It feels as though environmental awareness is slowly starting to catch up with Joy Williams. The American author has been sounding the climate klaxon for decades: in her short and long fiction; in a 2001 collection of rants, Ill Nature; even in a guidebook to the Florida Keys. Bemoaning what she saw as a trend towards navel-gazing in literature, “real avant-garde writing today would frame and reflect our misuse of the world, our destruction of its beauties and wonders”, Williams told the Paris Review in 2014. Can fiction still address these issues as the earth reaches a point of no return?
Harrow comes 21 years after Williams’s last novel, the Pulitzer Prize shortlisted The Quick and the Dead. (Fortunately for her fans, she has released several short-story collections in the interim.) The Quick and the Dead, set in the Arizona desert, showed a world on the cusp of climate disaster. The story featured three motherless teenage girls, one of whom was a budding eco-terrorist.
Harrow continues along the same theme, following a different cast of characters in a further-deteriorated future. Khristen is a teenager who was born into a “ruined, overpopulated world” and now lives in an America on “the verge”. “The country was on the verge and had been for some time, the verge that people thought would go on forever.”
She is sent out west to a boarding school for the gifted, where the students read Nietzsche and puzzle over koan-like questions, until a cataclysm shuts it down. There is talk of a third of the familiar world being gone, but as in other recent apocalyptical novels, including Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind and Don DeLillo’s The Silence (DeLillo and Williams are mutual fans), the exact nature of the disaster remains vague. What is clear, however, is that humans are at fault. “Oh what have we done!! someone cried .”
With her father dead and her mother missing (children are often parentless in Williams's work), Khristen wanders into the countryside, landing at a toxic-lakeside community called the Institute, which is "not a suicide academy or a terrorist hospice. Or not exactly." The Institute houses an "army of the aged and ill" who are "determined to refresh, through crackpot violence, a plundered earth". Khristen also strikes up a friendship there with Jeffrey, a precocious 10-year-old obsessed with the law, as if grasping for a way to make sense of a nonsensical world. The two meet again in the last section, when Jeffrey (still a child) has become a judge in another town.
In the new world order, art can only depict the harrow, a farming tool that breaks up the soil. “Goddamn harrow was everywhere.” Used as a verb, ‘harrow’ means to cause distress. The book’s title may also allude to the “Harrowing of Hell”, Jesus’s foray into Hell between the crucifixion and resurrection, with Khristen’s name an obvious wink to Christ. Her mother was convinced that Khristen had died and come back to life as a baby and that she was “destined for something extraordinary”. Hailing from a family of clergy, Williams often employs biblical references. God, however, has left the building in Harrow: there is no redemption. “Absolution for what has been done is impossible,” says the director of the Institute.
Humour and wordplay
So was it worth the two-decade wait for Williams’s fifth novel? Harrow’s dark humour, nihilism and absurdist bent bear the author’s idiosyncratic stamp. With even less plot and narrative cohesion than usual, however, reading it can be disorienting, as characters float in and out of the story and the perspective shifts from first person to third, occasionally slipping back again. While Harrow has been compared to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it reminded me more of Jenny Offill’s fragmentary novel Weather-minable for glistening nuggets of humour and wordplay amid the doom. Language is, of course, inadequate in the face of the abyss. “Words might very well not suffice,” observes Jeffrey. “They seldom have.”
Unlike other contemporary climate novels, Harrow does not offer a warning and little in the way of hope. “You have to pity the fools who still want to recycle their toothbrushes and plant apple trees,” says one of the eco-terrorists. “Let them turn the lights off or never turn them on, it can’t matter now.” When the last tree goes down, with “a violent crack as of a great breaking”, there is nothing left for Khristen and Jeffrey to do but watch – their only feeble consolation that “the world’s heartbreaking beauty will remain when there is no heart to break for it”.