The stories we have about apocalypse don’t seem to take in how they are actually happening in real time. So what are they even for?
I have a new essay at the New Republic, a review of the new novels by Don DeLillo and Jonathan Lethem. I wrote about how their novels seem to describe different parts of the same apocalypse — the DeLillo describing the day it happened, and the Lethem telling a story from years later, in the aftermath — and so I wrote about them together and thought through the implications of that, and how while these novels might not warn us about the future, they might still tell us something about our present. Here is an excerpt:
In my speculative fiction course this fall, my students identified a place and time we referred to as Dystopia TM, a sort of abstracted postapocalyptic landscape that has become as familiar a backdrop as Victorian England, 1950s America, or any white suburb on television. The polluted sky and water, the ruined city, rebels living in the outskirts, the authoritarian government that took over after some vaguely named Troubles, all of which might as well get a TM, too. My students raised the possibility that we were living in a dystopia where people read Dystopia TM novels that didn’t tell them much about how the world worked, and that remains, to my mind, pretty much where we are right now in the United States.
My students were struck by how much the world of Butler’s Parable of the Sower felt like ours, and not the anodyne version sold to us in more recent popular entertainments. Published in 1993, Butler’s novel is now recognized as oracular, predicting among other things a president who runs his campaign on making America great again. If you’ve read the novel, it is hard not to see the man we just voted out. But describing a taboo by imagining a future where it can be described isn’t the same as predicting the future.
Something I feel like I saw a lot of over the last four years was a mania for predictions, especially regarding Trump. In a country with a justice system that offers its protections on what we might call a spec basis, watching him move against the law without any accountability, day after day, left many people feeling as if predicting his next move might at least feel, if not like protection, power. Pundits underlined when they were right with the avidity of old-fashioned fortune-tellers advertising their powers. But being right about something awful doesn’t feel very good if you didn’t prevent it from happening.
The practice may be as old as humanity. But it is at least worth observing apocalypses don’t care when you think they’re going to happen. Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy, for example, a lyric re-history of the Americas, has many entries about different communities that believe the end of the world — the one pictured up above, foretold in the Bible — is believed to be upon them. The end of a millennia or the end of a century seems to call it out. And then the apocalypse doesn’t come, and everyone who gathered, waiting for such a departure, is greeted with disappointment. It becomes something of a punchline as the centuries go by inside of the books. But despite these many failures, the effort to declare the end of the world — despite getting it wrong — continues, in art and in punditry, as well as fortunetelling. Is getting it right the only value? And does getting a prediction right have any value at all?
Only after writing my review did I come across Ursula K. LeGuin’s review of Chang Rae Lee’s On Such A Full Sea, which identified the problem of Apocalypse TM, if differently, back in 2014:
Dystopia is by its nature a dreary, inhospitable country. To its early explorers it held all the excitement of discovery, and that made their descriptions fresh and powerful — EM Forster’s “The Machine Stops”, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. But for the last 30 years or more, Dystopia has been a major tourist attraction. Everybody goes there and writes a book about it. And the books tend to be alike, because the terrain is limited and its nature is monotonous.
The most familiar view of it is a wild landscape, more or less catastrophically ruined or neglected, in which human settlements exist widely separated from each other and cut off from nature, other species, sometimes even the outer atmosphere. These enclaves — underground or in domes or behind walls — are human hives, controlled by government and supporting a regimented, sheltered, safe, highly unnatural, often luxurious, “utopian” lifestyle. Those inside the enclaves consider those living outside them to be primitive, lawless and dangerous, which they are, though they also often hold the promise of freedom. So Dystopia has a hero: an insider who goes outside.
I liked Lee’s novel much more than she did, but I would add that it seems to me Apocalypse TM as figured in popular fiction is really about a fantasy of the Wild West, a colonial fantasy projected onto the future — even colonizing the future. And Dystopia? A Utopia that doesn’t have you in mind. You aren’t a part of what that government wants for the future or the present, or even the past — you are scheduled for erasure, either passively or actively.
