: How and when did you discover the Jack tales that rustle to the surface in this tale? Certainly we all know “Jack and the Beanstalk” as children. But I did not realize there were so many of those Jack tales, and that they had arrived to the Appalachian region in the ways that they did. Can you talk about them?
AH: First, may I mention how cool it is to get that question from someone related to the incredible Horace Kephart, a man who pioneered the preservation of Appalachian landscape and culture?
I grew up near the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College, one of the region’s first centers for all things Appalachian. The inventive Roddy Moore made sure school children, and adults, were exposed to productions based on the Jack tales. I loved seeing the past brought alive. I was never able to hear the tales told by an old-timey storyteller. They were all gone by the time I was born. Yet vestiges of the stories were embedded in anecdotes told by my father and superstitions relayed by neighbors. When I saw a play or eventually read the collected texts, I recognized eroded tropes and fears and wonders—and that fascinated me. I love how stories fall apart and morph and arise again. When I was a kid, folks would tell strange stories about certain crossroads. And every once in a while, an older person would remind you not to play cards with the devil, literally or figuratively. I have twisted and mashed up Jack tale fragments for my own use in Scribe. Yet I hope I’ve conveyed just how enjoyable a good story can be. And how fluid stories are even while they, sorry for the pun, inscribe our culture.
TM: Thank you for mentioning Horace Kephart, who left his gilded library life in St. Louis so that he might spend the rest of his time learning and then advocating for the culture, geography, and future of the Appalachians. You and I are perpetually unburying family. Speaking of which: Your family lore is mentioned in the acknowledgements. I have to know which lore found its way to Scribe.
AH: The “Enclosure” story, the myth about the soldier with the coin, is based on a family story from the Civil War. As my grandfather told it, a solider fleeing the Battle of Antietam sought food and shelter near the Potomac River where my great-great-grandmother had been left alone on the shambles of a tenant farm that had been plundered by troops on both sides. She fed him. He gave her a gold coin he earned when he saved the life of Colonel Jeb Stuart, the flamboyant Confederate raider. He didn’t believe he would live very long, and the coin was all he had save his firearm and his horse. The coin was etched with Stuart’s name and Latin motto. It’s still in the family, although there is no evidence Stuart ever truly handed out such things.
I also borrowed some names and other incidents. My kinfolk will recognize them.
TM: Sisters. You render the complexity of the relationship beautifully. How have you come to understand that relationship and its tugs on the soul?
AH: I have a sister, and she is a remarkable woman and was one of the very first readers of Scribe. I needed her eyes on the story because she’s an avid reader but also possesses a more intuitive heart than I. My mother had two sisters—grand souls who were, nonetheless, very different from her. I’ve been watching sisters all of my life. Yet parsing the relationship between the scribe and her sister was the hardest part of the book for me. The scribe possesses many of my own weaknesses. She misses important opportunities for connection in the world. So how do you get a character like that to make the right leap when she needs to?
TM: “All a writer can do is lay out the consequences of a person’s choices,” you write. I love that. It shifts, for me, something I have been trying to name myself. How did you come to this knowing?
AH: That line came to me late in the writing of the novel. It took me a while to figure out what Scribe was really all about. That’s usually the case for me. I get going with a character and a situation and events begin to spool out in front of me if the writing is going well. But in the end, the how and why of storytelling is at the heart of Scribe just as the how and why of art is at the heart of a great novel like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I didn’t read that book until I had grappled through the second draft of Scribe, but it affirmed for me my hope that art can, and must, survive any disaster we bring upon ourselves as humans. No matter how digital the world becomes or how far we fall into our most brutal, tribal instincts, stories matter. Story makers are pivotal in all cultures. The consequences of human choices as we lay them out are important to building and maintaining societies.
TM: You will never write the same story twice. What released you to write this dystopian fable? When did you know that you could not not write it? Where lay the struggle?
AH: It probably says a lot about me that I didn’t think of Scribe as dystopian until I began to share it with early readers. The Appalachia I grew up in was beautiful and deprived, although I occupied a privileged place in it. Folks still spoke of polio and measles quarantines as if they were recent. Tragic tales are the coin of the realm in the South. Relaying death and destruction is second nature. I thought I was writing a slightly altered post-Civil War history of the hills where I grew up. I ended up with something different. I felt like I had to write it once I envisioned that besieged and lonely woman standing next to that faltering brick house with her dogs. The struggle was in trying to maintain its strangeness, to not explain too much, to trust that readers can and will shape some of the tale on their own.
