JULY 10, 2020
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“IT WAS NEWS that shook the world!”
Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Vingt Mille Lieues sous les mers, 1870) was a childhood favorite of mine for its twilit underwater atmosphere and its unflappable Captain Nemo. Today, what strikes me about that dramatic opening line from John Kennett’s 1958 adaptation, which I’ve carried in my head for almost 40 years, is Verne’s certainty that the world is a single and cognizable entity — something one can write novels about, novels replete with earthshaking events. In Verne’s story, governments around the world send out a joint expedition to track down an elusive ship-attacking sea monster, which turns out to be Nemo’s stylish, cigar-shaped submarine, the Nautilus.
The other hero of the novel is Pierre Aronnax, the world’s greatest authority on underwater life, and assisting him is Ned Land, the world’s best harpooner, while Nemo must be one of the world’s wealthiest men. Nothing of merely local significance counts for much — except for the natives of Papua New Guinea, whom the team easily fend off. Experiences excite only when cast on a worldwide scale — a world conquerable by the man of means and imagination. Yet even more compelling is what lies outside established paradigms — such as Nemo himself, who declares that he is done with humanity, refuses to say which nation he is from, and speaks an unidentifiable language; or his Nautilus, which is far fancier than any undersea vessel the world has hitherto known.
In Verne’s other novels, such as Five Weeks in a Balloon (Cinq Semaines en ballon, 1863) and Around the World in Eighty Days (Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours, 1872), this notion of the planet as a graspable entity is taken literally — everything unknown must be brought within the ambit of human experience. Africa forms the last frontier in the former novel, while in the latter a circumnavigating zeal, combined with advances in transportation (the opening of the Suez Canal, the increase of railway networks), drives the hero, Phileas Fogg, to undertake what, for its time, was a pioneering global journey.
If adventure is one route to fitting the world in your pocket, then the other is disaster — apocalypse, for instance, which is by definition universal, or various forms of global dystopia. Broadly speaking, 19th-century writers — Verne, Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle — popularized the fiction of adventure, while 20th-century authors such as John Wyndham and J. G. Ballard created the genre of disaster. But both sorts of writers favor that ambitious, sweeping canvas. By contrast, 100 years ago, a movement with a starkly opposed tendency began to gather steam: the modernists were interested not in world conquering but in the minute particularities of individual consciousness — what Virginia Woolf famously called the “luminous halo,” the “semi-transparent envelope” in which we move through life. But can fiction not do both — give us a sense of the whole world in concrete terms while also trying to express life’s essential singularity and amorphousness?
An interesting example of the tension between the two is George R. Stewart’s 1949 novel Earth Abides, in which a rampaging virus wipes out most of humanity. A solitary young geographer, Isherwood Williams, rebuilds his life in the San Francisco Bay Area, finding a female partner, having children, and creating a community with a handful of other survivors. “Ish” is a thoughtful protagonist, inclined to ponder human fate and also pay close attention to how the nonhuman world behaves without the influence of humankind’s controlling hand.
Running alongside Ish’s analyses are the author’s sonorous observations on changes in the earth over time. Stewart sets up the familiar opposition between man and nature, and for the time being nature has won. Some of the most moving passages describe the slow unraveling of manmade things and the profound silence of a world from which the “noise-producing animal” is largely absent. And yet — poignant paradox — only the human imagination can evoke what this might feel like. Earth Abides engages not because it describes the redemption — or horror — of a world without people, but because it depicts this situation through the eyes of a character rich in ideas and doubts. The tragedy lies in Ish’s struggle to preserve civilization in his little outpost — books, agriculture, self-government — before having to concede that man is no longer the measure of all things.
Earth Abides features an epigraph from a 1947 report about how, if a fatal virus strain were to arise, it could, in the modern world of mass travel, lead to “the deaths of millions of people.” This tendency of viruses to be such nimble travelers was also the subject of Hari Kunzru’s 2004 novel Transmission, which charts the upheaval caused by a computer contagion called Leela. The book’s prose mimics Leela’s lighting run, whose worldwide fallout affects
knitting machine manufacturers and management consultants, adult magazines and university departments, […] an auto-parts supplier in Austin which couldn’t track its inventory, a public-relations company in Sao Paolo which had lost its contacts database.
Leela and its ever-multiplying variants shut down power and water treatment plants, banks and stock markets, police and fire departments. In the end, its effect is a cumulative “accretion of frustration, a furring of the global arteries.”
