JANUARY 1, 2017
ONE HAPPY SUMMER, I devoured a series of Amitav Ghosh’s books back to back. That was the summer when my son was born, and I was caught between the exhaustion of new parenthood and the aimlessness of having deliberately taken time off from work to be with an infant who didn’t always need my attention. He sat for endless hours on a swinging chair, staring up at a revolving mobile. My attention split between gazing at my son and wanting something else to occupy my mind, I found myself drawn to Ghosh’s eloquence, his graceful world-building, and the almost inexhaustible plasticity of his interests. I was moved by the generational view of history that captured Burma’s turbulent and difficult transformation into Myanmar, the deep dive into a long ago and largely forgotten cosmopolitan past, the speculative remapping of New York and Calcutta that collapsed far-flung places, times, and literary and scientific preoccupations, and so forth. My physical mobility was circumscribed; my imaginative mobility was uninhibited.
By the end of the summer, I was ready to say that Ghosh is one of the most important living writers writing in English. After consuming The Glass Palace, In an Antique Land, The Calcutta Chromosome, The Shadow Lines, The Circle of Reason, and The Hungry Tide (in more or less that order), I concluded my literary binge with the essays collected in an advanced reader copy of Incendiary Circumstances, and was especially wowed by the one entitled “Petrofiction.” Why is it, Ghosh asked in this essay in words more eloquent than my own here, that we don’t have more noteworthy fiction about oil? The possible significances of this question were brought home to me that August, when Hurricane Katrina swept across the Gulf Coast. I remember holding my newborn on my lap with his head nestled gently against my chest as I looked on in disbelief at the scenes of mayhem unfurled in front of me. The destruction was impressive, the racial and class divisions painfully glaring, and the governmental response reflective of decades of anti-government, anti-taxation militancy: that is, predictably incompetent.
In his new book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Ghosh asks a similar question to the one he asked about oil. Why, he wonders, do writers not concern themselves more with climate change? “[I]f the urgency of a subject were indeed a criterion of its seriousness,” he remarks at the book’s outset, “then, considering what climate change actually portends for the future of the earth, it should surely follow that this would be the principal preoccupation of writers the world over.” The natural and social sciences alone, he suggests, can only do so much: we also need a literature to bring our new realities to life for us. Unfortunately, we do not seem to have such a literature.
The Great Derangement attempts to explain this absence by retracing the history of modern fiction itself. The novel, Ghosh argues, arose to prominence precisely at the start of modernity’s dependence on fossil fuels. The late 18th and the 19th century witnessed the rise of a European bourgeoisie that afforded, at least for a select few, the leisure to write and read long-form print narratives. In the background was a world of seeming calm and predictability. Time was emptied of harsh, unexpected events. Even the natural world became a place of gradual change taking place over long epochs. In science, the catastrophists, who saw in the earth’s natural records profound and frequent disturbances, were subdued by the uniformitarian view of scientists like Charles Lyell, who made the case that species and climates stayed the same for all practical human concerns. This was the dominant view in evolutionary biology well into the 20th century.
Meanwhile, the novel offered its readers what the literary critic Franco Moretti (who Ghosh approvingly quotes) calls “the kind of narrative pleasure compatible with the new regularity of bourgeois life.” In the pursuit of such pleasure, the environment receded into the background as a kind of static, nonreactive element. In earlier times, before the bourgeoisie became the dominant cultural force, and especially in premodern times, a lively environment was more central to storytelling. One might consult Virgil’s Georgics, for instance, to get a sense of the enormous importance nature and its powers played in the kind of ambitions humans could pursue. Or, to turn to an example Ghosh provides, consider the 16th-century Chinese folk epic Journey to the West, which is “a form of prose narrative, still immensely popular, that ranges widely and freely over vast expanses of time and space. It embraces the inconceivably large almost to the same degree that the novel shuns it.”
By the time we reach the mid-20th century, however, a certain set of conventions that relegate the environment to something marked by, as Ghosh puts it, “finitude and distinctiveness” has become the assumed norm. The New Critics even had a disapproving term for those occasions when writers made the mistake of allowing the background too much into the story, thus enabling the environment and inanimate things to participate too actively in matters that should only concern humans and their capacity for agency. They called it the “pathetic fallacy.”
