A warmed globe needs new writers to guide us through it; will climate change, like World War I, usher in a new novel?
It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if, a decade or two from now, some prominent novelist or cultural tastemaker were to amend Virginia Woolf ’s iconic 1923 claim — “On or about December, 1910, human character changed” — to something like “On or about November, 2012, the climate changed.” Certainly near-future novelists will feature the relationship between humans and the environment more centrally than do most current writers. The seas are rising and the seasons are unraveling: It is inevitable that our fictional landscapes will evolve in tandem with our physical landscapes. Indeed, as our climate becomes ever less certain and more hostile, we might expect our fiction to start resembling the highly ironic, world-weary works that emerged from Woolf ’s war-stricken generation.
Woolf ’s frankly arbitrary choice of late 1910 as the turning point in social history is most striking for its lack of connection to World War I, which erupted in July 1914. Her earlier date is linked most commonly to 1910’s London art exhibit “Manet and the Post-Impressionists,” which introduced Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Picasso to the stodgy British and, presumably, knocked the aesthetics of Modernism into them. Exposure to new art, apparently, proved potent enough to alter character. My own prediction that November 2012 will be considered a cultural milestone moment is more direct: Hurricane Sandy hit.
Well, technically the storm touched down in October. But it was November before we began to comprehend the full extent of flooding damage; November before all the deaths were counted; November before power started to flicker back on in coastal communities; November before the New York City subway system — shut down for only the second time in its century-long history — began to run again. It was November when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed Obama for president on the grounds that the incumbent was more likely to take action in combating climate change, and November when Bloomberg started talking seriously about building a levee for the city. In November (and December), the Internet grew crowded with articles about the newly plausible demise of New York, and the graphics from Al Gore’s 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth depicting a submerged Manhattan started to seem less fantastical.
In Woolf ’s era, as in ours, change was stirring long before the perceived moment of transformation. Modernist art and literature, for example, started to thrive on the European continent from the late 19th century on. In the 21st century, we have had plenty of warnings that climate change is occurring, and quickly. Months before Sandy began to form in the Caribbean, we knew that 2012 would go down as the hottest year recorded in American history. In March, thousands of daily-high temperatures were broken in a freak heat wave; over the summer, thousands more all-time high temperatures were broken in cities across the country. The plains parched in a massive drought, killing the country’s corn; the West burned in record-setting fires, destroying some of its oldest trees. But even though it only affected the Northeast, no catastrophic weather event this year really turned our collective head until Sandy.
Some boilerplate qualifying is probably necessary at this juncture: Yes, even those scientists who agree humans are causing the climate to change (namely, all of them) have generally refrained from attributing specific weather events to climate change. This cautious reserve is in the process of melting away, as climate scientists begin to analyze the likelihood of recent extreme weather events with or without the influence of human-induced climate change (hint: they are many times more likely to occur “with” this influence). Still, it is important to interpret current weather soberly and predict future weather calmly, despite all indications that we should panic and run for inland Canada.
Contemporary, pre-November 2012 fiction writers certainly approach climate change in their work with far more caution, reserve, and silence than do the scientists who are studying its future effects. This is less true of speculative novelists: Writers of science fiction and fantasy such as Margaret Atwood, Matthew Sharpe, and James Howard Kunstler have been directing their energies toward an imagined climate apocalypse for some time. But non-speculative writers, who haven’t yet had access to actual apocalypse, tend to mention weather issues obliquely, as a tangent from their primary issues, or as one ingredient in the substrate that feeds a character’s general sense of anxiety and unease.
Consider, for example, the internal mutterings of Julius, narrator of Teju Cole’s acclaimed first novel, Open City
I had my recurrent worry about how warm it had been all season long. Although I did not enjoy the cold seasons at their most intense, I had come to agree that there was a rightness about them, that there was a natural order in such things. The absence of this order, the absence of cold when it ought to be cold, was something I now sensed as a sudden discomfort.
Weather-related thoughts recur a few times in Cole’s novel: Julius mentions his fears once several pages before this passage and again several chapters later. But weather is just one of many worries that causes him “discomfort,” alongside history, family, friends, psychiatric patients, New York’s (non-climate-centric) future, bedbugs, and, of course, mortality. As in American and global politics, climate change in Open City is allotted far fewer words — and therefore significance — than issues whose psychic payoff is more immediate and whose urgency is more obvious. Julius, it seems, can resolve his “sudden discomfort” simply by going indoors.
He is also horrified by people like me, who relentlessly attribute odd weather to climate change even after admitting scientific ignorance. After elaborating on his personal concerns, Julius explains that while he isn’t the “skeptic” he’d once been, he refuses to accept any “jumping to conclusions” either: “Global warming was a fact, but that did not mean it was the explanation for why a given day was warm. It was careless thinking to draw the link too easily, an invasion of fashionable politics into what should be the ironclad precincts of science.”