Imagine organizing a small get-together, a few friends and acquaintances at a neighborhood bar. It’s all very low-key. The day comes; friends arrive. You order cocktails. You chit-chat. In walks the President of the United States, with secret service, trailed by a herd of photographers. Suddenly, you are at a very different sort of party.
So it was with my journey into the world of nuclear weapons. I started researching and writing my book in 2008; we were not, then, living under threat of nuclear temper tantrum. The possibility that someone might actually use an atomic weapon again was a comfortably remote risk. I wasn’t dealing with current events; I was just interested in the people who made nuclear war a possibility—people who ended up with immense power not because they craved it but because of particular skills and talents they had. With this distance, I could do the research necessary to write about them without having nightmares.
A lot has been written about nuclear war. I have a shelf of history, biography, and popular science books about the weapons, their creators, and their evolution. From the newly re-popular Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to Cat’s Cradle, Red Alert (inspiration for Dr. Strangelove) to Gravity’s Rainbow, there is a rich fiction of the arms race and the post-apocalyptic landscape, heavily steeped in satire and speculation. Through all this, one can come to know an awful lot about the types of explosions humankind has learned to set off, and just how destructive they might be.
It is one thing to have that kind of knowledge when it’s all a thought experiment. It’s something else entirely when leading experts agree the chances are, once again, non-trivial. Now that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have arrived, I am at a very different sort of party.
This decade has seen some wonderful literary novels set after apocalyptic events. Think of Station Eleven (pandemic), and of Gold Fame Citrus (catastrophic drought). If we stretch the decade a little, we get the unspecified but possibly nuclear apocalypse of The Road. These books deal intimately with the aftermath of a dreaded event. There is very little room for comfort, and they don’t traffic in the will-it-or-won’t-it anxiety that we live with in the real world; in these books, it will. It did. And it’s every bit as bad as we thought. I can only imagine that writing that kind of book is like staring into the sun.
I don’t have the stomach for that. Instead, I wrote around the edges of disaster. My book is pre-apocalyptic; it is set in this world, not in the one that may come. The central question is not what it will be like when it arrives, but rather what does the mere possibility, the capability, do to us? It’s still a novel about the possible end of the world as we know it, but its approach to that topic is oblique. And my disaster of choice was one that seemed, unlike drought or pandemic, remote and unlikely. It was behind us, not ahead. It was a safe choice.
Now the world has taken that safety away. It has catapulted my comfortably distant topic into startling relevance. It has left me with more information than I really want, in this environment, about exactly what a nuclear war would entail. Those details I spent so long collecting are fodder for the nightmares I thought I was avoiding, triggered every couple of weeks by some fresh story on the news.
The first book I read, before this project was really underway, was Freeman Dyson’s Disturbing the Universe. In it, Dyson recalls time spent with the great physicist Richard Feynman, who had originally refused to work on the bomb and acquiesced only so Adolf Hitler wouldn’t get it first. He remembered Feynman sitting on the hood of his jeep in the desert, joyfully banging on a set of bongo drums to celebrate the success of the Trinity test, the first nuclear bomb ever exploded. Not long after, Feynman turned his back on military work, realizing that, in Dyson’s words, “he was too good at it and enjoyed it too much.”
Next, I dove into American Prometheus, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s gripping biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. I had downloaded the audiobook; I listened to it walking around in bright sunshine on the campus of the University of Arizona, where I was getting a master’s degree. As his life went on, Oppenheimer was clearly haunted, and he, in turn, haunted me. I can still hear the narrator’s voice in my head when I walk up the mall in the middle of the campus, among the palm trees and the oblivious undergraduates.
These were men who were responsible, in a startlingly direct way, for the fate of our world. They knew just exactly how much trouble we were in—because they helped put us there. They felt, evidently, that they had to. But did they? Clearly, both came to doubt that as their lives went on and they had to live with it. This is something, at least. My head might be full of kilotons, of radiation burns, of calculations about radius and wind speed, but at least I don’t have choices to make about any of this. Whether we survive this has nothing to do with me.
