Already Dead

Harrow: A novel by joy williams. new york: Knopf. 224 pages. $26.

The cover of Harrow: A novel

I DROVE ACROSS the Everglades in May. I had originally planned to take Alligator Alley, but someone tipped me off that, in the twenty years since I left South Florida, the historically wild and lonesome stretch of road had been fully incorporated into I-75, turned into a standard highway corridor with tall concrete walls on both sides, designed to keep the traffic noise in and the alligators out. So on the drive west from Boynton Beach, I took the northern route, skirting along the bottom of Lake Okeechobee (which you can’t see from the road) through new subdivisions and past a succession of sugar plantations, the horizon pillared with smoke from the farmers burning cane. Small towns where the only signs of life are dollar stores. Roadside billboards sponsored by the US Sugar Corporation insist that “the air out here is cleaner than congested urban areas.”

On the drive back east a few days later, I took a more southerly route, hoping it would suck less, which it did. This part of the Everglades contains the Big Cypress Reservation, which I’d last visited my senior year of high school, to ring in the new millennium at a Phish show. Here I saw lots of birds and trees, and there were dozens of alligators lounging in a drainage canal between the road and the welcome-center gift shop. There were trading posts and air-boat-tour launches, plus swaths of undeveloped land. No dystopian agribusiness signage. I was able to suspend disbelief and feel like I was in “the wild” for perhaps an hour. It was fun.

When I got home to Portland, Oregon—where that winter we had weathered a highly improbable ice storm that shut the city down for nearly a week, but were not yet familiar with the phrase “heat dome,” which would shut us down for another week come June—I picked up my copy of Joy Williams’s 2001 nonfiction collection, Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals. I was thinking of her essay “Neverglades,” in which she argues: “[The idea] that the Everglades still exists is a collective illusion shared by both those who care and those who don’t. People used to say that nothing like the Everglades existed anywhere else in the world, but it doesn’t exist in South Florida anymore either. The Park, which millions of people visit and perceive to be the Everglades, makes up only 20 percent of the historic Glades . . . vanished beneath cities, canals, vast water impoundment areas, sugarcane fields, and tomato farms.”

Williams recounts the dismal history of the draining and poisoning of the Everglades, as well as the belated, superficial, and unsuccessful efforts to sentimentalize and “save” it, which flourished in the 1980s and 1990s, a period which happens to coincide exactly with my own childhood in Miami, which may be why I remember the Everglades as having been a viable wilderness during my own lifetime even though this clearly isn’t true. Williams writes that in those waning decades of the twentieth century, “the Everglades, no longer quite existing but still troublingly existent, was increasingly being deemed worthy of love, of being saved.” On its face, this sentence is a recapitulation of the “collective illusion” concept with which the essay opens: that what we call the Everglades are in fact a giant, immersive trompe l’oeil. The powers that be want us to focus our effort on “saving” the Everglades because if we ever admitted to ourselves that it was dead we would probably start asking questions about who murdered it.

That something can be existent without properly existing, caught halfway between being and nonbeing, or between life and death, is a concept much larger than Williams’s straightforward claims about the eradication of the Everglades. The notion of a foundational in-between-ness, of existence itself as a fleeting or fugacious form, has been central to her work from the very beginning. The writer Vincent Scarpa, who has studied and taught Williams’s work extensively, put it to me this way: “That liminal state between being alive and being dead—that’s Joy’s playground.” He reminded me that nursing homes, “these collectives where it goes unacknowledged or otherwise refused that the living are only playing at living,” feature frequently in her work. “But we’re really all in that liminal state, just to varying degrees.” Sure enough, a nursing home is a central setting of Williams’s novel The Quick and the Dead (2000), which also features a petulant ghost. Expand the category a bit and you’ll find hospitals and hotels along with rest homes. Her 1988 novel, Breaking and Entering, is about a pair of drifters who squat Florida vacation homes. Florida itself is sometimes known as “God’s Waiting Room.”

