There Will Be Flood

A Children's Bible BY Lydia Millet. New York: Norton. 240 pages. $26.

The cover of A Children's Bible

In your new novel, A Children’s Bible (Norton, $26), a group of kids, teens mostly, are on vacation with their parents in an old mansion when a flood occurs and American society begins to fall apart. Would it be fair to call it a soft apocalypse, or a plausible dystopia?

The scenario in the book has a high degree of plausibility—it’s not phantasmagorical. It’s not an alternate world, simply this one. Plausible dystopia, soft apocalypse—they’re terms for genres, but they also describe our actual life now. Although at times, lately, I’ve watched the news or read the tweets and felt our reality was flat-out implausible. I’ve had a recurrent impulse, almost a mental tic, that goes: This can’t be happening. Since 2016, I’ve felt we’ve been living outside the plausible. Every day is a new insult to reason and knowledge. To say nothing of basic decency.

How would you describe the relationship of your style to realism?

Opportunistic? I’m not interested in writing realistically for its own sake, but sometimes it happens by default. I like authority, in fiction and nonfiction alike—as a reader as well as a writer—and there’s a connection between authority and realism. It’s not an obvious one, though. Once you establish a certain authority with voice, you can go as far as that measure of authority allows you to. Beyond it, you shed your finery like Cinderella at midnight.

After an initial storm, in the book, you get the sense that there’s been a rolling series of disasters. Why did you choose to have the destruction happen mostly offstage?

Partly because I have a limited interest in physical description and physicality in fiction. I think it became less necessary in the medium after we started taking pictures. In prose, characterization and diction are singular, event and scene pretty fungible. After all, we’ve seen these climate-related storms in real life, in various, usually smaller incarnations—we already have an inkling of what they look like, and we bring that experience with us to the reading we do. We can infer a backdrop without it being documented in detail. The sort of Noah-like flood that I start the novel with is roughly equivalent to a few Hurricane Sandys happening in rapid succession.

And it takes surprisingly little, as we’ve noticed recently, to skew everything and throw all the daily systems we rely on out of whack. Break down our supply chains, our jobs, and our way of living. What if COVID-19 had a 50 percent global case fatality rate, like Ebola, rather than around 3.6 percent? Everything’s so much more tenuous, always, than we go around assuming.

Lydia Millet. Photo: Nola Millet.
Lydia Millet. Photo: Nola Millet.

The children in your novel play a game that involves keeping the identity of their parents secret, even as everybody’s living in the same house. It’s natural for teens to be embarrassed by their parents, but does the generational conflict have an allegorical meaning?

In the past couple of years, I’ve noticed the young partaking of a significant wave of anger—there’s a schism of affect and attention among different generations over the matter of the future. With regard to our stance on the urgency of trying to manage it and our fear of the consequences if we don’t. My generation stubbornly refused to panic, when, for decades now, panic has been the only truly rational response to what science is describing as the outlook. There’s real fury in people my children’s age—my older child is sixteen—and up through people in their twenties and early thirties. I’m grateful for the rage. It’s overdue.

Our generation is usually pegged as the one that was resignedly disaffected and somewhat powerless in this scenario.

But plenty of us had plenty of warning and plenty of agency we elected not to exercise. I’ve never identified too strongly with the negative characteristics, like bleakness and cynicism, often ascribed to Gen X. Yet now I see us and older people bearing the brunt of a lot of the anger of the young for our inaction—for that same bleakness and cynicism.

Have you ever felt yourself to be part of a generational cohort of writers?

I’ve never thought about it that way, never found a club I could happily belong to. Just individuals whose work I liked.

What effect do you think neoliberalism has had on American writing? Does it cause certain types of writing to be valued more than others?

My sense, obviously as a reader and writer and not a historian, is that there’s been a fairly clear parallel between the devaluation of collectivism in economics and policy and its devaluation in fiction. And probably art in general. Our most popular and lauded literary stories have increasingly been about the life arc of the private individual. The personal struggles of a self and the ultimate triumph of that self over the obstacles in its path, or, approached more subtly, a story of the delicate accommodations a personal self makes with the other personal selves that constrain its behavior or obstruct the realization of its desires.

Either way, the assumptions of neoliberalism—at their foundation, that so-called free markets are the best and the only possible model for macrosocial organization—has become an existential tenet of Americanism. So, fiction is often deemed to be overreaching itself unless it accepts that precondition—in a sense, unless it agrees to play a humble, apolitical, nonphilosophical role. Agrees to stipulate that its job is not to critique the way power is structured: Outside identity politics, arguably, power structures aren’t up for discussion in fiction. Just not on the table.

The notion seems to be that only the personal is a viable subject—the novel’s consecrated form. That novels have to be exclusively about the personal, because hey, they’re about people and people’s feelings. But it’s a specious idea, a self-inflicted wound. A Stockholm syndrome gesture of abstention that pretends feelings aren’t intermeshed with abstract thought, with our illusions and presumptions about our place in the wider landscape.

Novels offer interiority, for sure, but there’s no law, aesthetic or otherwise, that says an interior monologue has to limit itself to the realm of the domestic, the therapeutic, or the transactional. To the scrutiny and ascendancy of interpersonal relationships. In fact interiority is perfectly free to go beyond immediate, self-absorbed questions like what does this made-up person want and how does this made-up person get it. And even beyond more important questions of personal feeling and being, like how do I get less sad? How do I feel less alone? Or how do I resign myself to my own death? It can ask other things, like why we’re afraid to die or why we want what we want. It can ask about the ethics and effects of desire and mortality. It can look at the places our blind spots drive us to. It can ask anything.

The teenagers and children in your book are very likable, exemplars of good behavior. Which is to say you haven’t written another Lord of the Flies.