A few years later, deep into the writing process, I was living in Helena, Mont., where there wasn’t much to do in the winter if you don’t ski. One snowy Saturday I went to an estate sale, for something to do. It was largely picked over by the time I arrived, but I found, in a back room—it must have once been the study, though there was no furniture—a treasure trove. There was a whole wall of books with titles like Explaining the Atom (published 1947), Early Tales of the Atomic Age (1948) and The New Force (1953). I took home a paper grocery bag full for $5. Going through them that night, I noticed that inside the cover flap of Nuclear Theft: Risks and Safeguards (1974), someone had underlined the following: “The design and manufacture of a crude weapon is no longer a difficult task,” and “The authors evaluate current methods of guarding materials and find them inadequate.”
The house had belonged to one of Helena’s wealthy old families, and the matriarch had lived there until the end. I have no way to know the nature of her obsession, if it was even hers, or if the collection had belonged to her husband who—you know these things when you live in a city of 40,000—had died a few years earlier. Maybe it had once been his; maybe she, in her last lonely years, had gone through each chilling volume, reading the passages he’d marked, to take some small comfort in the fear of something that, unlike the condition of the grand old house whose floors had started to rot, or her famously strained relationship with her daughter, or the idiots taking over the local city council, she couldn’t do a damn thing about.
Here, I found anxiety not just of the scientists, but of a fellow reader who had amassed this collection a generation before I was born, when the threat had also been real. A reader who must have found some comfort in this area of study, some pleasure. A reader who, given the context in which I had acquired her books, had lived and died in a world that, without regard to her worry, had survived every threat to its existence.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I read Stacey D’Erasmo’s Wonderland in a hotel room in Saint Paul. This was a couple of months back, 13 months into a book tour that seemed by then like it might not ever end. (Not a complaint — I love my job, and am immensely grateful for it — but perhaps we can all agree that being away from home and loved ones for long periods can wear on a person, and leave it at that.) By the time I reached Saint Paul, I’d been feeling badly for awhile about how few books I was reading. Even the most grueling days usually contained a small amount of downtime. There were days where I spent an awful lot of time just sitting there in airplane seats and waiting around in airports and idling alone in hotel rooms, all places that should theoretically lend themselves to getting some reading done.
Then I had an irritating couple of days on Twitter, which sparked the somewhat obvious realization that if I took a week off from Twitter I’d have more time in which to read, so I logged off in the Saint Paul hotel room and haven’t been back since. I wouldn’t have said that I’d been spending much time on Twitter, but in its absence, there seemed suddenly to be an immense amount of space around me. I picked up two novels at the bookstore down the street and read them in two days. Wonderland was one of them. It’s an exceptionally well-written novel. The plot concerns an aging musician on what may or may not turn out to be her last tour.
“What made you want to write about actors?” people kept asking me that month, in audience Q&As.
“Well,” I kept saying, “I’m interested in film and theatre, and I wanted to write about what it means to devote your life to your art, the costs and the joys of that…” and then I read Wonderland and saw that D’Erasmo wanted to write about what it means to devote your life to your art too, but she kept that the focus of the entire novel, and it makes for a razor-sharp, unsparing book. She captures both the joys and the terror, the grind and the exaltation.
Others: I read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life on a brief interlude between tours. It moved me in a way I hadn’t been moved by a book in a while. There was a sense of having encountered a rare masterpiece, also a sense of having been burnt to the ground. I expect it will live on my shelves forever, but I don’t think I could bear to read it again. Earlier in the year, on airplanes and in other hotel rooms, I read Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life. It’s a love story set in a marginal New York City, involving an undocumented immigrant and an ex-soldier with PTSD. It’s harrowing, extremely violent, and extraordinary. What all three of these novels have in common is that they remind me of nothing else I’ve ever read.
Sometimes you encounter the perfect book for a given moment, and so I felt when I picked up Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. When he isn’t writing, Vanhoenacker flies 747s in and out of London. I’d come across his work in the form of a gorgeous essay about flight that ran in The New York Times, and was delighted to realize that the essay was an excerpt from a longer work. Part of why I picked up the book was that I used to love flying, and by autumn of this year I dreaded it, and I wanted very much to love it again.
