Is it possible to write good fiction about climate change?
It’s been occasioned by two things. The first was a post by one of Overland’s new guest bloggers, Stephen Wright, arguing the failure of Australian novelists to engage with issues such as indigenous dispossession and climate change reflects a profound moral failure. The other was reading Ian McEwan’s startlingly awful new novel, Solar, a book that quite deliberately sets out to address the “elephant in the room” of climate change.
Being lectured about what’s wrong with contemporary fiction is one of the more dreary fringe benefits of being a novelist. And it’s made more irritating by the fact that those who do it are usually advocating replacing one sort of (perceived) narrowness with another.
But unlike most of these sorts of tirades, Wright has a serious point, and he’s doing rather more than simply whinging about the state of Australian fiction. As he says in his post:
“It’s not about trying to fit an indigenous eco-friendly character into your novel, or writing novels full of didactic speeches. It has very little to do, I’d venture to say, with being incredibly topical or writing about Copenhagen and climate science . . .
“It’s probably got more to do with the depth of our awareness of just where we are living: on stolen land, on an ecologically devastated continent. Meanwhile, an inexorable planetary disaster unfolds around us. An awareness of this situation could enable us to write, give texture and ambivalence to our work, enable us to track and expose and map the fault lines of where we live “.
For what it’s worth, I agree with Wright about the urgency of the problem. But simultaneously I think it’s easy to make sweeping statements about the need for new kinds of fiction to address the burning issues of the day, and rather more difficult to actually write such things. So perhaps there’s a different question we could ask here, which is what would a book which succesfully addressed the issue of climate change actually look like?
One thing it certainly wouldn’t look like is Solar. For those of you who haven’t read it or seen the first reviews, the book is McEwan’s long-awaited “climate change novel”, and – not to put too fine a point on it – it’s a stinker.
McEwan gets a lot of stick, mostly for being a slick, smug parody of the bourgeois novelist. I think most of that criticism is misplaced, and fails to engage with the skill and sophistication of a lot of his writing. And while he certainly turns out the occasional dud (Amsterdam is a shocker) books like Atonement and Enduring Love are the work of a writer of pretty remarkable gifts (I challenge anyone to forget the tongue scene towards the end of Atonement in a hurry).
All of which makes the sheer awfulness of Solar even more puzzling. It’s not so much that it’s didactic, or even that it feels like the work of a writer who feels so passionate about a subject that they have to do something (though it does), it’s that it’s so under-imagined and structurally uncertain, so embarrassingly unfunny, and – perhaps most damningly – that McEwan himself doesn’t feel convinced by what he’s doing.
The plot, such as it is, seems to be assembled out of offcuts from McEwan’s other books. There’s the requisite accidental and destabilising death. There’s the requisite unloading of scientific information and musings on the interplay between the subjective interior world of the individual and the objective world of scientific fact. There’s even the requisite scene of hideous physical dismemberment/disfigurement (the already famous frozen penis scene). But instead of feeling fresh, or fascinating, they feel like attempts to prop up the otherwise faltering business of the novel. Even the scenes describing the landscape I saw Andrew Reimer waxing lyrical about in The Sydney Morning Herald sound to me like McEwan on auto-pilot. Indeed, in a very real sense, the book reads like McEwan is doing a parody of himself: the only problem is that it’s a pretty feeble parody.
Part of the problem is that McEwan has clearly decided to save himself from writing an awful “issue” novel by flicking the switch to vaudeville, a decision which clearly made sense at the time, but given that McEwan’s real strength is exquisitely modulated depictions of violence and transgression (and more particularly the intrusion of that violence into the ostensibly “safe” world of middle class life) seems a little misguided in retrospect.
But I suspect Solar’s failure is also reflective of some of the conventional realist novel’s more general limitations, especially when confronted by an issue as large, and as systemic as climate change.
