The Climate Apocalypse According to Joy Williams

The Climate Apocalypse According to Joy Williams

The Climate Apocalypse According to Joy Williams

With her first novel in 20 years, Harrow, the radical environmentalist envisions an uncompromising politics necessary for defending the natural world.


Maggots: The Record, the 1987 concept album by Wendy O. Williams and the Plasmatics, opens with the following monologue:

It is 25 years in the future. Environmental abuse and the burning of fossil fuels have effectively doubled atmospheric CO2 levels creating a greenhouse effect of strength unknown in historical times. Global temperature rises have caused accelerated melting of the earth’s glaciers and polar ice caps. Preventative measures against massive flooding have been unrealistic and poorly constructed. New York City is typical of cities all over the world. The part which is not completely submerged is a network of festering stagnant pools percolating in a blistering heat in humid air. Day by day, the sound of buzzing flies has become more and more pronounced.

Wendy O. Williams was a provocative public figure, more so than many musicians known for hardcore punk and thrash metal. She was once arrested and charged with obscenity for simulating sex onstage. The cover of her 1984 album, W.O.W., was presented as testimony at the Senate hearing that led to the adoption of parental advisory labels. When she died by suicide in 1998, she left a note affirming a person’s right to do so as essential to a free society. Author Joy Williams knows Wendy best not for any of these distinctions (nor for any reason suggested by their sharing a last name), but for her years of work as an activist for environmental justice and animal rights.

Wendy O. Williams is the subject of an essay in Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals, Joy Williams’s 2001 nonfiction collection. Wendy is one of the few figures in the book Joy treats primarily with fondness and respect. Another is Ted Kaczynski. Ill Nature immediately followed The Quick and the Dead, Williams’s 2000 novel, in which an aspiring teenage ecoterrorist named Alice stumbles through a death-haunted Arizona while the adults around her embarrass themselves with feats of vanity and self-interest. These two books expound on an ecological agenda persistent throughout Williams’s oeuvre, which includes short stories in a minimalist, character-driven mode; earlier novels ruled by their own unique, dream logic; and a polemical travel guide to her onetime home of the Florida Keys.

Harrow, Williams’s first novel in over 20 years, imagines a future in which our hubris has brought about a near-apocalypse that a whole cast of radical environmental activists (among whom the familiar reader expects Alice lurks unnamed) is powerless but determined to resist. Like Williams’s other novels, Harrow is not didactic, but advances a commitment to the examination of human behavior as part of a broader ecosystem we are all responsible for preserving. The heroes of Harrow, like the heroes of The Quick and the Dead and Ill Nature, are the kinds of people to whom Williams continually returns out of a combination of awe, pity, and gratitude: People who are willing not just to take up their responsibility to the ecosystem, but to die for it.

Harrow begins with its protagonist, Khristen, telling the story of the night she died and was reborn, according to her mother. Many more naked biblical references will pop up throughout the book. Khristen’s early life resembles the domestic dramas of Williams’s short stories; her parents struggle to maintain the affection that sustains a family unit in the face of irreconcilable idiosyncrasies. Her mother entertains an open affair with a naive Christian teen. Her father will not shut up about boats. Things get weird quickly. This is how Williams’s novels work: People already on the brink of collapse somehow hold it together as the world around them contorts to reveal new dimensions of wild horror.

Khristen ends up at a boarding school where buttoned-up instructors present the children of the pompous social elite with philosophical quandaries that, once solved, turn out to be more like jokes. Soon into her time there, some cataclysm befalls the outside world, one which Williams never describes outright but which sounds a lot like a pandemic or some other environmental crisis:

The situation in the world outside our sheltered if dreary valley had changed, we were told. Priorities had changed. Hence the lack of an incoming class. But there were even more pressing problems. There was talk of a third of the once familiar world outside us being gone. A third of the whole. The remainder was still manageable, it was rumored; in fact things had to be managed more than ever. The two thirds left couldn’t be a whole, strangely enough.

The students are released into the world with frighteningly little protocols in place to guide or protect them. Khristen gets on a train that stops before it’s supposed to and walks out into a desolate landscape, where she’s found by a ragtag group of teenagers who live with an old scientist. The teenagers preach a fatalism too existential for their young age: “Despair, they explained to me, was caused by the attempt to live a life of virtue, justice and understanding. Despair arose when one tried to understand and justify human existence and behavior.”

The old scientist tells Khristen one of what will become a series of stories about biologists subjecting animals to spectacularly inhumane experiments. These stories read like tall tales, too creepy to be true, but multiple essays in Ill Nature touching on the subject of animal testing confirm they are hardly exaggerated. The scientist, one of a number of benevolents necessary to the moral balance of Harrow, offers Khristen his truck and sends her to the hotel where the bulk of the novel takes place. The hotel is managed by a woman named Lola, the leader of “the Institute,” a group of senior citizens committed to extremist action against a host of companies and organizations they hold responsible for the violent destruction of the natural world. The climactic action of the novel comes when the members finally carry out these acts of resistance, too late for them to really make the necessary difference.

The people of the Institute are all idealists of the type Williams admires and, in her own way, represents. As she recalls in Ill Nature, when she found herself obligated to sell an acre she owned in Key West, she drew up a contract to restrict the use of the land considerably—no new buildings, the remaining property to be preserved as wildlife habitat—and waited eight months, until she found a buyer who agreed. Selling an acre of land under the condition that no new buildings be constructed on the property is a little like selling a novel to a major publisher with the proviso that no edits be made to the submitted manuscript. Few novelists have attempted to do so with any real success, one major exception being William T. Vollmann (whom the FBI also suspected for a time of being the Unabomber).

Most of us who engage in political work on the left discover that some ideological hedging is required if we’re to go about our lives with any reasonable expediency. Anyone is encouraged to take the pains necessary to eschew meat, gas, travel, purchasing from a corporate entity, working for or with a corporate entity, commercial real estate, taxes, but they might have trouble getting much done in the way of resisting these evils on a broader scale. Whole communities on the left distrust this type, with their lofty concerns so far removed from the material. Williams is a different kind of leftist, one who might not even prefer the designation. Her determination to posit a world as it should be is the defining trait of the only type of supposedly respectable person crazier than the radical: the writer.

The stubbornly principled activists of Harrow are projections of Williams’s political values as well as her status and way of life as an artist. Williams closes Ill Nature, otherwise a book of essays about environmental ethics and politics, with an essay called “Why I Write,” a manifesto of the writing life that disabuses the reader of any notion that writing itself is an admirable or even pleasurable pursuit. Instead, it is fraught, frustrating, never satisfying, and ultimately impossible to abandon. “The writer writes to serve,” she says. “Hopelessly he writes in the hope that he might serve—not himself and not others, but that cold elemental grace that knows us.” For some, politics is a praxis, a way of manipulating moving parts of a system we all see with our eyes. For others, it is about something greater, something intangible: the alluring and dangerous mirage of the good life. Is a politics that demands we show the natural world all the respect we expect ourselves not, somehow, a hopeless yearning for prelapsarian grace?

Before he gives Khristen his truck, the old scientist tells her one more story, about his childhood best friend, Woodrow. “When I was a little boy my best friend died of defenestration. He was fascinated with windows. He thought there was another world out there and people were forever trying to convince him it was the same one. He was an exceptionally frustrated child. The possibilities of the window were for him the only possibilities that mattered.” Woodrow was frustrated, but he wasn’t altogether confused. His only miscalculation was assuming that the other world was sitting there waiting for him to arrive. The writer and the political radical both know that this is not exactly right, not quite. If you want to live in a perfect world, you have to make it.

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