The Quick and the Dead, which is not set in Florida but in the West, is one of the weirdest, funniest, darkest novels you’ll ever read. It lost the 2001 Pulitzer Prize to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, thus fulfilling the promise of Luke 4:24. Williams’s new novel, Harrow, is Quick’s spiritual successor, perhaps even sequel, taking up that novel’s concerns and amplifying them by the full twenty years it took her to write it. Harrow reminds me very much of Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but, with apologies to the boys, it’s better than both of their novels put together. Harrow belongs at the front of the pack of recent climate fiction, even as it refuses the basic premise (human survival is important) and the sentimental rays of hope (another world is possible!) that are the hallmarks of the genre. This novel doesn’t care who you vote for or if you recycle. It’s not bullish on green tech jobs or sustainable meat. It would leave Steven “Things Are Getting Better” Pinker and Matthew “One Billion Americans” Yglesias writhing in shame if guys like them were capable of reading novels or feeling shame. Harrow is a crabby, craggy, comfortless, arid, erudite, obtuse, perfect novel, a singular entry in a singular body of work by an artist of uncompromised originality and vision. For all of its fragmentation and deliberate strategies of estrangement, Harrow feels coherent and complete, like a single long-form thought or a religious epiphany. It’s also funny as hell.

In “The Hunter Gracchus,” Kafka’s great parable of displacement and delay, the title character is deprived the dignity and clarity of a fully consummated death. After living his life in the Black Forest, thriving as a hunter and eventually dying on a hunt, his “death ship lost its way,” rendering him unable to complete his journey to the afterworld. Instead, Gracchus must sail the seas, making ports of call wherever he can, lying on his bier in his winding shroud (into which he slips “like a girl into her marriage dress”), at once dead and alive, which is to say neither dead nor alive. “I am here,” says Gracchus; “more than that I do not know, further than that I cannot go. My ship has no rudder, and it is driven by the wind that blows in the undermost regions of death.”

“The Hunter Gracchus” figures prominently in Harrow, where it is evoked many times by implication before being explicitly cited and, in the novel’s final section, given a thorough and somewhat contrarian exegesis. (If you’ve read “The Killing Game,” an essay in Ill Nature, you know what Williams thinks of hunters; if you haven’t, I’ll give you one guess.) Like Gracchus or the Everglades, the world of Harrow is neither precisely dead nor alive. It is set during what I will call the periapocalypse, the endless midst of a disaster that has no proper beginning or conclusion. Some great climate calamity has ravaged the environment and provoked a mass die-off of plants and animals. Everything is polluted, debased, used up. The world is, for all intents and purposes, over. And yet it persists: there are cities and governments; cars have gas in their tanks and buildings have electricity. The world doesn’t know it’s dead, only that it’s shittier and scarier and more desperate than it has ever been before. It is a place where “your empathies are obsolete. The battle’s over, the world’s been overcome. Almost everything that’s not us or hasn’t been fashioned by us is gone.”

Sound familiar? Though the novel is hardly strictly realist in its style or its vision, to understand it as in any sense “speculative” or “science fictional” is to fundamentally misunderstand Williams’s project, as well as the science of climate change. At the moment I’m writing this, one of the largest wildfires in the country is burning about three hundred miles southeast of me. The skies in Portland are clear blue and all my windows are open, but I’ve got friends in Manhattan who are wearing N95 masks because the smoke from this fire has been irritating their lungs. Luckily, they’ve already got N95 masks handy because this is month one hundred (or whatever) of a global pandemic caused by a virus that may or may not have been grown in a Chinese laboratory with US government money and then unleashed on the world by virtue of sheer human stupidity. I read a really interesting article the other day about the drying up of the Great Salt Lake and how the biggest problem won’t be the catastrophic habitat loss or the brutal blow to regional tourism (though these will, for the record, be enormous problems) but rather that the exposure of the lake bed, which contains huge reserves of arsenic (a “toxic dustbin” per CNN dot com), will turn the wind carcinogenic as it sweeps across the parched West. Keep those masks handy! Where was I?

Oh yeah, Harrow. The protagonist and sometimes narrator is a teenager named Khristen, whose mother believes that she briefly died shortly after she was born, and ought to have gleaned some crucial intel or special powers from her stint in the great beyond. But nobody else, including Khristen, believes Khristen died. Book One of the novel concerns Khristen’s childhood. After her father dies, her mother sends her to a boarding school run out of an old sanatorium somewhere in the Western wilds, where the students recite Nietzsche at the induction ceremony and eat a lot of eggs. (It sounds a bit like Deep Springs minus the ranching.) After the school shuts down, seemingly in response to some periapocalyptic acceleration that goes largely unglimpsed, Khristen takes a train to a hotel where her mother may or may not have attended an environmental conference at some point in the recent (or not so recent) past. But it’s hard to know because, as a woman named Lola tells her, “Time doesn’t have the tolerance with us that it used to. For all the good it did, that conference could have taken place before you were born.”

