Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, University of Chicago Press, 2016, $15.
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Come with me into the hidden abode of literary production. Here, behind the comings of age amidst tragedy, the journeys of self-discovery traveled through existential crises, and the excavations of rotting family ties, lies a darker secret: the coal heart of the modern novel.
For Amitav Ghosh, himself the author of many novels including The Hungry Tide and Sea of Poppies, the idea that fossil fuels are at the heart of the modern novel is no metaphor, but rather historical fact. The assumptions of literary narration, he reminds us, are based on a second background assumption — “the orderly expectations of bourgeois life.” Lives ordered by time pieces. Encounters governed by a set of social behaviors — usually shared with the reader as well, so the smallest misstep can ultimately lead to a character’s undoing. Such an understanding of the kinds of tensions which can be used to drive plots could only exist, Ghosh contends, in a world where humans believed themselves separate and above nature. The exploitation of fossil fuels, through manipulations of space, time, and thermodynamics, allowed humans to imagine they might not be dependent on nature the way they once were. This apparent separation between humans and nature, so uncharacteristic in human history, was rendered intelligible by “a belief in uniformitarism…and also by a range of governmental practices… informed by statistics and probability,” which over decades and centuries eroded our “instinctive awareness of the earth’s unpredictability.” Where such unpredictability remained, the narratives of fossil capital told us that shipments of coal or a new oil pipeline could impose stability on uncertainty and could smooth over discrepancies in natural harvest cycles. Fossil capital recited this story compellingly, even when evidence to the contrary abounded: famines, wars, mass poisoning through industrial pollution.
The new belief in the human capacity to understand and control nature dominated the emergence of modern scientific thought in the West, which talked about in terms of “improvement.” This moral ecology which emerged in the novels of the time has persisted throughout the reign of fossil fuels. Ecological narration in the modern literary novel molds around human drama, and nature only enters plots in the service of understanding ourselves — a well-timed thunderstorm, compellingly directed winds, sunshine that allows for contemplation. Little recognition of stories without humans at their center, or that, nature might not be interested in human dramas at all.
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We live in the Anthropocene, the age of climate change, the time where planetary climate will come to be defined by the impact of human activity, and particularly the climatic ravages of capital accumulation and exploitation. But, Ghosh claims, if you judged the seriousness of the problem by the pages of “serious” literary fiction, you would likely miss that it was not only an existential threat to human life, but already happening. Already killing and displacing and starving. How is it possible that such a serious social problem has not been taken up by the genre that has for centuries played a powerful role in shaping politics around the world? How is it that some of the most outspoken writers on climate change, like Arundhati Roy, have not written a climate change novel?
At the heart of the problem, Ghosh believes, is the question of the novel’s conventions of believability. In service of his point, he relays to us a story of his own — a real one, yet still unsuited, he says, for serious fiction as it is presently understood — in which perchance he happened to discard his normal routine, which happened to place him in the path of a freak weather event, a tornado which cut through the heart of Delhi in 1978. It was “the first tornado to hit Delhi — and indeed the entire region — in recorded meteorological history. And somehow I, who almost never took that road… had found myself it its path.” For decades his mind has returned to that day — “as is often the case with people who are waylaid by unpredictable events” — but he has found himself unable to write about a tornado in his fiction despite many attempts. The story defies the underlying demand of novelists to eschew the extraordinary in favor of the mundane. If a student showed up with a version of Ghosh’s story to a fiction seminar, they would likely find themselves roundly chastised for relying on chance and unlikely events to substitute for the painstaking work of revealing through the everyday and ordinary.
Our new epoch, defined by planetary climate change, has been ushered by dramatic and, in the narrative we now use, unpredictable events that appear disconnected, which are unprecedented, and most importantly, which are observed as improbable. They don’t fit into the conventions of a novel designed for a different era, one which relied on climatic stability and based in the expectations of the fossil-fueled societies which unraveled that stability. Thus, climate change has been largely consigned to science fiction, and when such unpredictable and unprecedented events occur in literary fiction, to the traditions of magical realism or surrealism. Ghosh is quick to remind us of the problem here: “improbable though they may be, these events [we are now experiencing] are neither surreal nor magical. To the contrary, these highly improbable occurrences are overwhelmingly, urgently, astoundingly real.”
The problem then, is not that novelists are unconcerned with the coming of climate change — Ghosh cites several examples of organizing and non-fiction writing by novelists that demonstrate a substantial depth of involvement in climate justice politics — but instead that the very form of the modern novel is somehow incapable of confronting the challenges we face as we enter the Anthropocene, the epoch of climate disruption. But we are at a crossroads: the modern novel, with its focus on intimate realism and the close attention to the unfolding of the ordinary, is a form quickly diverging from reality.
