The Enormity of It All: On Stephen Markley’s “The Deluge”
By Kevin KoczwaraApril 18, 2023
The Deluge by Stephen Markley
That night, she couldn’t sleep and found herself thinking of the last of the gorillas, the tigers, the blackpoll warblers. The last of the wild. All those eyes in the sky incidentally bearing witness to a holocaust the scale of which had only occurred five other times in Earth’s four billion years. She often lay awake with this dark clarity of the world her daughter would know.
—Stephen Markley, The Deluge
I STAYED UP late during the lockdown. I sat on my couch, phone in hand, the television on but nothing important flickering from the screen. Comforting. Those first few weeks were about finding solace and routine. It was something we all needed but didn’t really know how to reconstruct. Our lives upended in a way that only seemed possible in fiction. A global shutdown. An unknown and unthinkable virus.
My daily routine revolved around keeping my two small children busy while my wife worked. At night, I found solace in the quiet moments after the three of them went to bed. Sometimes my nerves eased—the only light in the house the low glow of warm yellow from lamps beside the couch—though at some point the relaxation gave way to the fear of imminent death. I read the news on my phone: The Guardian, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, CNN. Each night, another disaster, another storm forming. Another death blow to humanity. On more than one occasion, I texted a group chat that we called “The Cell”: “The world is burning.” It seemed like it then. It still seems like it.
According to Scientific American, 2020 was the year with the most named storms on record—30. Storms get named when their wind speeds reach tropical storm velocity, 39 to 73 miles per hour. It was the fifth consecutive year that a Category 5 storm formed in the ocean. At the same time, the western United States continued to burn—more than 4.3 million acres in California alone. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there were 22 weather and climate disasters across the United States that caused more than a billion dollars’ worth of destruction, six more than the previous record of 16, which occurred in both 2017 and 2011. These were only the events that cost more than a billion dollars; this accounting doesn’t include the slightly smaller ones that seemed to happen every week.
My fear ratcheted up as I read. I became uneasy and started to wonder if it was a good idea to have children. Why did we do this? Why have we saddled them with this burning world? Is there any hope? It didn’t feel like it.
That feeling subsided, eventually, but the news didn’t get any better. There were flickers of hope: we all came together to watch The Last Dance (2020), the Michael Jordan–co-produced documentary about Michael Jordan himself and the end of the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty. Nostalgia took hold for those few weeks as we waited for the next episode to drop so we could remember what the world was once like, when Dennis Rodman played basketball and didn’t hang out with dictators. We watched Jordan create poetry in the air and in petty slights.
As the storms and fires raged, the vaccines arrived and lockdown rules eased. The heatwave worsened and lasted longer. It became clear that the drought will never end, and the hurricanes and floods will keep getting worse. But still, we moved on. One disaster after the next. Numbing. Two years passed.
And then, near the end of 2022, a book landed on my doorstep. A tome. The Deluge. And just like that, Stephen Markley made me relive my old nightmares—and gave me new ones.
When the pandemic began, Markley delivered his second novel to his editors at Simon & Schuster. He handed in some 1,200 pages. Markley had worked on the book for more than a decade, since before his 2018 debut, Ohio, came to life and made him an emerging literary star. The new book was The Deluge, a climate disaster novel grounded in reality and research, a cacophony of narratives that swirl and intertwine as the world as we know it comes perilously close to ending.
“It was … strange—and also, quite frankly, emotionally challenging at times—because we were editing this together at the very beginning of the pandemic and the shutdown,” Markley’s former editor, Stuart Roberts, told me in a phone interview. “It was me in my studio with this 1,200-page book while the world was falling apart, and that was a really uncanny and crazy time to be diving into this thing, because there are so many prescient details. I was like: are you a fucking fortune teller?”
The Deluge begins with a chapter set in 2013, about a scientist examining deep-sea methane molecules. Markley’s narrator spends the chapter watching Tony Pietrus open a letter with a mysterious yellowish-white powder in it. As Pietrus does this, he is watching his computer screen. His mind wanders: “He’d often do his best thinking when he let his mind go.” It drifts to the story of how he ended up here, all while watching the screen and seeing the future of the ocean and mankind changing as the methane bubbles boil and pulse, releasing gases that will alter the climate forever. Pietrus calls 911. It’s a hoax—cornmeal, not anthrax—but the moment lives with him. It becomes his party story, but eventually gets lost to time in favor of memories of the undersea methane bubbles rising in a “mad poetry scrawled in the unseen corners of the oceans’ expanse.” The chapter shifts and plays with time. You trace the arc of Pietrus’s career, fear what he fears, and see how the world is not ready to accept the fate that awaits it. You witness Pietrus’s life unfold: his family suffers, and you see why he will no longer stand still, no longer wait and watch the computer screens anymore. It’s a wonky chapter that gives gravity to what will come, nearly 900 pages filled with shifts in point of view, narrative style, structure, and voice.