The novel, even while focused on this newly emergent sense of the everyday, had to tell stories about events that deviated from the norm, or it would be too tedious. At the same time, it had to convince readers that the events it narrated could actually take place. The emphasis was on the believability of what novels depicted, which in part was achieved through careful attention to details and the rendering of a dense reality that anchored its imaginary worlds to the concrete world of its readers. We might call this a reality effect, as what was produced in these narratives was a sense of the world that mirrored a specific historic and social context, all of which were powerfully shaped by strong ideological assumptions. The realist novel became the repository of occurrences that could plausibly happen, defining in the process the outer limits of chance and probability.
This focus on the probable ruled out novelistic attention to events that were simply too unlikely. It also encouraged what Ghosh calls “serious fiction” (more on that in a moment) to center the human as the primary agent of all action. Ironically, Ghosh notes,
in exactly the period in which human activity was changing the earth’s atmosphere […] the literary imagination became radically centered on the human. Inasmuch as the nonhuman was written about at all, it was not within the mansion of serious fiction but rather in the outhouses to which science fiction and fantasy had been banished.
As fiction became “serious,” it narrowed its focus and stopped caring about the very things that happened to be in the process of coming dramatically back to life after having been left for dead by conquest and the never-ending search for profit. Serious fiction became preoccupied by the everyday, where human interactions and emotions took center stage against a backdrop of calm weather, predictable seasons, and a world of objects there simply for human use.
Yet, as Ghosh notes, his life has been filled with moments when this backdrop surged to attention, as when a great calamity strikes. “[I]n the Congo in 1988,” he writes, “a great cloud of carbon dioxide burst forth from Lake Nyos and rolled into the surrounding villages, killing 1,700 people and an untold number of animals.” He came to recognize the meaning of such moments, especially when he was writing The Hungry Tide and thinking about the Sundarbans: “Overnight a stretch of riverbank will disappear, sometimes taking houses and people with it; but elsewhere a shallow mud bank will arise and within weeks the shore will have broadened by several feet.” Still, when he sat down to write, he struggled to communicate the force of such a changeable and dynamic landscape, one that seems to have a fierce agency apart from the humans who inhabit it. When he tries to write this landscape, something about the language of fiction seems to fight him.
What is this something? According to Ghosh, it is a “grid of literary forms and conventions that came to shape the narrative imagination.” For the past couple of centuries or so, we have seen ourselves as masters who hold dominion over a passive universe that exists solely for our benefit. The recognition of climate change poses a challenge to this idea, for nonhuman things themselves have suddenly seemed to spring to life, or perhaps are reasserting a liveliness that they have always possessed. Ghosh writes,
[T]he uncanny and improbable events that are beating at our doors seem to have stirred a sense of recognition, an awareness that humans were never alone, that we have always been surrounded by beings of all sorts who share elements of that which we had thought to be most distinctively our own: the capacities of will, thought, and consciousness.
The problem for fiction, then, is that it is poorly equipped to take full account of such an estranged world full of once rare occurrences. The novel is so committed to human beings and their small-scale problems, and so defined by the bourgeois uniformitarian view of a regular, unchanging nature, that it finds itself unable to provide an account of a world beset by climate change and the chain of very improbable events that it has set into motion. After Hurricane Sandy did its work on New York City and beyond, Ghosh found himself wondering what would happen if Mumbai was ever hit by a storm of similar strength. Such an event was, he thought, thoroughly improbable. Mumbai faces the “Arabian Sea, which, unlike the Bay of Bengal, has not historically generated a great deal of cyclonic activity.” When Ghosh researched this topic, he discovered that there were records of frequent storm activity in the 17th and 18th centuries. Since the 19th century, such storms became less frequent and less fierce. But even as he was conducting his research, “Cyclone Chapala, a powerful storm, was forming in the Arabian Sea”:
Moving westward, it would hit the coast of Yemen on November 3 , becoming the first Category 1 cyclone in recorded history to do so: in just two days, it would deluge the coast with more rain than it would normally get in several years. And then — as if to confirm the projections — even as Chapala was still battering Yemen, another cyclone, Megh, formed in the Arabian Sea and began to move along a similar track. A few days later another cyclone began to take shape in the Bay of Bengal, so that the Indian subcontinent was flanked by cyclones on both sides, a very rare event.