Well, they’re not idealized. They use lots of swears, as my son says. And the kids in the book are harshly judgmental. But I admit to seeing judgment as more of a social good than a social ill. If anything, the positions are reversed here from Lord of the Flies.

In general, the young have more resilience than the old. And the teens in the book, like real teens, are hybrid child-adults. Some of them are illogically articulate, for instance. I’m not worried about verisimilitude or developmental authenticity—whether characters sound their age doesn’t concern me. I used to write mainly characters that were easily mocked, and I still do sometimes, since I like to laugh at the odd sentence I write and humor tends to come from objectification. Surprising and sweeping. Here, the kids are written mostly straight, and only the adults are objects.

We don’t know their names and they turn into a drunken parental collective.

Yeah, they’re collectively objectified. I wanted to write a book that had some funny in it but wasn’t light—not an easy lampoon but an experiment in balancing humor and grief. I wanted to have those things commingling. So the teens, as the straight guys, talk with lucidity. Still, my mother told me she couldn’t read the book because she was so disgusted by their dialogue. She said, “I just hate listening to teenagers talk!” I said, “Ma, you realize that those aren’t real teenagers? That you’re actually just disgusted by what I wrote?” Then I quickly changed the subject, in an evasive maneuver, so she didn’t have time to agree with me.

Maybe it was the violence against the parents, the verbal violence, that she didn’t like.

Tell me about your day job.

I left Manhattan for Arizona in January of ’99, and I’ve been with the same organization pretty much all that time, the Center for Biological Diversity. I was a grant-writer at a big group in New York, the Natural Resources Defense Council, in 1996 when I found out about the work this other, small group was doing. A bunch of activists who were survivors of Earth First! after it declined, including my ex-husband, founded the Center, and then raised enough money to start hiring some very sharp lawyers and biologists. The group was uncompromising and creative about its tactics, and got concrete things done.

Our work relies on laws like the Endangered Species Act—major environmental statutes we petition and sue under, mostly to get animals, plants, and their habitat protected here in the US and to use existing laws to tackle climate change. We do some international campaigns as well—for example, on pangolins, which are the most trafficked mammals in the world and among the animals whose exploitation may have led to the COVID-19 pandemic. The director of our Climate Law Institute, a lawyer named Kassie Siegel, wrote the petition that originally got polar bears protected under the ESA. Which was instrumental in making polar bears the poster children of the melting Arctic.

We were also behind the first species to ever get protected under the ESA specifically because they’re threatened by ocean warming and acidification: two species of corals, staghorn and elkhorn. I’m a piss-poor direct activist, though. I don’t like conflict, plus holding up signs or shouting slogans makes me feel itchy. Embarrassed. My tasks are on the menial side—I’m an editor and a writer, and I don’t have to manage anyone else. But it’s practical work that lets me feel useful. And I like the structure of a regular job.

How effective are the American legal system and American politics on the fronts that your group is working on?

The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973 and is still probably the most ironclad conservation law in the world. Many other countries have copied it. It can be used as a lever to protect huge swaths of landscape, ocean, rivers, in the name of saving particular species from extinction. We work on critters you’ve probably never heard of, like glacier stoneflies, tiny specks on the brink of disappearing, as well as “charismatic megafauna” that everyone’s heard of, like wolves and elephants and giraffes. Because they’re all important, not just intrinsically but to the functioning of their ecosystems and ultimately to our life support. Under Trump, the game has definitely changed, since his mission is to sweep all rules and regulations away so that government is shrunk into impotence. Before this we thought the younger Bush was bad, but Trump is orders of magnitude worse: scorched earth. Pure, brute-force defiance of science and of law.

Are the Democrats offering an alternative that brings any hope?

If the Green New Deal or something similar were to be enacted into policy, that would be nontrivial. Still, Democrats have been shackled for some time now. Genuine progressives with real power in the Democratic Party can probably be counted on the digits of your hands and feet. The difference between Democrats and Republicans on climate and conservation is much vaster than on, say, foreign policy. There didn’t used to be such a partisan divide: Some Republicans were conservationists, back in the day. Almost all the major federal environmental laws we have were passed under Nixon, albeit with a Democrat-controlled Senate and House. The GOP has moved toward—well, it’s not even true free-market ideology, is it? Since massive, market-distorting subsidies go to industries like fossil fuels and pesticides and cattle. It’s more of a, just, “Hey, fuck all y’all who aren’t filthy rich” ideology.

There are two young boys in the book, Shel and Jack, who learn the imperatives of conservation from a child’s illustrated bible.

When I was a kid we drove to small-town Georgia to see my grandparents and my uncle every summer. My mother had been raised Episcopalian, and in my grandparents’ house I found these quaint old children’s bible stories, some of them with pictures. They looked like the ’50s, the way my book cover does, and to me they even smelled like the ’50s. Or how I imagined the ’50s. One notable thing about those bibles was how they selected stories to be rated G. Left out the dark and bloody parts. I couldn’t find a reference to Revelation in a single one.

Revelation’s such a crucial part of literalist and fundamentalist Protestantism, yet children’s bibles often focus on animal stories like Noah’s Ark, reflecting children’s literature outside the scriptures. And I’ve always loved children’s literature.

How did that emerge as the title of the novel?

It’s a sort of double reference, both to those bible stories and to Jack and Shel’s little notebook, in which they write down their own interpretations of a bible one of the mothers has given them. They’re secular, gentle kids, so the bible is outlandish to them, but also perfectly reasonable. We happily accept, when we’re little, magical stories about talking animals, and in the bible you have magic, too. Talking bushes and showy miracles of transformation, folks being raised from the dead. To Jack, the children’s bible is as real and unreal as Frog and Toad or George and Martha. The bible is a puzzle he wants to solve.

Christian Lorentzen is a writer living in New York.