Julius is narrating from 2006, when we had somewhat less evidence — of either the scientific or the anecdotal variety — that symptoms of climate change were manifesting all around us. In the 2011 novel, climate change is still a debate, still an enigma, still a political “fashion” that might be worn to achieve a certain effect but can be discarded just as easily. It is still a secondary or tertiary concern that needn’t be attended to until further notice. Julius fears that by noticing November warmth (for the night narrated is in November) he is himself becoming what he calls a climate “overinterpreter,” a “careless thinker” ignorant of science.
It might have been easy enough, in 2006, to overinterpret weather events in the temperate continental United States, but in some parts of the world the manifestations of climate change had already slipped from overinterpreted to overdetermined. Such is the case in Alexis M. Smith’s slender debut novel Glaciers, in which protagonist Isabel’s yearning for a connection to the past via vintage objects finds a parallel in the slow death of the eponymous glaciers she loved as a child. The novel itself is set in Portland, Oregon, but takes frequent remembered trips back to the Alaska of Isabel’s childhood. Early on in the narrative, for example, Isabel imagines a late-20th-century ferry crossing from Washington State to Alaska. What she feels should be a funereal sight is for most passengers merely a “spectacle”: “The ferry slowed where a massive glacier met the ocean; a long, low cracking announced the rupture of ice from glacier; then came the slow lunge of the ice into the sea. …There were shouts of appreciation and fear, but nothing like grief, not even ordinary sadness.”
The “sudden discomfort” of Cole’s Julius is here inflicted on the glacier, providing onlookers a concrete piece of evidence on the effects of climate change. Rather than simply feeling warmer air (feeling — that least recordable, least reproducible of the senses), the people on the boat can hear the “long, low cracking” of climate change, can see its “slow lunge,” can corroborate each others’ accounts of the event. They have the material to tell a story about the present-day reality of the phenomenon. But the ferry-goers underinterpret the event they witness: they experience the calving without relating it to long-term human-induced climate change. The narrator is forced to step in to remind us that we are experiencing a death.
But Isabel’s melancholic nostalgia is as thinly spread as Julius’s highbrow nervousness: She is as likely to apply it to a vintage apron or an old postcard as to a dying glacier. The day of her life that shapes the novel is full of tea and her library work and vintage dresses and a tall/dark/silent love interest; the plight of the glaciers necessarily pales in comparison to the micro-dramas of quotidian existence.
Indeed, Isabel makes a conscious effort to avoid thinking about climate change. We learn that her father, a frustrated musician, worked in Alaska’s oilfields and was injured there. By employing her character in this ecologically-charged trade, Smith seems to be saying that we humans are all implicated, all a part of this environmental mess. Isabel’s response to the enormity of the problem is conscious blindness: “Isabel cannot read magazine articles or books about the North. She cannot watch the nature programs about the migrations of birds and mammals dwindling, the sea ice thinning, and the erosion of the islands.” How can this young woman, whose livelihood has her mending abused library books all day, turn her back on an abused ecosystem? The obvious answer is that she is too sensitive to cope with reality and therefore chooses to ignore it. The decline of the Arctic exists on the same plane of emotional importance as the sad fate of her great-grandmother’s house. The point, in this context, is not that Isabel fails as a character because she neglects to sign up for the next Keystone pipeline protest. The failures are of the world around her: She still inhabits a moment in which it is possible to ignore climate change in day-to-day life. On or about November, 2012, that world vanished.
Woolf ’s choice to place her turning-point moment three and a half years before World War I, surely the event that shocked the European psyche into modernity more suddenly and effectively than any other, perhaps indicates a belief that human character would have changed dramatically even if there had been no war.
And perhaps our future novelist will be asked why he or she — let’s just go with “he” — selected November 2012 as the tipping point in climate history, when Hurricane Sandy killed only a measly couple hundred people, and not, say, the European heat wave of 2003 (approx. 70,000 dead), or Katrina in 2005 (approx. 1800 dead), or perhaps — oh, I don’t know — the North American heat wave of 2016 (approx. 200,000 dead; Phoenix abandoned) or Hurricane Henry in 2019 (approx. 3500 dead, Virginia Beach abandoned). Our novelist will have to admit that he is from the East Coast of the United States, perhaps even lived in New York for a time. His choice, like Woolf ’s, is personal.
Perhaps he’ll say he wants to correct the visions that pre-2012 novelists presented of New York City’s future. In Super Sad True Love Story, for example, Gary Shteyngart paints a bleak picture of a city whose culture has dissipated and power faded, but whose primary threats are Chinese money and the U.S. government, not its own waterways. Sure, the feckless narrator, Lenny, has to deal with “stifling June heat,” but his autumn is appropriately “blustery” and the Staten Island Ferry is functioning without weather interruptions.
