Cringe and Catastrophe: Madeleine Watts’s Climate Fiction

By Molly MacVeaghJuly 13, 2020

Cringe and Catastrophe: Madeleine Watts’s Climate Fiction

The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts

MIDWAY THROUGH Madeleine Watts’s debut novel, The Inland Sea, the narrator proclaims her love for the 1945 drama Brief Encounter. She likes the film because it’s “so cautious, so small,” and because every scene seems to occur “in a railway station, a drawing room, a cinema, a tearoom, as though all of England were nothing more than cramped spaces where middle-class lovers could gaze at one another in anguish.” The narrator, who goes unnamed throughout the novel, works at an emergency center in Sydney. She listens to distress calls and dispatches first responders to scenes of fire, flood, and violence, constantly dropping in and out of sweeping crises. It occurs to her only later that she might not be suited for the work, “not having much in the way of appropriate boundaries” between self and world. In this context, the contained tearoom anguish of Brief Encounter is the stuff of fantasy.

That sense of containment is particularly compelling because so many aspects of the narrator’s life refuse to stay within their designated bounds. Other people’s emergencies bleed into her own problems, novels leak into her romantic relationships, and personal history gets tied up in the weather. The Inland Sea’s bodies, particularly the narrator’s, often seem to be leaky or coming apart at the seams. Leftover fish seeps into its foil wrapping. Watermelon juice runs off the cutting board onto someone’s toes. In the shower, after an abortion, “viscous red clots” slide down the narrator’s thighs. After period sex with Lachlan, her on-again-off-again lover, she finds another clot (“animal, borderless, female”) at the base of his penis. Meanwhile: her hair is falling out in chunks, fires jump containment lines, the nearby ocean “bleeds into the sand,” and starfish on the Western Pacific Coast have developed a wasting disease — first accumulating white spots, then turning to goo.

If Watts’s narrative is thematically concerned with failures of containment, this becomes particularly interesting in light of her novel’s status as “cli-fi” or “climate fiction.” Midway through the writing process, Watts read Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, which argues that conventional realist storytelling struggles to represent the breadth and brutality of climate change. For Ghosh, novels function through the imposition of boundaries in time and space: “[L]ike the margins of a page, these borders render places into texts, so that they can be read.” Climate change presents a challenge to novel form because its “essence consists of phenomena that were long ago expelled from the territory of the novel — forces of unthinkable magnitude that create unbearably intimate connections over vast gaps in time and space.” Watts’s novel, which features a series of real climactic events from 2013, challenges this notion of the realist narrative as bounded form. It, too, is leaky, infused with real fires and real floods. If the narrator’s life is ruptured by the emergencies on the phone lines, the novel’s references to “real” weather events provide a formal echo of that rupture. Look, Watts seems to say, perhaps some of this climate stuff is unrepresentable, trans-temporal intimacy. But also: All this shit happened in one Australian year. Realism can handle that fine.

I don’t mean to suggest, here, that Watts’s novel is standard realist fare. While it sometimes reads like the brand of literary chick lit for which I have a soft spot (girl finds boy, girl finds critical theory, girl discovers theory offers limited protection from heartbreak but a useful conceptual vocabulary) its overall tone registers as vaguely surreal. We learn that the heat that summer is so bad that lions are given milk-flavored ice blocks, and the zebras get carrot-flavored popsicles. We learn about the time the Soviets diverted the waters of the Aral Sea to grow melons and accidentally created the Aralkum Desert — a desert whose toxic dust has been found in the blood of Antarctic penguins. In an essay for The Irish Times, Watts describes how compiling her strict chronology of weather events from old newspapers and notebooks yielded something like a method. “I noted,” she writes,

that when the facts were arranged in this way it sometimes read like the book might edge over the line into the science fictional or the magical realist. The uncanny nature of these events only became meaningful to me in the aftermath when I could examine them from afar. This method was the best way I found to express the reality of the world.

To my mind, Watts’s method succeeds, both in challenging Ghosh’s thesis about the irreconcilability of realism and climate crisis and in answering his call to create new approaches to writing the Anthropocene. In so doing, The Inland Sea joins recent efforts like Richard Powers’s The Overstory and Jenny Offill’s Weather two novels that have bent the genre norms of realism to ecocritical ends. Ultimately, however, I’m less interested in the genres-of-climate-fiction debate than in The Inland Sea’s particularly disarming figurative economy. The narrator is British explorer John Oxley’s “great-great-great granddaughter,” and his colonial penetration of the Australian continent serves as historical analogue for both the narrator’s bodily vulnerability and the vulnerabilities of the contemporary landscape. At one point, Watts’s narrator even goes so far as to suggest that “the environment was merely the outer equivalent of my inner reality. Or perhaps it was the other way around.”