Harumi Abe, Highland 2, 2021, acrylic and gouache on canvas, 48 x 54". Courtesy the artist, all rights reserved; Photo: Stephan Göttlicher
Harumi Abe, Highland 2, 2021, acrylic and gouache on canvas, 48 x 54". Courtesy the artist, all rights reserved; Photo: Stephan Göttlicher

BOOK TWO OF THE NOVEL BREAKS OUT of Khristen’s perspective and into an omniscient third person. It takes place on the grounds of the aforementioned hotel and a motel that sits beside it. Both structures are on the shore of a toxic lake that everyone calls Big Girl, and to which they tend to attribute some sentience, if not precisely consciousness. Lola, as it happens, is the proprietress of both motel and hotel; the former being for passers-through, such as Khristen. The hotel, aka the Institute, serves a different function, though its denizens are also, in a sense, passing through. “The Institute was not a suicide academy or a terrorist hospice. Or not exactly.” The Institute is populated by militant geriatrics with terminal illnesses who hope to die for a cause that will redeem them for having wasted their lives. This “army of the aged and ill” believes that almost everything we might understand as civic and industrial “recovery” are in fact reversions to the destructive and evil behaviors that precipitated disaster. As one member of the Institute succinctly puts it, “We will bring about the collapse of the collapse recovery.”

They have a special hatred for animal torture conducted under the aegis of scientific research or industrial agriculture. The drug Premarin, for instance, is synthesized from pregnant horses, whose unwanted foals are slaughtered by the thousands. Behavioral scientists wonder whether they can induce psychopathology in monkeys through programmatic rape and violence. Any given Big Mac might contain the flesh of 100 different cows in its measly 3.2 ounces of beef. None of this, needless to say, is invention on Williams’s part. It’s all as real as the arsenic in the lake bed, the phthalates building up in your bloodstream, the little itch in your lungs from the smoke from the fires that are burning as I write this and that may well still be burning when this issue goes to press and perhaps even when you receive it in your mailbox or, more likely, read it on your phone.

Sorry, got sidetracked again. I was telling you about the Institute.

These oldsters, if not exactly a force majeure, were a baffling and bitter anomaly, characterized and dismissed as senile mavericks, lone termites, or perfect examples of why the aged mind was not in the interests of society. They did not consider themselves “terrorists.” That word had suffered considerable manipulation and marginalization and could now only be counted on to describe the bankers and builders, the industrial engineers, purveyors of war and the market, it goes without saying, the exterminators and excavators, the breeders and consumers of every stripe, those locusts of clattering, clacking hunger.

Some members of the Institute feel conflicted about their calling. Do their attacks really serve the interest of justice, or even retribution? Do they provide moral instruction to the public? Don’t they mostly take out underlings who, while obviously culpable, are nevertheless cogs in a machine they didn’t build and don’t control, victims of their own constrained circumstances? Moreover, dying sucks and nobody wants to do it, not even the elderly and terminally ill. Lola complains at one point that as the pace of assassinations has dropped off, the Institute has become more like a hospice proper. Many of its targets are now themselves dying of old age.

Khristen takes an equivocal view of their project. “They were flawed and their efforts futile, but living among them when the apocalypse had come and gone, scrubbing the world of grief and love, was what I had been given to know. They had hoped to awaken others, but perhaps we are not meant to awake. Perhaps it is only death’s long instant that arouses us from sleep.” But she lives at the motel, not the hotel, and spends much of her time with Barbara, a drunk, and her son, Jeffrey, a ten-year-old boy who may actually be the sort of divine child that Khristen’s mother once thought she was. Jeffrey is teaching himself the history of the law in hopes of becoming a judge. In his mind, the law is less a career than an existential or spiritual condition, just as it was for Kafka, especially in his later works where (as Philip Rahv, among others, has argued) the figure of the all-powerful and dreadful father is transfigured beyond human shape into a sort of radiantly faceless institutional authority, instantiating us in ourselves through its very refusal to know us or show us mercy.

If all this sounds convoluted and paradoxical, it should, but I warrant it is no less convoluted than the story of a child doomed to save the world through his suffering, a sacrificial lamb whose blood washes clean even as its wrath lays waste, and who is also the general of a galactic war party riding into battle with a sword coming out of his mouth (Revelations 1:16). Etc., etc. “The Bible is constantly making use of image beyond words,” Williams told the Paris Review in 2014. “A parable provides the imagery by means of words. The meaning, however, does not lie in the words but in the imagery. What is conjured, as it were, transcends words completely in another language. This is how Kafka wrote, why we are so fascinated by him, why he speaks so universally.”