I’ve never been a nervous flyer — I feel far safer on airplanes than I’ve ever felt in a car — but the thing with airplanes is that there are too many other people on them, extended business travel is exhausting, being herded like a sheep is exhausting too, and, well, let’s be honest here, exhaustion can spark a certain low-level misanthropy when one’s crammed in with others at close quarters. When I was lucky enough to get a window seat I still found unspeakable beauty in the sight of the world from 30,000 feet, but by October, which is to say sometime around my 100th event for Station Eleven, the inevitable small tics and inconsequential bad habits of others were becoming all but unbearable to me: the woman sitting across the aisle, loudly smacking her lips while she ate a cookie and then slurpily licking each of her fingers in turn, for example; the guy in the row in front of me who apparently never learned how to blow his nose and thus found it necessary to sniffle every three seconds, for five hours, at a decibel level too high to drown out with my headphones; the business travelers competing to see who could tell the most boring flight stories. (“So then by the time we get to Atlanta, the heat’s not working at all and it’s 50 degrees on the plane.”) Etc. I turned up the music and tried to disappear.
But Skyfaring is a love letter to flight, to a profession, and reading it was a balm. Vanhoenacker slips easily between poetic meditation into the nature of travel and technical explanations of the mechanisms of the 747, and I found all of it fascinating. It is a delight to encounter someone so unabashedly enamored of the romance of his profession. On a flight bound for southern Africa, he gives a position report to the controller:
‘Roger,’ says the controller. ‘Next report the equator.’
I feel a shiver of surprise; I still can’t quite believe it’s part of my job to announce that we’ve crossed into the skies of the other half of the world. I try to imagine the old days of the ocean liners, when crossing the equator, the first of our grand marks on the sphere, was still understood as momentous, how on deck, sparkling glasses would be raised.
The book’s meditative pacing isn’t dissimilar to the rhythms of flight itself, to the way landscapes gradually unspool far below. There’s tremendous pleasure in coming across the explanations for aspects of flight I’d never quite understood – the gorgeous phenomenon I’ve seen a couple of times on long flights over the Pacific, for instance, where a strip of night hangs suspended on the horizon between sections of daylight — and equally fascinating to catch a glimpse into the closed world of the cockpit. It was easier, after reading it, to forget my exhaustion and the small annoyances of the world and lose myself again in the beauty of the flight.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
My friends ask me if I am happy to be back in New York City. I am not.
My U.K. visa expires in January, but I fly home a week before Christmas, frustrated and anxious about rebuilding a life in New York. In the new year I take a short-term sublet a few blocks from a Superfund site in northeast Brooklyn, across from a tow impound lot and next to an enormous industrial complex. I can’t figure out which industry exactly. I spend much of the month working from the apartment, which belongs to a puppet artist, hunkering down because when it’s not snowing, it’s staggeringly cold, the temperature hovering somewhere near zero. I watch snow pile up on the rusted-out old cars that line the edge of the industrial lot; I count a dozen cats, maybe more, slipping in and out between the tires. I am trapped, physically and metaphorically.
At some point the year prior, I’d struck up an online friendship with the writer Katie Coyle. It began with little mutual hearts across the Internet; soon it was a series of emails that snowballed in length, the sort that took us both months to reply to. I bought her debut novel, Vivian Versus the Apocalypse, and its sequel, Vivian Versus America, at a convention in the height of the English summer, one of those rare days of unbroken blue sky. I’m bad with friends’ books: I psych myself out, worried I will be called upon to give constructive feedback, or worried I will give constructive feedback when it’s not called for. So I avoided Vivian for six months, placing her carefully on the shelf. In December, I packed her up in a huge shoddy box, held together by an entire roll of packing tape and hopeful desperation, and mailed her back across the Atlantic.
Holed up during my month of icy stagnation, I devour both Vivian books. They were published as Vivan Apple at the End of the World and Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle in the U.S., some worry about readers’ apocalypse fatigue, I guess. The first one begins the day before the rapture, as predicted by a Christian cult gone mainstream, and tells the story of Vivian and her best friend, Harp, who drive across the country kicking ass as they try to figure out what’s really happened — and how to survive. The books make me cry a little and laugh a lot; they’re perfect. The winter drags on and I still find myself restless and boxed in, but for a few days, Vivian sets me free.
