Friday, October 24, 2014

Inventing ''Cli Fi'' Literature

How to write about what we’re doing to the planet? In what genre, what form? I grew up outside of a small town in northwestern Colorado, and in recent years spruce and pine beetles have devastated forests throughout the Rockies, turning evergreen slopes a dead maroon. Beetles have always attacked and killed the trees there, just as the Atlantic Ocean has always bred hurricanes and droughts have scoured California. The difference—which we give the name ''climate change'' or global warming —lies in the new frequency and intensity of these events. A 2013 study from the University of Colorado found that drought and warmer sea-surface temperatures best explain the trees’ increased susceptibility to the beetles, and warmer and drier conditions are almost certainly what the coming decades have in store for the American West. Meanwhile, on a drive through the mountains, great bristling stands of living green- and blue-needled trees alternate with brittle dead zones, and the mind slips among memory, evidence, and anticipation: landscape I saw as a kid, landscape I now see, landscape that I foresee. The experience itself is a bit like hesitating between literary genres. There’s the novel of memory (and couldn’t “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” be translated, if you didn’t know better, as “In Search of Lost Weather?”); there’s the satire of contemporary life, complete with hand-wringing ruminations on the environment from the driver’s seat of a non-electric car; and there’s the work of science—or climate-science—fiction, set in the not-too-distant future, in which the coniferous forests of the West are no more.
Climate change has occasioned a lot of good journalism, but it poses as tremendous problems for imaginative literature as it does for electoral politics, and for many of the same reasons. The worst effects aren’t yet here, and even when global warming is the suspected culprit behind a hurricane or a drought, its fingerprints are never to be found on the scene of any particular disaster. Fictional characters, like flesh-and-blood citizens, have more urgent concerns than the state of the climate twenty years hence. Nor is it easy for people, real or imaginary, to feel any special moral relationship to the problem. Oil-company executives may be especially guilty, and environmental activists especially virtuous. The rest of us, in the rich countries, are culpable to such a similar degree that we might as well be equally innocent. So it is that a crisis at the center of our collective life exists for us at the margins of individual consciousness, as a whisper of dread or a rustle of personal implication. The main event of contemporary civilization is never, on any given day, the main event. It cannot be imagined as a punctual occurrence, like the “airborne toxic event” that hangs over DeLillo’s “White Noise” or the nuclear war, remembered as “a sudden shear of light and then a series of low concussions,” in the background to Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.”
Perhaps this is why climate change hasn’t yet left a literary footprint commensurate with its historical weight. [NOTE TO BEN: IT WILL IT WILL, AND IT'S CALLED ''CLI FI''] MATE! Ecological anxiety, to be sure, belongs to the atmosphere of plenty of realist fiction, and warmer, crazier weather darkly adorns many futuristic novels whose primary catastrophe has been unleashed by genetic engineering, peak oil, viral plague, or class warfare. Novelists not generally regarded as sci-fi authors have even set a handful of works in the drowned world of tomorrow. But few imaginative writers have dealt with the present-day experience of global warming in a direct and concentrated way. [BEN: please see the relevant pages for this at Wikipedia, there are TONS of cli fi novels out there now, from Nathaniel Rich's ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW to Barbara Kingsolver's FLIGHT BEHAVIOR. Please do some more reading, sir!]
The strongest work of cli-f -- to use a term t“10:04,”hat is trending now --  I’ve read is Ben Lerner’s novel  in which the significance of daily life—the books people write, the personal relationships they try to sustain—threatens to dissolve in the face of what is, for the narrator, “a future I increasingly imagined as underwater.” By the end of the novel, the underwater future has materialized, for a time anyway, in the shape of Hurricane Sandy, which in the fall of 2012 battered New York City and submerged its lower-lying districts. Even so, Lerner’s narrator, whose neighborhood and apartment are spared, feels that this future doesn’t quite include him. “Another historic storm had failed to arrive,” he says, then adds:
Except it had arrived, just not for us. Subway and traffic tunnels in lower Manhattan had filled with water, drowning who knows how many rats; I couldn’t help imagining their screams. Power and water were knocked out below Thirty-Ninth Street and in Red Hook, Coney Island, the Rockaways, much of Staten Island. Hospitals were being evacuated after backup generators failed; newborn babies and patients recovering from heart surgery were carried gingerly down flights of stairs and placed in ambulances that rushed them uptown, where the storm had never happened.