Or maybe our novelist will refer to the nearfuture finale of Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, which takes a more direct stab at New York and climate change. In Egan’s future universe, mysterious “warming-related ‘adjustments’ to Earth’s orbit had shortened winter days”; a February day “was ‘unseasonably’ warm: eighty-nine degrees and dry”; and “the trees, which had bloomed in January, were now in tentative leaf.” All good so far; all apocalyptic enough (or realistic enough, our novelist might say, terrifyingly) to set the tone Egan wants.
But Egan couldn’t have known how climate change would affect Lower Manhattan in 2012, and her portrayal of the neighborhood unfortunately destroys the novel’s illusion of reality for our novelist. She sets her February concert, the climax of the novel, in 2020s Lower Manhattan, choosing the location presumably to evoke 9/11 and thereby tap into America’s cultural memory. Indeed, for her character Alex the “weight of what had happened here more than twenty years ago was still faintly present,” detectable as a “sound just out of earshot, the vibration of an old disturbance.” But what about the Lower Manhattan “disturbances” caused by Hurricane Sandy ten years before Alex’s 2020s visit, our novelist wants to know? Much of this concrete jungle still lacked power for weeks after the storm, and much of its retail remained closed, and city construction workers far outnumbered bankers and lawyers in business suits, and everything smelled like dirty water.
And what about the even-more-destructive hurricanes that followed Sandy?
Our future novelist doesn’t really write like Egan or Shteyngart, nor like Smith or Cole. His technique has much more in common with Hemingway’s, or Eliot’s, or any number of younger writers who emerged from the Great War alive and hungry for literary recognition, Woolf among them. Human character might have changed in 1910, but Woolf ’s writing style didn’t change until World War I ended: Her two prewar novels are prim and traditional; her first postwar novel, Jacob’s Room, marks the beginning of her decades-long experiment with literary form. This novel does something quintessentially postwar: It writes all the way around Jacob, the title character who is doomed to die on a World War I battlefield, and all the way around World War I, without ever actually writing them. Woolf ’s winding sentences have little obviously in common with Hemingway’s famously clipped specimens, but Hemingway would soon employ a similar technique in writing about war: supplying only the sparest details and allowing the reader to fill in the rest.
Woolf and Hemingway could omit key details because a critical mass of their readers had all suffered through the same hardships: the fear and loss inherent in any war, the horror and despair inherent in witnessing the war that mechanized mass slaughter. A seemingly harmless word or phrase in their fiction — Woolf ’s Jacob shares the surname “Flanders” with the infamously bloody battles, for example — could evoke a torrent of understanding from contemporaneous readers. Modernity and its potential for infinite destruction (a potential to be tested severely in 20th century warfare) had taken hold. There was no reverting to prewar ignorance.
The future novelist has access to a similar collective suffering, one whose foundation isn’t all that different from the one that formed in the last century. As weather disasters increase in frequency and severity, an ever higher percentage of the global human population will experience life-threatening weather conditions, will lose homes and livelihoods, will lose family and friends to climate. Gradually, we as a species will lose faith in the Earth’s ability to support our civilizations and lives. The world will start to look as hideous and hopeless as it did to Eliot in 1922 when he wrote “The Waste Land,” and many parts of the world will truly be that parched or drenched.
When words like “hurricane” and “flood” and “fire” and “drought” have turned hot enough to burn anyone who hears them — hot as the word “war” was in 1922 — we’ll need novelists to navigate around and through them with an ironic detachment reminiscent of Modernist fiction. We’ll need novelists to show us, in other words, how we respond to a world rapidly becoming even less certain and stable than it already had been.
This all sounds rather grim. I’d prefer to end on a note of hope, but there is no denying that the changing climate is going to make all of our lives harder and less predictable over the coming decades. Just as there was no un-inventing the machine gun, there is no un-polluting the atmosphere — at least not in such a way that the people of this generation and the next couple dozen won’t be affected.
Literature will bear the burden of witnessing and processing our cultural response to the ravages of climate change, and these ravages will soon be ubiquitous enough that novelists will make them a central concern. Works that forefront climate change are just now emerging in the American mainstream. This summer’s gorgeous film Beasts of the Southern Wild is one example; Barbara Kingsolver’s just-released novel Flight Behavior is another. Many more examples will follow. It will become impossible for non-speculative novels to ignore climate change because dramatic weather events will necessarily affect their characters’ lives. It will even become difficult for novels to ignore climate for a hundred pages at a leap, like Cole’s and Smith’s. As our experience of climate change proceeds from scientific observation and prediction to the lived reality of frequent weather disasters, climate literature of the future will look increasingly like war literature from the past. Its central concern will be so obvious and so painfully known to readers that it will hardly need to be named.