The ice takes an extraordinarily long time to melt. I take a job that very quickly doesn’t work out, so by April I find myself holed up working again, this time in my new apartment, a fifth floor walk-up with high ceilings and a skylight. When I’m not hauling cat litter up those four flights, and when the light hits the right way, I feel like I’m living up in the clouds. I am assigned Kate Atkinson’s new novel, A God Among Ruins, an intertextual sequel of sorts to Life After Life, which I have not read. They’re only paying me to review one book, but I decide to read the two, and Life After Life is miraculous, not least if publishers think we have apocalypse fatigue, I certainly have Blitz fatigue. Atkinson brings the period into the sharpest focus I can remember encountering in a while. A God Among Ruins is harder, full of characters you want to shake by the shoulders, and poor Teddy, once peripheral and now fully fleshed out, the quiet tragedy of his life made plain. I read them both sitting out on the Promenade, even though it’s still a little too chilly when the wind picks up, and I watch the Staten Island Ferry trundling across the bay.
But the book that sticks with me most in the spring is Mary Norris’s Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, which I begin reading when ice is still collecting on the East River. I worked with Mary for five years at The New Yorker, deciphering her handwriting on proofs at all hours during my interminable years on the night shift. I find the same quiet brilliance and wry humor in the pages of her book, as well as a strange, almost unwanted nostalgia for my years spent making the magazine, as she describes her own decades there.
And then, somehow, I start working for The New Yorker again. Just projects this time, mostly in the archives, spared from the grind of the weekly magazine. It’s more than a little strange to be back at the magazine. The World Trade Center is sterile and foreign and people seem confused about where I’ve been for the past few years. I don’t tell them about all the things I’ve learned, or about how my entire worldview has shifted. I complain about restrictive British visa laws, or how Brooklyn rents skyrocketed in my absence; my small talk shrinks even smaller. Other freelance work starts to trickle in — and then out of nowhere, it’s a flood. I take every project that comes my way, and the bills get paid. My mother says it seems like I’m struggling to stay afloat, which I strenuously deny, but on a deep level I know that she’s right. I’m treading water, as quickly as I can manage.
I have learned my lesson from past New York summers. This year, when given the opportunity, I leave. I work a few weekends up at the racetrack, slow Saturday afternoons on a $50 window. I sit next to a joyful woman one day who tells me a customer recently gave her the perfect line: “Put a hundred dollar bill in the toilet and flush,” he told her. “If you reach for it, you’re not ready for the racetrack.” This was a new one, and a delight, because I’ve been taking bets so long that most lines feel scripted. “Good luck,” I say, and they smile ruefully and reply, “I need it.”
But I am a fan culture journalist now, and summer is “con season.” I am invited to be on a panel at San Diego Comic-Con, so I fly across the country in early July. En route I read The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy by Sam Maggs, billed as “A Handbook for Girl Geeks,” which is equal parts charming and empowering. I needlessly packed another three books for San Diego, as I do for every trip, and they remain buried under clothes and toiletries as I spend four long SDCC days confused and eager and oscillating between caffeinated and intoxicated. One night I crash a Playboy party, replete with half-assed nods to science (beakers and test tubes!) and mostly-naked women dropping from ropes on the ceiling; another night I trek across the length of San Diego to see the band that played the theme song to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, maybe two dozen of us waving foam glow sticks as they launch into the familiar guitar riff for the third time.
As the racing season comes to a close, I get my hands on a copy of Felicia Day’s memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), and a guy assigned to the window next to me tries to fake-geek-girl me by proxy, with a line of weirdly aggressive questions about what exactly Felicia Day had done beyond a gaming series he’s seen on YouTube — essentially, whether she was even qualified to write a memoir. This only makes me like the book more. And leaves me a little disheartened — the racetrack has always been my place for sexism from the past, sort of a “Nice tits, babydoll” kind of clientele, and now I’m stuck here defending Felicia Day’s right to be into video games.
The world has changed — and my world has changed. American Pharoah loses the big race and the town deflates, and I head back down the Hudson. This year has been an exercise in putting off the big projects until fall, which is fast approaching. I’ve got an essay to write, a proposal to rework, a life to stabilize. Spoiler alert: a change in season doesn’t make this stuff any easier.