But this brings me to part of what I was thinking about that didn’t make it into my review, glimpsed in this chapter Matthew Salesses’ edited out of his wonderful guide to writing, Craft in the Real World, which is, as of today, available for sale. He published his rogue chapter that as a standalone essay over at Catapult that I will certainly teach from, and I will hope it might appear in some future edition. In this part of the essay he writes about what it is like to be a writer in a dystopia, writing about that dystopia:
For a while, I tried to provoke resistance by writing reaction pieces after school shootings or police shootings or other manifestations of our dystopia made the news. It felt good when people shared these stories on social media. It felt like I was helping to change things. But then essentially the same thing would happen again. I would write essentially the same response. This happened over and over.
It started to feel like I was waiting for the next tragedy to come, like I was a part of the cycle. Instead of changing anything, or anyone, what I offered was catharsis, a place to put one’s feelings before the next horrible act. (This was before Trump’s strategy of overloading the news so that no one tragedy could demand attention.)
Catharsis is a state of rest, not a state of action.
It made me wonder whether reading dystopian novels (or watching dystopian films) ever made me feel like I should start a revolution.
If you read that last line — about whether a novel should ever start a revolution — and you laugh, ask yourself why.
The idea that we matter enough as writers to, say, begin a revolution with a book, that is something America is always trying to talk us out of. But if you want to engage in a little experiment, try to think of all of the fictional characters you know about whether you have read the book they live inside of or not: Don Quixote, Dracula, Anna Karenina, Frankenstein, Gatsby, Lolita, these are just a few off the top of my head, characters I heard about before I ever read the novels, and they are all commonplace names in American culture though they began in novels. Were they revolutionary? It’s hard to recognize what changed a culture after the culture changed because historically we don’t know what those moments before were like. What was radical before may not look radical now, in the aftermath. But irregardless, reading Salesses’ essay today I was reminded of something that has been on my mind for most of the last two years, which is, What is a novel for?
The idea that a novel should be useful feels like something that is either neoliberal, or Marxist, or abhorrent, or desirable, depending on where you’re standing. A novel can stop a bullet if you wear it over your heart (and it is thick enough); a novel can hold up a couch, in a stack — I have a few doing that right now, in my living room, after a couch leg broke. But perhaps it can do more than that: the East German writer Christa Wolf, for example, was criticized by her public for publishing her novella What Remains, about a woman who discovers she is under observation by the Stasi, only after the end of the East German government and not before — she had written it in the 1970s, but published it in the 1990s. The idea that her novella might have led to some earlier fall of the Wall might seem mystical to you at this distance, but something a writer can do with a novel is portray how people live inside of the systems they are born into. I began thinking about this after a conversation in Australia in 2019 with an Italian prosecutor who was seated across from me at a dinner party. I asked him about the novels of Leonard Sciascia, as I had no idea what else I could say to someone with his profession. And he lit up. “Those novels and stories, they helped me so much,” he said. “They showed me what the journalists at the time could not write about — how the mob held on to power. They helped me prosecute the mob.”
As we move into this new era, post-Trump, as we look around this landscape and try to make sense of it in art, it is worth thinking about what you need your art to do and why. Earlier tonight, for example, at EJ Koh’s launch event for the paperback of her stunning memoir, The Magical Language of Others, I was in conversation with her and we spoke of whether the act of writing could heal the writer. It’s an idea I’m very wary of, because I know how much might ride on it for the one asking the question. There’s no simple answer — you might heal, you might not heal, you might write and then heal after, as a result of the writing, but not directly. You might even heal someone else: a young man two years ago told me he read my first novel aloud in one day, alone in a house by himself, to himself, and that after he finished, he felt he could finally be in a relationship.
You might inspire a revolution. You might change the culture. You might change yourself, or someone else. You might warn future generations, or at least, this one. I guess we’ll see.