There are the immaculate renditions of fictitious magazine articles from Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker that break up some of the narrative drive in order to give an outside perspective on characters we’ve come to love—even if we once hated them. The skill in these sections belies Markley’s experience as a journalist—the ultimate chameleon game of shifting voice and style—before his time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The best example comes in the form of a fake Vanity Fair profile of Kate “Chaos” Morris, the climate activist who has taken the country by storm because she has harnessed her charisma into an action group that supports any political leader from any party who supports her group, A Fierce Blue Fire, and its campaign to take down fossil fuels and begin the process of reversing climate change. The 2026 article includes unnamed “intimate” sources and a reporter following Morris as she makes one stop after another, quoting her and trying to unravel how she’s garnered this much influence.
There’s a wonderful moment where Markley skewers the way glossy magazine profiles look down on people who try to make a change, a section that begins in the perfect Vanity Fair tone, complete with a delayed nut graf:
If this was all Morris and FBF were doing it would be remarkable, but it is not what has propelled her into the public eye and earned her the nickname “the Rottweiler of the climate crisis.” She garnered this notoriety by putting an unthinkable head on a pike for all Democrats to see.
And while the book feels large in hand, it reads quick, never settling or lingering. Some stories come to life easily, like that of Matthew Stanton, which is written from the first person as he follows climate activist Morris on her quest to do anything necessary to get the people in charge to pay attention. Other chapters at first feel out of place and a little, well, gross, but these come to hold the novel’s center. They’re about “Keeper,” the down-on-his-luck addict who tries to turn his life around, only to be twisted in the wind as the climate disaster fights his every advance. “It was the third such storm of the summer, and the pattern was becoming familiar,” Markley writes about Keeper, or “you,” as he tries to recalibrate his life after a jail sentence. There’s more on the line—there’s a child and a partner. Bad decisions keep piling up, though. You pocket some rent money from a job you did for your dealer, and you pull a co-worker’s eyelid off with a pair of pliers after a night of drinking.
The chapter ends at an intersection with another character, a former actor turned preacher—a tent revival that brings new life to Keeper by giving him hope, but which also leads him down the next bad path towards a new reality that feeds the need the dope did before. Injecting a feeling of purpose, even if it splinters reality. After all, he’s just trying to survive when hope has long left him and these parts of America. It’s all of our flaws laid bare.
After a reading in Western Massachusetts, I asked Markley about the decision to conceive a book with so many characters. He was steadfast in his belief that it always had to be this way.
“The climate crisis is such an enormous problem [that] you can’t, to me, tell it through the one-character point of view—the I, I, I would be a little navel-gazey or overwhelming in a way,” he said. “I knew it needed to be a range of characters, and obviously they had to be different and come at the issue from different angles and different parts of society, from different races, classes, genders, etc. It always had to be like this to me, and it was a matter of finding what voices fit into this world.”
The climate crisis has a feeling of the inevitable, and at the same time, it’s a mess of information coming from all angles. There’s the news and the protests and the spin cycle we’re put through by executives at big oil companies. And then there are the dire messages. On March 20, we got our “final warning” from climate scientists that the earth is nearing “irrevocable” damage. But no one is doing anything or listening. President Joe Biden recently approved new drilling in Alaska and the rest of the world isn’t taking notice either.
I read about the latest disaster and newest papers on my phone, and when someone asks what I’m reading, I quietly deflect, trying to keep in the boiling rage at our (and my) collective malaise. It’s as if I’m living in Melancholia, Lars Von Trier’s 2011 movie where another world collides into our own, and I’ve chosen to do nothing, perplexed and worn out by the situation.