In the last week of September, my copy of Carry On arrives in the mail. It is thick and beautiful and I clutch it to my chest the way I can only really remember doing with Harry Potter books in the past. It is a similar size and shape, and similarly magical. In the following weeks, I will go on to spill a ton of pixels about the nature of Rainbow Rowell’s newest book, and the seminal point, in my friend Connor’s words, that intertextuality ≠ fanfiction. But before all that, on the first chilly weekend of the year, I light a fire and curl up and read in a way I rarely do these days, the kind of reading where you look up and realize 200 pages have gone by, and the fire’s down to a few smoldering embers, and you can’t imagine this book ending. Of course, it will.
I decide to spend October with Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, partly because it’s interesting and beautifully written, and partly because I’m trying to understand why certain texts grab us and drag us under. I read other books this year, books I won’t name because I thought they failed in some way, or in certain cases, many ways, but it’s the stuff that works — more than works, the stuff that you want to slow down for fear of finishing too soon — that intrigues me. I write about fans, after all.
After Thanksgiving, I put neat bows on my projects through the end of the year, and I start to pack to go back across the ocean. It’s just for a few weeks, not a few years, and I have a tall stack of books to be read, maybe to be packed and remain buried under clothes and toiletries. The Daughters, by Adrienne Celt, or the copy of Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird I borrowed from a coworker, or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which I should’ve read a year ago, or When We Are No More, by Abby Smith Rumsey, out in the early months of next year, about one of my favorite topics, cultural memory in the age of digital technologies. But this trip to England is not about the realities of living there, but the pleasure of visiting, so a friend and I will take a trip up to the Peak District, to see Chatsworth and presumably cross paths with Mr. Darcy. I’ve read it before but I can read it again: without a second thought, I toss Pride and Prejudice into my suitcase.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Now in its second glorious decade, the Year in Reading has become a Millions tradition, featuring contributions from a roster of emerging and marquee authors, staff writers, and friends of the site. It’s an effort that yields hundreds of books for to-be-read piles, as well as some of the best writing we run all year.
After 13 years of solo striving, this was the first year that site editor C. Max Magee finally called for reinforcements; we happily stepped into the breach (now that we’ve seen the amount of work that goes into this, we’re a little frightened of him). It has been a thrill to look for exciting voices, to send emails like carrier pigeons off into the universe and hope they’ll come back bearing book recommendations from Stephen King (maybe next year). If you follow the literary world, you’d think that everyone is reading Elena Ferrante 24/7. And while lots of people are (you’ll see), Year in Reading is also our annual chance to peek behind the curtain at people’s singular reading lives—who went down a comics wormhole, or read multiple Freddie Mercury biographies, or discovered August Wilson for the first time. And not only what they read, but how they felt about what they read–how the reading shaped the year.
There are a huge number of books represented in the series this year, many fantastic lists, and many extraordinary meditations on reading and life. We think you’ll enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed putting them together. As in prior years, the names of our 2015 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as their entries are published. Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry.
– Your Year in Reading Editors, Lydia Kiesling & Janet Potter
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ottessa Moshfegh, author of Eileen.
Atticus Lish, author of Preparation for the Next Life.
Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House.
Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs.
Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You.
Nell Zink, author of Mislaid.
Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Gold Fame Citrus.
Chris Kraus, author of Summer of Hate.
Katrina Dodson, translator of The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector.
Joyce Carol Oates, author of The Accursed, among many other books.
Saeed Jones, author of Prelude to Bruise.
The Book Report, everyone’s favorite literary show.
Bijan Stephen, associate editor at the New Republic.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions, author of City on Fire.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions and creator of the Modern Library Revue.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions and author of Station Eleven.
Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, social media and previews editor for The Millions.
Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.
Chigozie Obioma, author of The Fishermen.
Greg Hrbek, author of Not on Fire, but Burning.
Terry McMillan, author of Waiting to Exhale.
Sasha Frere-Jones, writer and musician.
Matthew Salesses, author of The Hundred-Year Flood.
Meaghan O’Connell, author of And Now We Have Everything.
Cristina Henríquez, author of Come Together, Fall Apart.