“Why,” Ghosh asked in the Guardian, “does climate change cast a much smaller shadow on literature than it does on the world?” His answer to this question is at once tantalizing and somewhat disappointing. It is tantalizing because it makes an original argument for the development of the novel that connects it to the rise of the bourgeoisie, the spread of imperialism, and the transformations wrought by industrialization — all familiar entities in standard accounts of the novel — and then adds to this list developments in science that fewer literary scholars have noticed. It’s disappointing because it ignores the fact that realism purged of fantastic or improbable elements is far from the only territory “serious fiction” is claiming these days.
Near the end of The Great Derangement, Ghosh writes: “I think it can be safely predicted that as the waters rise around us, the mansion of serious fiction, like the doomed waterfront properties of Mumbai and Miami Beach, will double down on its current sense of itself, building ever higher barricades to keep the waves at bay.” In an earlier version of this review, I wrote that the “mansion of serious fiction” had long ago fallen into the sea, and in its place literary hybrids now reign. I was thinking in particular of the ways in which genre writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson, Neal Stephenson, Paolo Bacigalupi, Jeff VanderMeer, Nalo Hopkinson, and many more are being taught in college literature classrooms and studied in literary criticism and scholarship. Their fiction seems to many of us no less serious than writers like Junot Díaz, Colson Whitehead, Chang-rae Lee, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Michael Chabon, all of whom have themselves allowed their writing to take on the forms of speculative fiction and fantasy.
With reflection, I’ve come to understand that I made the case too strongly. There are certainly many who continue to hold onto sharp distinctions between literary fiction and genre fiction, with some of the most ardent voices coming from writers of the latter. Le Guin, for instance, has taken Ishiguro to task for being dismissive of fantasy. Such distinctions can also be critically useful. Otherwise, we might end up flattening out differences that very much deserve our attention. Those differences may not have been as sharp as once claimed and are eroding rapidly, but they continue to exist. At the same time, what I would hold onto is the claim that “serious fiction” now applies — or at least should apply — to a much wider, and widening, set of texts.
Together, then, I think all of these writers are hard at work making possible the sense that the world is full of extraordinary and chaotic events, that improbable things are in fact happening all the time, and that we are all entangled with each other and with nonhuman things. Not all of them have written explicitly about climate change, although a surprisingly large number have. But all have already commenced the project of reimagining the world that fiction can conjure for us, a reimagining that is, according to Ghosh, a precondition to the kind of literary interventions climate change demands. Take for example Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, a novel set in near-future Phoenix, where water has grown dangerously scarce and the few people who have remained struggle to make ends meet. Nothing works in this novel quite the same way as it does today. Survival becomes challenging in a world dominated by drought, where life depends on a thin, and thinning, river that many states further north claim as their own. Meanwhile, giant “arcologies” are being built all across the west: these are self-contained buildings with their own elaborate ecosystems that recycle water carefully and incorporate vegetation and renewable power to keep their elite inhabitants comfortable. This is not a world of strong human agency, and the environment is now as lively and as menacing as anything found in premodern storytelling.
The literary hybrids I am gesturing to here are impressive, and I very much hope they continue to perform their important work. At the same time, I can’t help wondering whether this literature — or any literature — can have the importance Ghosh wants it to have. Ghosh seems to assume that literature, if it were to find a way to foreground climate change in its harrowing enlivening of things, could be a part of the kind of collective responses we need to mobilize in a hurry as time runs out. I have to admit that, especially after the recent presidential election, I am not entirely convinced literature is capable of such a herculean feat.
This is a problem that Ghosh readily acknowledges. “One of the reasons why climate change is a ‘wicked’ as opposed to a ‘normal’ problem,” he writes, “is that the time horizon in which effective action can be taken is very narrow: every year that passes without a drastic reduction in global emissions makes catastrophe more certain.” With the election of Donald Trump to the presidency and his nomination of Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier, to head the EPA, it seems clear that we are not going to see the action that is required. The devastation that rolled over New Orleans and its surrounding areas in 2005 is now most assuredly going to be a part of our everyday experiences. What is more improbable, then, is the thought that we can tackle this problem head-on and in concert with each other, and in doing so strengthen our institutions and our bonds with each other. I very much want to believe, as Ghosh does, that literature has a role to play in realizing what seems to be beyond our reach at this particular immediate moment. But there’s always a part of me that says: “Prove it.”