Here the novel gets more troubling, and more interesting. The narrator’s personal analogies between land and self are often left implicit, but they find direct articulation in the passages that focus on Oxley and his fellow searchers for Australia’s rumored “inland sea.” “They all believed,” Watts writes, “believed in the warm, wet center opening its legs out there in the heart of the dead, dry, country.” When the parallels between the geography of New South Wales and the Australian continent were found lacking — the promised sea absent — then “it was felt, if not made a point of law, that the land was just as wild as the kind of woman who’s asking for it.” The failure of the initial logic “would not stop anyone from reaching a hand into the navel of the earth and squeezing at any promising flesh they could find.”

This gendered squeezing is an instance of that classic figurative illusion where inhabited lands become female, empty, inert. It’s the logic whereby Columbus imagines the earth as a breast, the logic of the map from King Solomon’s Mines where heathery hills are a pubic mound. This is a symbolic equation so well established that the feminist critique of the trope has become its own scholarly cliché. The moments of sexual violence in The Inland Sea, when taken together with the historical feminization of terra incognita and the narrator’s implicit parallels between personal and climatalogical disaster, sit in uncomfortable proximity to those old tropes. So has this novel taken the woman-as-nature and recast it into something new? Or does it get stuck rehashing notions of gendered wilderness? What are the affective politics of presenting an individual woman’s pain alongside and as figure for crises of global proportions?

One answer might be that The Inland Sea rehearses these tropes with a certain amount of ironic distance. Watts’s narrator, after all, is very explicitly telling a story of a person she no longer completely identifies with. “At that point in my life,” she explains, “I don’t think I had considered that anybody but myself had the capacity to feel things with any real integrity.” Elsewhere she concedes that the woman/nature analogy feels most compelling when drunk. “Perhaps I was the kind of person, like a banksia tree, that needed an occasional catastrophe in order to break open my outer shell, spread my seeds and grow. At the bottom of a bottle of wine, the analogy seemed sound.” Approached in the tradition of literary chick lit, the constant doubling of female vulnerability and ecological vulnerability becomes a kind of self-contained critique — a wry nod toward the youthful tendency to inflate personal suffering and the temptations of the retroactive motif. Abortions as aborted planetary futures. Bodies bleeding as the world floods. Ghosting as the emotional analogue of extractive mining. Watts often courts the cringe.

But the novel, as I mentioned earlier, resists neat generic containment. This means it also resists unitary readings. While the woman/nature trope as a kind of self-flagellating youthful hubris is operative here, mostly I think the comparisons are up to something earnest. This novel is obsessed with the parallels between colonial exploitation, gendered violence, and the climate crisis because they get at something true — because that figurative economy is still up to its old tricks of obscuring the harmers and blaming the harmed. I found myself thinking of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams while reading, particularly her essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” (Jamison, I should mention, both blurbed this novel and teaches in the Columbia MFA program from which Watts graduated). Jamison writes about fearing the banality of her own emotions and the stereotype of the wounded woman, but by the end of the essay she’s changed her tune. “I think dismissing female pain as overly familiar or somehow out-of-date — twice-old, thrice-told, 1,001-nights-told — masks deeper accusations: that suffering women are playing victim, going weak, or choosing self-indulgence over bravery.” Yes, “some news is bigger news than other news. War is bigger news than a girl having mixed feelings about the way some guy fucked her and didn’t call.” “But,” she continues, “I don’t believe in a finite economy of empathy; I happen to think paying attention yields as much as it taxes. You learn to start seeing.”

Watts’s novel is best read as a call to start seeing beyond finite empathy economies. It plays with the idea that understanding ecological and personal catastrophes through each other is something cringey and then challenges that cringe’s gendered stakes. The Inland Sea doesn’t assert the equivalence of climate catastrophe and the guy who doesn’t call, but allows them to exist in concert. The large crises of the novel are shot through with smaller pains — indignities and heartbreak and badly inserted IUDs that serve as micro indices for other kinds of harm. While it occasionally spans vast gaps in time and space, mostly Watts’s narrative is concerned with the “unbearable intimacies” closer to home. In carefully lining up climatological events and the banalities of breakups, The Inland Sea suggests that climate crisis may very well be representable within the generic containment of everyday life. First we just need to acknowledge that the anguish of an English tearoom and the anguish of geohistorical catastrophe might be happening simultaneously.


Molly MacVeagh is a graduate student in English at Cornell University. She works on questions of food and climate in contemporary literature. Her writing has appeared in Public Books and The Rambling.

LARB Contributor

Molly MacVeagh is a graduate student in English at Cornell University. She works on questions of food and climate in contemporary literature. Her writing has appeared in Public Books and The Rambling.


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