Vinson T. Cunningham, contributing writer for The New Yorker.
J.M. Ledgard, author of Submergence.
Nadifa Mohamed, author of The Orchard of Lost Souls.
Manjula Martin, editor of SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living.
Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies.
Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh.
Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City.
Rahawa Haile, author of short stories and essays.
Rumaan Alam, author of Rich and Pretty.
Justin Taylor, author of Flings.
Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.
Jaquira Díaz, editor of 15 Views of Miami .
Dave Cullen, author of Columbine.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions.
Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions.
Claire Cameron, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Bear.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of We Will Listen for You.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer.
Daniel José Older, author of Shadowshaper.
Lincoln Michel, author of Upright Beasts.
Rebecca Carroll, author of Saving the Race.
Ana Castillo, author of So Far from God.
Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind.
Katie Coyle, author of Vivian Apple at the End of the World.
Sady Doyle, a writer in New York.
Patricia Engel, author of Vida.
Manuel Muñoz, author of What You See in the Dark.
Karolina Waclawiak, author of The Invaders.
Hamilton Leithauser, a singer/songwriter in New York City.
Catie Disabato, author of The Ghost Network.
Parul Sehgal, senior editor at The New York Times Book Review.
Margaret Eby, author of South Toward Home.
Tahmima Anam, author of A Golden Age.
Sandra Cisneros, author of Have You Seen Marie?.
Brian Etling, intern for The Millions.
Nick Moran, special projects editor for The Millions.
Jacob Lambert, staff writer for The Millions.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Bruna Dantas Lobato, intern for The Millions.
Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City Burning.
Summer Brennan, author of The Oyster War.
Kerry Howley, author of Thrown.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths, author of Lighting the Shadow.
Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts.
Lauren Holmes, author of Barbara the Slut and Other People.
Kate Harding, author of Asking for It.
Year in Reading Outro.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
In a few short years, post-apocalyptic literary fiction has passed from bracing novelty to marketing cliché. It has gotten so that when I see the words “pandemic flu” or “environmental cataclysm” on the back of a novel by a literary author, I have to resist the impulse to roll my eyes and move on. How many more ways, really, can writers of the Gen X and Millenial generations, expiating their guilt over having been born at the crest of a waning empire, game out the baroque means of their own destruction?
Part of my frustration with post-apocalyptic literary fiction is that its authors too often elect not to explore the nature of the calamity that has befallen the world they are writing about. Even in Station Eleven by my Millions colleague Emily St. John Mandel, which is a marvelous novel, the pandemic flu that culls all but a few of our planet’s billions of inhabitants strikes out of nowhere, leaving the characters survivors of an act of an angry, but essentially unknowable God. God has spoken and he isn’t pleased, these novels seem to say, but it wasn’t us who brought about Judgement Day.
So I was gratified to see, midway into Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, an entire chapter devoted to the environmental cataclysm at the heart of the novel. More gratifying still is Watkins’s willingness to place the blame for the drought that has turned the western United States into a gigantic desert not on God, nor on some government conspiracy or faceless corporate cabal, but squarely on the shoulders of her readers — ordinary, middle-class residents of the American West. Who else, Watkins asks, has for so long blithely drained the aquifers, built sprawling cities atop deserts, and dammed and diverted the mighty Colorado River to the point that most years it dries up miles before it reaches the Gulf of California?
“If this was God,” she writes,
he went by new names: Los Angeles City Council, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, City of San Diego, City of Phoenix, Arizona Water and Power, New Mexico Water Commission, Las Vegas Housing and Water Authority, Bureau of Land Management, United States Department of the Interior.
Gold Fame Citrus, then, takes an important step away from the moral convenience of cataclysm-as-metaphor — or, in lesser novels, cataclysm-as-plot-starter — toward an angrier, more urgent form that insists its reader do more than wallow in free-floating anxiety about the future. It is telling that it is hard to reckon exactly when Gold Fame Citrus is set. Clearly, the events of the novel haven’t happened yet, but one of its central characters is a deserter from “the forever war” and the book’s cultural referrents are relentlessly contemporary. This apocalypse isn’t coming in some safely distant future. In Gold Fame Citrus, the apocalypse is now, and maybe, Watkins seems to be saying, we ought to give some thought to how to head it off.