The passage is the exception proving the rule that the contemporary experience of climate change has so far eluded the grasp of literature. Lerner can write a novel, set in the present, that deals with the subject head-on, but only by becoming essayistic, journalistic (the narrator is aggregating news stories in his head; he is neither evacuating a hospital nor being evacuated himself), and, even then, only amid the heaviest weather yet visited on New York City this century. If climate change has, to date, proved hard to write about, that’s because it exists for most of us, to date, as something that afflicts different neighborhoods, distant cities, or future times.
A number of Octobers ago, I spent a few weeks in a cabin in Colorado that was also hosting an abundance of black flies. (The cabin was built, it so happens, from beetle-kill spruce, a form of lumber that is more available these days than before the beetles knocked off so many trees.) The buzzing of the flies persisted throughout my stay, in spite of energetic fly-swatting campaigns, and some time after leaving the cabin I had the thought that the noise of the flies, in my ears all day without often becoming the main thing on my mind, wasn’t altogether unlike my daily awareness of climate change. A sense of what we’re doing to the planet accompanies me all the time, but mostly as a distraction, a morbid static in the air. You try not to listen; sometimes, you can’t help it. Or so I found myself thinking, coming up with the idea for a play. It may say something about the difficulties involved in writing about climate change that I could figure out no way to face them other than by deploying the disreputable technique of allegory and the outmoded medium of the theatre.
An urban couple lives in an apartment thronging with flies. As the play opens, they’ve hired exterminators to rid their home of these bugs, these irritants. That was the explicit premise; the implicit part, gradually to become clear to the audience, was that flies have infested not only this particular dwelling but the world at large, and that their presence is a symptom of climate change. The couple’s effort at pest control fails, and the flies return. The couple resume their old routine, sometimes swatting at and sometimes trying to ignore the minor presence in their lives of what is arguably the world’s major problem. I liked the idea that, because this was a play, there would be no flies onstage. The reality that they intimated would thus be, in another sense, unreal. Because we are aware of climate change and, also, we are not.
It’s somewhat embarrassing, in the 21st century, to produce an allegory on any subject; the technique strikes us as both antique and naïve. I was able to keep writing and, above all, revising, because it seemed to me that climate change was such a vast development, with so many of its consequences available only to the imagination, that I had to deal with it allegorically or not at all. And I told myself that it had to be a play for the stage, instead of a novel or a screenplay, because the theatre, being confined to the use of a few actors and a handful of props, is a natural medium for allegory: the inherent poverty of its technical means allows for symbols and ideas to remain the abstractions that they are, even as the theatre grants them a certain invisible concreteness. The filmmaker or novelist, on the other hand, will be tempted to visually portray or physically describe just those things whose very nature is to exceed our capacity to depict them.
But was my cli-fi play, which I ended up calling “Buzz,” really a climate-change allegory? In writing it, I often forgot about my troupe of invisible flies, much as the characters do. At other times, I felt like they were more suggestive of perennial human problems like aging, disappointment, or decay. There was something intermittent about the meaning of my rather heavy-duty symbolism, and about whether the flies signified anything at all. But this, too, I thought, could work in the play’s favor. Objectively, almost everything we do is connected to climate change; subjectively, almost nothing. Except that from time to time the objective situation becomes a subjective truth.
In the end, I found that what I was writing had to be a comedy even more than an allegory. The scale of our planetary crisis dwarfs us as individuals and has so far defeated us as citizens, which meant that the efforts of any single household to confront the problem could only be joked about. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” Nell says to Nagg in Beckett’s “Endgame.” Helplessness is a species of unhappiness, and my unhappy play about our deteriorating climate has at least had the merit of making me laugh more than anything else I’ve written. It’s sometimes suggested that peoples with especially calamitous histories —the Jews, the Irish— have especially comic sensibilities. If so, climate change may afford writers of all nations the chance to become comedians, even as they do not lack for tragic material. [BEN, again, please read Nat Rich's ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW. It came out two years ago...]
Benjamin Kunkel’s ''cli fi'' play “Buzz” is being performed in Brooklyn until November 22, 014. It was published in book form earlier this year.

Thursday, October 23, 2014