Joy Williams and the Functional Apocalypse
Nov 01 ● BY Graham Holmes
Last summer, after a long pandemic year in Texas, I spent a month in Central Illinois. I had spent much of the spring looking forward to the broad vistas of my hometown; often, when struggling to describe the kind of flatness I grew up with, I’m reduced to simile and hyperbole. “It’s like someone wiped the slate clean,” I’ll say, or “you can see forever.” Of the things I was looking forward to—more so than the absence of Austin traffic, and more so than the temperate Mornings of July in the Midwest—I was most looking forward to the night sky. A five minute drive from my parents house, anytime after sunset, and you’re under something infinite. The sky there is carelessly scattered with stars, and above it all is the beaming moon casting long shadows from the base of the corn stalks and shading the soy beans a chalky gray.
But it wasn’t to be; the wildfires scorching the West Coast some two thousand miles away had produced smoke beyond belief, obscuring the sky across broad swathes of the Northern half of the continent. My first night home, I asked my father if I could borrow his pick-up truck. I drove into the vast, dark country past the glaring lights of the Walmart and the high-school football field. I parked at the side of the road, looked up, and saw nothing. No stars, no moon; only the blunt halogen glow of the grain silos mottling the underbelly of smog.
This kind of lack and longing is all but a constant for the characters that inhabit Joy Williams’ latest novel, Harrow (Knopf). Her protagonist, Khristen, made strange by an early encounter with death, wanders a landscape ravaged by climate change that is described in an early chapter as “…bright with raging fires ringed by sportsmen shooting the crazed creatures trying to escape the flames.” Though the landscape is dead, it is well-populated: by a gang of roving adolescents, self-described as “students at large” who refer to themselves as “the Fallout”; by a strange proselytizer bearing a styrofoam cross; by a group of senior citizen survivors, turned radical by the dying world, who have retreated to an abandoned resort in pursuit of some sense of purpose. In short, this is a crowded apocalypse. The word apocalypse, even, seems a misappropriation. An apocalypse implies an end, which Williams’ characters seemingly refuse to recognize. They refuse not because it isn’t nigh (Williams’ characters seem to be in general agreement that their world is doomed), but because they believe it’s already occurred, or is fast approaching. Nobody in Harrow seems quite sure which to believe.
This lack of certainty—of a fundamental certainty, the certainty of whether hope is dead or alive—functions as the primary source of tension throughout much of Williams’ novel. The vast majority of the novel’s action takes place at “the Institute,” an abandoned resort on the edge of a large, Western lake affectionately named “Big Girl.” At the Institute, the aforementioned radicalized senior citizens take part in strange, cyclical conversations with one another, as demonstrated at a midway point in the novel:
“It was later revealed to me that the wires had been favored by certain assemblies of birds at their toilette. Larks.”
“Once known for their jubilant song and their pathetic habit of nesting on the ground.”
“How ironic that it would be the humble lark.”
Like many others, I am a sort of Williams devotee, and recognize these strange voices from other works. Throughout much of her oeuvre, characters speak in uncanny ways. However, in none of her previous novels (she’s published five, including Harrow) or Story Collections (there are five as well, including 2015’s The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories) do the characters participate in such consistently thematic conversations. In Harrow, Williams’ characters are tasked not with discussing a gaudy beach house, as they are in Breaking and Entering (1988) , or with an individual psychology, as the protagonist is in The Changeling (1978); instead, Williams’ characters are asked to engage in the discourse of a dying world. More often than not, however, this discourse doesn’t reflect the existential nature of their situation. Rather, it is concerned with the practical realities of inhabiting a moribund planet. Williams’ characters, faced with the impossible task of facing the end of all they’ve known, turn to the small and concrete. They wonder about the surviving birds, or if a bowling alley will still, against all odds, be open for birthday parties. These concerns, in the absence of a venerable past or extant future, are of the nearly domestic here and now. The existential issue—the death of the natural world—is often discussed, but very rarely serves as a basis for decision making. In Harrow, nature is breathing its last breath, and as such, only human concerns remain.
Yet this emphasis on the practical and mundane is primarily true only of the novel’s older characters. The novel, like many of Williams’ previous works, is also populated by adolescents. Most notable among these is Jeffrey, an uncannily prescient, law-obsessed ten-year old. By the end of the novel, Jeffrey has taken over as unofficial judge for a town not far from the Institute. From his dais he presides over the concerns of the townspeople, which, as is broadly true of the concerns of Williams’ characters, read as strange to us. One litigant’s complaint: “I planted butterfly bushes once but they, the butterflies, didn’t come.” And another’s:
“…my mother kept rabbits. She collected them. It was so embarrassing. People called her the Bunny Lady. Otherwise she was normal. We had a little shed in the yard which should have been my playhouse but it was always full of rabbits. After I went to Yale she was arrested for having so many rabbits and I had to post bond. She was told not to go within one hundred yards of a rabbit. But she violated her probation and I was asked to post bond again but I didn’t. I didn’t post bond.”
Jeffrey responds: “Now you want to know if you should have laughed or cried.”
“That’s right. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the time.”
In Harrow, adolescence is accompanied by inclusion into a sort of club. Williams’ adolescents act as perpetual intermediaries on behalf of the adults around them, performing as representatives of both the shameful past and the uncertain, wholly unknowable future. This results in a distinctly other-worldly prescience, more readily seen in Jeffrey than in any other character. Jeffrey’s obsession with the law acts as both a weapon and retreat, something he can simultaneously wield and hide behind. Yet there are moments where the deeper impulse behind his fascination is revealed, such as when he, in conversation with Khristen, says: “I was immersing myself in maritime law this morning and that always makes me a little silly afterward.” And who wouldn’t feel silly, studying law long-after the relevance of legislation has expired? What becomes clear over the course of the novel is that Jeffrey is not so much obsessed with law, but with the notion of order and its capacity for meaning-making. And this, it could be argued, is true of all of Williams’ adolescents. They’re tasked with a unique burden, and one the members of the Institute are privileged, in their dying, to avoid. The youth of the novel—much like the youth of our world—are tasked not with dying in an apocalypse, but with living in one.
This is why Harrow seems to be an ideal novel for this moment. As the forests burn in the West and the Everglades disappear, and as the Colorado River runs dry and Montana’s glaciers melt to nothing, we’re left with a new set of questions: what now, and how do we live? Though Williams’ novel is far from polemic, it still offers a staggering vision of our world as it almost inevitably will be, if we aren’t already there: not an end or a beginning, but something in-between. In Harrow, Williams depicts a surprisingly realistic apocalypse; one scattered with litter and rust, in which her characters wander aimlessly, looking desperately for a conclusion or inspiration where neither can be found.
Staring up at the moon last summer in Illinois, or where the moon ought to have been, I found myself incapable of anger at its absence. Instead, I felt confused. I turned in a full circle, thinking that it must be hiding behind a cloud, or had perhaps come to a stop in another corner of the sky. I nearly turned to my cell phone, my fingers either to google something, anything, that might make sense of this seemingly cataclysmic change. But I didn’t. Instead, I slid back into the driver’s seat, keyed the ignition, and drove home. In the face of the end-times, in both Williams’ Harrow and our own apocalypse, it seems that the urge isn’t to understand the context of our doom, much less survive—instead, the urge is something more like Khristen’s: to continue on, pause, and continue on again.