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Ghosh’s insistence on the banality of realism in modern literary fiction should not be interpreted to mean that contemporary literary fiction lacks the bizarre or extraordinary. Such events continue to drive plots, but concealed in the mundane. Indeed, “the concealment of [narrative] scaffolding of events continues to be essential to [the novel’s] functioning.” It is the very act of concealment of the extraordinary and implausible “that makes a certain kind of narrative a recognizably modern novel.” The realist novel, then, fetishizes the ordinary in order to obscure those events which drive change, which bears remarkable similarity to Marx’s hidden abode of production in Capital. This change in narrative form is truly a product of the industrial revolution: earlier literary works were full of extraordinary events; they stood, in fact, as the primary focus of any particular work. Modern realism in literary fiction is historically tied to a narrowing of what might constitute the real.
Building on Terry Eagleton’s observation in Marxism and Literary Criticism that “A ‘realist’ work is rich in a complex set of comprehensive relations between man, nature, and history; and these relations embody and unfold… what is most ‘typical’ about a particular phase of history,” fiction seems incapable of either embodying or unfolding that thing which will likely mark our moment in history so powerfully that it will stand part of the geological record: climate change.
On its face, this inadequacy might seem unremarkable, but remember the way that the literary novel has confronted other crises within capitalist society: from the long Black literary tradition in the United States writing against white supremacy; the literary rebellion that accompanied the wave of anti-colonial liberation struggles in the mid-twentieth century, or the feminist novels that cemented the place of the inner lives of women in the world of serious fiction. In our contemporary world, novelists like Jesmyn Ward, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Edwidge Danticat have written masterpieces addressing some of the most pressing social issues we face: racism, xenophobia, the legacies of colonial rule and the ongoing destruction of imperial wars. Ghosh’s point is not that literary fiction is not tackling serious issues — so why does climate change remain such a literary blind spot? According to Ghosh, it is the production of the very concealment which gave the modern literary novel its narrative power.
It is a powerful argument which allows Ghosh to deftly explore some of the failings of mainstream literary production and reveals something poignant about the state of a large swath of contemporary fiction — especially the type written by the kind of white men that the Twitter account Guy In Your MFA is meant to parody, or maybe Jonathan Franzen. (Can you guess which of them tweeted: “story idea: a married man is so complicated and interesting that he sleeps with a 22-year-old”?) One only need to look at the books nominated for the big literary prizes to see how the boundaries of serious fiction continue to be enforced by privileging certain kinds of storytelling. The shift toward what John Updike has called the novel of the “individual moral adventure” is not omnipresent, but has dominated the very countries which oversaw the massive expansion of fossil capitalism in the twentieth century known as “the Great Acceleration.” It was “at exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament” that we find ourselves “in the thrall of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics, and literature alike.” Ghosh implores us to recognize the need for a new kind of fiction, and recognition, he notes, “is not… the discovery of something new: it arises rather from a renewed reckoning with a potentiality that lies within oneself.”
The Great Derangement is a collection of essays meant to throw down the gauntlet for novelists living at the moment we have recognized the Anthropocene, the age of climate disruption, as our new reality, but this call to action is built on an uneasy — and under-interrogated — acceptance of the divide between what he calls “serious fiction” and other genres, notably science fiction. Were he to have probed further, he might have engaged more substantively with the literary work and theoretical contributions of writers like Kim Stanley Robinson, author of, most recently, New York 2140. Robinson has pushed back forcefully against the dominance of the bourgeois novel, calling science fiction “the realism of our time.” Robinson has also pointed out that as the reality of climate change has advanced a range of books that would once have been securely called science fiction into “halfway” genres, like “dystopian.”
One of Ghosh’s complaints is that attempts to take up the problem of climate change cannot address that it is already ongoing. Dystopias and science fiction take place too far in the future for his liking, though a new cohort of novels is challenging such temporalities, instead pushing us to reconsider the way past, present, and future link together. Perhaps the most powerful among them is Omar El Akkad’s American War (Vintage, 2017), which tells the story of Sara T. Chestnut, a climate conflict refugee from Louisiana who grows up in the midst of the second American civil war and thanks to a grammatical error, moves through life known as Sarat. Although set in the near future — Sarat is born in 2068; the second American civil war begins in 2074; both are well within the conceivable life-time of many millennials — the novel bears the scars of our present as El Akkad weaves a hauntingly effective hybrid of the American and Syrian civil wars.