All of which makes one wish that Gold Fame Citrus were a more consistently engaging read. At its best, the novel is a propulsively readable love triangle pitting Ray, a laconic army deserter turned California surfer dude, against Levi Zabriskie, the visionary leader of a colony of misfits living in the shadow of the great, shifting desert called the Amargosa Dune Sea. Both men vie for the affections of Luz, an ex-model left behind when the water dried up, and an orphaned child called Ig whom Ray and Luz adopt as their own in a harrowing scene at a “raindance” party in post-evacuation Los Angeles.
When this story is front and center, Gold Fame Citrus is riveting. Watkins is a sharp-eyed portraitist with the instincts of a master storyteller, and when she is on, even her minor characters leap off the page. In one slyly hilarious scene, Ray and Luz, fearing Ig’s family, whomever they may be, will come after them for stealing the child, visit a hipster couple, Lonnie and Rita, looking for help escaping the official quarantine that encircles the drought-stricken West. Lonnie and Rita, heavily pierced and tattooed, have commandeered an abandoned apartment complex in Santa Monica where they throw the I Ching and riff on how to escape the quarantine. Maybe Ray and Luz could try one of the tunnels being dug under the Oregon border? Or perhaps it would be easier to drive to Crescent City, in northern California, and swim to freedom? “Indeed, there were endless other ways, [Lonnie] said, each illegal and treacherous,” Watkins writes. “He got a visible charge as he listed them all, a little danger boner.”
Too often, though, Gold Fame Citrus suffers from The Slows. Sometimes, this is because the characters just aren’t doing very much. People wait in this novel. At one point, after she and Ray run out of gas attempting to escape the Amargosa, Luz spends a chapter sitting and sweating with Ig in the baking hot car. “Day, night, another day,” runs a typical passage. “Day. Day. Day. Why was there so much more day?” Later, Ray is locked up in an improvised prison deep in a talc mine where his cellmate has a working television, and Watkins spends several pages naming every show they watch.
More often, though, the narrative doldrums seem a by-product of Watkins’s literary and ideological ambitions. In her acknowledgments, Watkins cites a list of classic environmental texts, from Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian to Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, that helped shape her thinking on the West and its relationship to its dwindling water resources. Watkins seems eager to get all this in, make her reader see the multi-generational folly of building golf courses and orange groves in what was once trackless desert. But this is a very long, complex story involving decades of land-use decisions, much of which gets crammed into a single 14-page chapter of Gold Fame Citrus. Watkins’s gift for turning an elegant sentence never leaves her, but exposition is exposition, dress it as you will.
Then, too, Watkins is a child of the desert Southwest, the daughter of Paul Watkins, a follower of Charlie Manson who testified at the trials that put Manson behind bars for life. The Sharon Tate-Leno and Rosemary LaBianca murders were committed 15 years before Claire Vaye Watkins was born, but Manson and his mad Helter Skelter prophecies are clearly a model for Levi Zabriskie, who claims for himself mystical powers as a “dowser” for water and keeps his followers hooked on a heady diet of sex and a mysterious tranquilizing drug they call “brute root.”
Watkins puts her family history to mesmerizing use in passages when Luz falls under Levi’s proselytizing spell, seducing the reader into half-believing the desert prophet’s cockeyed visions. But ultimately visionary Levi and the dynamics of his sexual-mystical hold he has on his followers becomes too much for the novel, which already has so much else on its mind, to contain, and we are left with a hazy, montage-style portrait of the colony that makes it sound like a slightly more hardcore Burning Man Festival where no one ever goes home.
One sets down Gold Fame Citrus with two thoughts, first that Claire Vaye Watkins is a powerful new voice in American fiction who, thanks in part to where she was raised and by whom, can map out a largely uncharted corner of American life; and second that she has not yet written the book that will show us what she can do. Her first book, the story collection Battleborn, is excellent, but also all over the place, as first collections of stories often are. Gold Fame Citrus is more mature and unified in its vision, but also overly ambitious, as if a painter had sat down to create her masterpiece and ran out of canvas.
Then again, this may prove to be an illusion. Claire Vaye Watkins is only 31, just getting started. Who can say how many canvases she has lined up in her studio waiting to be filled?