Here, again, the world is that easily mastered, profoundly interconnected place of the 19th-century adventure writers, but now the excitement has gone out of the conquest. In traditional adventure novels, characters went out to experience the unknown, which was handled with gentlemanly panache, and exoticism was guaranteed. In 21st-century “global” novels such as Kunzru’s, people can travel all they want, but there is really nowhere to go: Guy Swift, a wealthy London-based brand consultant, is relentlessly on the move and yet “Thailand or Mauritius or Zanzibar or Cancún or Sharm el-Sheikh or Tunisia or Bali or the Gold Coast or Papeete or Gran Cayman or Malibu. So many places […] All the same.” Guy’s completely disengaged girlfriend, Gabriella Caro, ends up marrying someone else “on a whim,” commenting that she “just wanted to go somewhere. […] I didn’t really care where.” Likewise, Leela makes no distinction between the people whose email software she takes over or the cities whose essential services she disrupts.
Twenty years ago in The New Republic, James Wood wrote perhaps the most devastating critique of the moral emptiness at the heart of this contemporary “hysterical realism.” A new variant of the modern novel, hysterical realism was a kind of “perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity.” Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Zadie Smith were some of the writers he elegantly denounced, claiming that they favored a frenzied mode of storytelling at the expense of beauty or sublimity. In the essay, titled “Human, All Too Inhuman,” Wood quoted Smith to the effect that the writer’s job is not to report on human emotions but to tell us “how the world works” and to bring in ideas and themes “from other places and worlds.” Wood’s conclusion was that “some of the more impressive novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist’s quarries any more. Information has become the new character.”
This attenuation of human consciousness, this dimming of Woolf’s “luminous halo,” is perhaps one version of the apocalypse. We are less and less convinced of our uniqueness — and increasingly fascinated with how much the inanimate is like us and vice versa. Witness how many literary novels in this century have centrally featured forms of artificial intelligence. Further, the babble of information that inundates us is often just plain bad news. The exploration of language and the representation of consciousness don’t seem adequate anymore to capturing not just the velocity but also the monstrosity of the times.
These reflections lead me to Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), which is not so much an account of the catastrophe as an exploration of the world views that have led to it. The book’s central question is: Why does fiction so rarely address this most cataclysmic issue of our times? Ghosh’s wide-ranging and impassioned analysis takes in not just the development of literature but the whole modern era in history and politics, amounting ultimately to an indictment of modernity itself. And of the modernist novel as well, in which nature — assumed to be moderate and orderly — was merely a backdrop for the play of bourgeois preoccupations. By contrast, Ghosh proceeds from the conviction that the earth is alive and beginning to talk back to us. Its reality is one of “insistent, inescapable continuities, animated by forces that are nothing if not inconceivably vast.” The novel bequeathed to us by the modernists, with its focus on finitude and particularity, is not up to the task of taking on this reality, Ghosh argues.
Yet in fact, as Wood has shown, the contemporary novel has — for some time now, and not always with convincing results — been trying to throw off its modernist inheritance and break free of its homebound and self-bound nature. Whether the leading novels of the new century can engage us in the old way — if that “semi-transparent envelope” of human consciousness is no longer their essential focus — remains a question. In the Information Age, it could be that our criteria for what constitutes novelistic success has changed; certainly, the novelists taken with Wood’s hysterical realism are among the most celebrated of our times, if not always the most persuasive.
In “Human, All Too Inhuman,” Wood writes, “There is something essentially paranoid about the belief that everything is connected to everything else.” Yet this is one of our most cherished convictions today. No longer do we strike out on adventures into the unknown: Phileas Fogg’s piecemeal journey is long outdated. We can now, virtually, be everywhere at once, and we appreciate the novel that attempts to encompass everything. Besides, Wood discounts the complex biosphere in which we live, where, as Ghosh knows, everything is in fact inextricably interconnected.
And yet, as Ghosh points out, contemporary novels have been unable to face up to the most urgent human question — that of our survival in a world where we have played fast and loose with these delicate connections. Fiction is supposed to dream up possibilities, so why has it shied away from imagining or presaging this looming reality? Novelists (and he does not always exempt himself) largely come across as self-involved and petty-minded in his coruscating analysis, busy with minute dramas while the earth is falling to pieces.
One’s instinct is to try and rescue the novel from this onslaught. But it’s unlikely that it can be rescued if human civilization itself cannot. There is a limit to how loudly the novel can sing of the dark times and still remain recognizably itself. The subtlety and open-endedness that make the novel a source of pleasure and power are unlikely to be of much use if its job description is to tell of unmitigated global tragedy, in the process cutting the merely human down to size. If greenhouse gas emissions and viruses gone wild make inner life seem measly, then what hope is there for the novel?
“Art celebrates life and not the other thing, not the opposite of life. And art raises the stakes, increasing the store of what might be lost,” Martin Amis wrote in Einstein’s Monsters (1987) — a collection of stories that, in evoking the everyday dread of nuclear conflagration, also sought to think the unthinkable. Can fiction do both — make beauty by upholding life as well as lament its passing? It seems like a tall order.