The problem is that the things social realist novels are good at – characters, narrative, interiority, social context – are hopelessly inadequate when it comes to something like climate change. Obviously I’m talking to some extent about the limitations of my own imagination here, but it’s very difficult to imagine how one could encompass such a subject in a conventional novel without projecting some sort of coherence or shape onto it which does violence to the scale and difficulty of the problem.
In a way the problem is analogous to that of fictional representations of the Holocaust. The sheer enormity of what actually happened means fictional recreations of it tend to be cheapening at best, downright offensive at worse. As Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones demonstrates it’s not impossible to do (though interestingly The Kindly Ones’ success depends at least in part on its success at mimicking the authority of non-fiction, and synthesising vast amounts of factual detail into its fabric). It’s that the desire of the novel to make sense of events, and find shape in lives is fundamentally at odds with the brutal and senseless nature of the reality, so much so that attempting to impose those shapes on the events often ends up looking like the worst sort of kitsch.
Solar, which has a relatively simple narrative and a small cast is one example of this problem at work, but I suspect it’s also a problem for larger, multi-strand narratives that attempt to grapple with the problem. Imagine, for example, the Underworld or (to use a filmic example) the Syriana of climate change. To work either dramatically or thematically they require the imposition of order upon what is an open-ended and diffuse problem. As James Wood correctly observes of Underworld, it “insist[s] on connections (the atom bomb is somehow connected to JFK’s assassination and to paranoia) as Dickens’s plots insist on connections (wills, lost relatives, distant benefactors)”. The problem is there are no connections in climate change, unless of course you believe there really is a vast conspiracy linking oil companies to governmental inaction (which there is, of course, but it’s the sort of messy, mutating, ad hoc conspiracy that crusading journalists can’t expose). Inventing a conspiracy, even a vanishing one as in Syriana, trivialises the problem by making it a function of individual action, rather than the system itself.
So, to return to my question before, what might a good novel about climate change look like? One answer might be science fiction. But while the capacity of SF to step outside the strictures of reality makes it better at dealing with these sorts of big ideas than conventional literary fiction, it’s hobbled by many of the same problems when it comes to climate change.
Take Stephen Baxter’s recent novel, Flood, as an example. In Flood Baxter graphically depicts the consequences of rapidly rising sea levels. At least initially this process is driven by climate change, but Baxter then adds a wrinkle of his own, suggesting that the release of the melting ice’s pressure on the earth’s crust allows vast sub-surface oceans to begin to pour forth, dramatically accelerating the process, so that within the space of a few decades the entire world is submerged.
When Flood works, it really works. The scenes in which the Thames Barrier gives way and London floods are truly terrifying, and there are any number of amazing details. But because it is, like most SF, essentially realist, it’s still compelled to at least gesture towards character and story (there’s actually an oddly clinical detachment to the whole book, so in many ways it is only a gesture). And, as a result, the thing it most resembles is a fictional version of a disaster movie, and more particularly films like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 (with which it shares a number of important devices).
So if not SF, then what? Some sense of an answer might be found in the work of William Vollman, and more particularly books like Imperial or Seven Dreams. Imperial is actually non-fiction, but all Vollman’s books sit on the borderland between fact and fiction, and seem to be less interested in representing the world than actually recreating it. They push at the boundaries of both fictional and non-fictional forms, and indeed at the limits of what readers are prepared to read, but they also suggest a point beyond the neatness and coherence of conventional fiction. And, with them in hand, it’s at least possible to imagine a book that might be able to draw together the many strands of the climate change catastrophe without trying to impose an obviously artificial order upon them.
The question to my mind though is less whether a writer like Vollman, or a book like Imperial might be able to assimilate and represent the subject, but in what sense it would be fiction if it did, especially if it also incorporated large slabs of factual detail or reportage. In this I am, of course, articulating the same sort of anxiety about fiction David Shields explores in Reality Hunger (a book I’ll post about soon) but it’s a real question: at what point have we so exploded the idea of the novel, and of fiction, that what we’re reading isn’t really a novel anymore? And if writing about climate change demands that sort of dismantlement, what does that tell us about the “failure” of contemporary writers to deal with the issue?