At the same time, watching a dense and overbearing movie like Melancholia can be soothing. It’s art that challenges and pushes. A favorite novel of mine has long been Don DeLillo’s own “big book,” Underworld (1997), which investigates the human spirit and the American soul in the 20th century. It’s a collection of everything DeLillo had been working up to, with its layers of characters and plotlines that feel burdensome and relieving while also staying grounded in history and the moment. He is acutely aware that every movement impacts something else; each step and move will not only mean something in that moment but will also travel far into the future. The scope and magnitude give it a sense of wonder because inside the mechanics of the book are moments like a young child catching Bobby Thomson’s famous “Shot Heard ’Round the World” home-run ball in 1951.
In The Deluge, Markley does something similar. And like Thomson’s home run, it’s the moments of earnestness that ground a big novel like Underworld or The Deluge. It’s the simple human emotions. I keep coming back to the first time Matt meets Kate Morris while working in the Grand Tetons for the summer. He’s there hoping to become a writer but working a dull summer job renting out canoes when Morris walks up to him with a slip for a boat. At that moment, he had been standing gawking with another young co-worker—“Babe o’clock” is what his buddy says as Morris approaches them. It’s a simple and dumb statement, but one of many that ground the book about big ideas in something as simple as the silly language we use. It’s a love story. We see Matt and Kate banter and eventually fall away until he sees her later, after his boss puts in a good word with her. She hands him a beer while tending bar in town, and they talk intermittently in that flirtatious way people do when they’re interested in one another, passing each other and oversharing.
“Over the next three hours while I nursed free beers, I learned about her in this piecemeal way,” Markley writes.
She breezed by to ask, “So where in North Carolina?” “Why Jackson?” “What have you hiked so far?” In turn, I got all those crucial biographical details. From Phoenix originally but moved with her mom to Portland at age thirteen when her parents divorced. She’d studied philosophy at Oregon and graduated two years ago. Her dad used to bring her to Jackson in the summers. She came to the mountains right out of college to ski, hike, climb, raft, and “do activist shit” and now worked for a group called the Bison Project.
For a large book, Markley moves through each character’s life in quick moments. He sees the world as we see it. We careen forward with information, sharing everything we can to see if there’s a connection. Then, we fall into the mundane with each other, all the baggage out of the way, understanding the boundaries of our lives. Life is messy, but it does move in these rhythms. We come and go from point to point. We have hobbies and things we love, but those things change. What can stay the same are our connections to other people.
The length, for Markley, isn’t a challenge or dare. He loves big books.
“People are always saying, ‘Big book, it’s tough.’ But, like, those Harry Potter books sold a lot,” he says. “People like Stephen King novels. People love Game of Thrones … If a book is compelling, if a book is engrossing, there is almost no reason it can’t be twice as long. I remember when I was finishing this up, I was reading War and Peace, and I was like, ‘This book could be another thousand pages and I would keep going with it.’ When you read something and it has gripped you, and that you are finding new fascinating components with every page, I just think there is no page limit to that.”
When I finally cracked open The Deluge, a few weeks after it arrived and scared me with its heft, I got caught up in it. The book brought back the memories of those nights watching the world seemingly slip away into disorder. And while we haven’t reoriented, we’ve certainly become complacent with the ice caps melting, with political leaders lying to us, with oil companies lobbying for more money and putting the blame on everyday people. Markley is the first to tell you that he doesn’t have the answers and isn’t a scientist, but what he has done is remind us that we are all in this situation, and the only way to hope for change is to realize it needs to happen.
In August 2020, wildfires raged across Oregon, Washington, and California. More than 10.2 million acres burned. The clouds of smoke rose and forced airlines to cancel flights. The sky turned orange, red, and pink, and the sun tried to pierce the veil.
At the same time, the National Basketball Association returned to action in a controlled environment it called “the bubble,” at Disney World. The season had to go on. And to ease my mind, I would stay up at night to catch the games. I’d slide onto the couch and finally relax. Markley did the same thing.
A former “JV all-star,” Markley looks like someone who played high school basketball—contrary to his self-effacement, he did eventually make varsity. He watches endless hours of basketball. It’s his release valve. From everything I’ve been told, he is a disciplined writer who takes his work seriously—between prose projects, he wrote for the hit TV show Only Murders in the Building—but to do that, we all need to be reminded that there is beauty to be seen in the world. Sometimes it takes staying up late to watch the Utah Jazz play the Detroit Pistons on League Pass to make you realize that there is hope even in the darkest black holes of misery.
Kevin Koczwara is a journalist in Worcester, Massachusetts. He has written for Esquire, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Boston Globe Magazine, Boston magazine, and Literary Hub, among other publications.
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