In a masterful set piece early in Book Two, Jeffrey has a birthday party at a bowling alley near the Institute. Barbara and Lola get smashed on martinis by the pitcher while Jeffrey shows off his knowledge of English common law to Khristen and the local bowling league grows furious that the party occupies a coveted lane but refuses to bowl. Barbara has been trying to figure out how to tell Jeffrey that his father is in prison for murdering his grandfather and has decided to share this information via the illustration on his birthday cake. But the baker, having gotten the story backwards, depicts the grandfather murdering the father—specifically, the baker has reproduced Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son in buttercream frosting.

This entire episode is—to use a technical literary term—fucking hilarious. It is also emblematic of another of the novel’s key themes, the idea of source decay or legibility loss. Gordon, one of the rare oldsters who has not only carried out his kamikaze mission but survived it, at one point considers “the amount of ink that can fade from a written message without changing what it says. . . . But there comes a moment when the message changes or becomes unintelligible or both.”

People are constantly misspeaking and mishearing in this novel, sometimes correcting themselves or each other and sometimes not. This notion too has its roots in Kafka, whose cosmology is at once entropic and eternal. One thinks of course of Gracchus, trapped between his worlds, but also of “A Country Doctor,” for whom “a false alarm on the night bell once answered—it cannot be made good, not ever”; of “The Kings’ Messengers,” who are forever “racing through the world and, since there are no kings, calling out to each other the messages that have now become meaningless”; as well as “The Coming of the Messiah,” a parable brief enough to offer in its entirety: “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary, he will come only one day after his arrival, he will come not on the last day, but on the last day of all.”

I'M NOT SURE I would describe Book Three even if I could. Khristen leaves the Institute, some new characters are introduced; there’s a large tree with unusual properties; there’s that exegesis of Gracchus I mentioned earlier; and Jeffrey shows back up, profoundly transfigured yet still very much himself, his dream of a judgeship finally fulfilled—or rapidly fulfilled, depending how much time you believe has passed since the end of Book Two, which in turn depends on what you believe “time” and “the passage of time” each mean in the novel’s world, or in general.

Tell you the truth, I don’t want to review Harrow anymore. I’ve read it twice and I used this assignment as an excuse to do a ton of supplemental reading and rereading, and yet my love still surpasses my understanding (Ephesians 3:19), and I think I’d like to keep it that way. I don’t want to evaluate this book. I want to place it in the center of a salt ring and light candles around it. I want to throw it like the I Ching and ruin my life trying to heed its inscrutable, dubious wisdom.

I think of the one entry in Ill Nature that departs from that book’s primary subject. It’s an essay called “Why I Write,” which I assume Williams included because she knew she’d never write a second essay collection. Some days I believe “Why I Write” is the only quote unquote craft essay worth reading. Williams argues that “The significant story possesses more awareness than the writer writing it. The significant story is always greater than the writer writing it. This is the humble absurdity, the disorienting truth, the exhilarating transmutability, this is the koan of writing. . . . The writer writes to serve—hopelessly he writes in the hope that he might serve—not himself and not others, but that great cold elemental grace that knows us.”

I assume that for a lot of people this claim is risible, perhaps demonstrably false. Good for you if you know better than to credit such provocations, if you’re comfortable enough with your life and your station and the state of things to avoid being gulled by the abyssal mysteries. As for me and mine, we believe it absolutely. More than believing it, we recognize it and, more still, feel recognized by it. It is that same sense of mutual recognition I feel when reading this novel, indeed whenever I read Joy Williams, and that I am now fighting to preserve from my own attempt to subdue it to the demands of my hobgoblin intellect.

It may be that the greatest achievement of Williams’s late work is its insistence on holding sacred space where despair can abide unharassed by hope. Harrow is a howl of grief for the life bleeding out of a world where “the fouling of the nest was all but complete, the birthright smashed.” To read this novel is to know and to be known (Galatians 4:9) by a profound and comfortless alterity, to encounter the cosmic otherness at the very core of the self. What else do you want me to tell you? As I’ve said, it’s also funny. I really did laugh a lot. Five stars.

Justin Taylor’s most recent book is the memoir Riding with the Ghost (Random House, 2020).