In American War, the southern states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina secede from the Union after the federal government — which thanks to rising sea levels, is now located in Columbus, Ohio — bans the use of fossil fuels. A biological weapon has turned South Carolina into a land of the living dead, but the other secessionist states continue to run a government out of Atlanta. They also run Camp Patience, the refugee camp in the northern part of the old Mississippi Delta where Sarat spends the rest of her childhood. We see militias recruiting those youth who have been disaffected to the point of radicalism. History is vengeful in American War, demanding to be heard even over the sound of the bombs so “you got the sense from being around them that no war in the history of South Carolina had ever ended, that they were still fighting them all at once.” El Akkad’s treatment of climate change is powerful, managing to give enough detail that the imminence of such dramatic changes shocks a contemporary reader, but close and detailed enough that the instability feels lived with by the characters. Theirs is a world adapted to radical uncertainty. And yet, it is recognizably our own.
There lies another temporal tension which has particularly haunted American fiction: sometimes dystopia looms not only in front of you, but behind. Chattel slavery, which drove the colonization of the Americas, was an ecological regime as well as a brutally racist and economic one. It is the missing piece in Ghosh’s narrative, which while focusing on colonialism and climate change tacitly overlooks the enslavement of millions that facilitated both. So if the climate fiction Ghosh imagines must be able to understand our present under the shadow of our future, it must also reach backward, loosening the packed soil of the past like roots winding down into the earth. The power of place and the natural world has, in part for this reason, played a central role in African American fiction.
Consider Bernice McFadden’s 2012 novel, Gathering of Waters, a novel literally narrated by a place: the town of Money, Mississippi. Tass Hilson is in love with Emmett Till when he is lynched in 1955. The town traces her across the next fifty years, follows her to Detroit, through another marriage, and back home. Hurricane Katrina arrives at the end of the novel, and the rains return Till’s spirit from the waters of the Tallahatchie River. Here is a story where nature is not only present, it narrates the story and at many points drives the plot. And while Gathering of Waters has strains of the magical within it, McFadden’s choice to anchor both ends of the story in historical events means that the narrative never slips into surrealism or magical realism. Indeed, with nature as character, a rejection of the idea of linear progress which Ghosh points out “has been one of the animating forces of the literary and artistic imagination since the start of the twentieth century,” and a narrative that can contain the uncanny weather events that increasingly define our time, Gathering of Waters is the very climate fiction which Ghosh laments does not yet exist.
Hurricane Katrina was one of the first horrific storms of the Anthropocene, fittingly a disaster as man-made as it was natural. McFadden’s novel returns the reader to reports of apocalypse: how amidst incredible fresh death and suffering, the waters released the bodies of long-dead from tombs and cemeteries. She reminds us that nature will not allow the past to remain buried, and that the Anthropocene will not only be etched in the geological record, but that it has a human genealogy too: one defined by the legacies of slavery, colonization, and industrialization. The climatic improbability of the Anthropocene maps with striking ease across other axes of change, power, and oppression. Gathering of Waters pushes against Ghosh’s claim that “the climate crisis threatens to unravel something deeper, without which large numbers of people would be at a loss to find meaning in their history.” Instead, it is the reckoning with the waters that allows Tass to finally confront her history and make peace with herself. The frightening potential of climate change is not then, that meaning might be wiped away, but rather that some bodies might rise with the waters, pungent and unable to be reburied.
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Ghosh’s evocation of Marx’s commodity fetish has a powerful afterlife. At the heart of how the fetish operates is a wonderful sleight of hand. The world appears to work one way while hidden at the corner of one’s vision, the truth appears upside-down. The multiplicity of moving relationships which make such operation possible, especially at the scale of global society, infused historical capitalism with incredible contingency, a contingency amplified by its biggest structural weakness: the reliance on workers to power it. Ghosh’s gesture is no accident; there is real substance to it. The thing hidden away our own non-human lives, the past and future ecologies of human dramas.
Trish Kahle is a journalist and writer currently based in Chicago, where she is working toward completion of a PhD. Her work has appeared in outlets such as Jacobin, Salvage, Dissent, In These Times, The Ecologist (UK), Salon, and Socialist Worker. Her fiction has received the Rondthaler Prize and was runner up for the Black Warrior Fiction prize. In 2009, the Center for Women Writers honored a portfolio of her writing with the Penelope Niven prize. She is a member of the Red Wedge editorial collective.