Reviewed: Everything Feels Like the End of the World, Else Fitzgerald, Allen & Unwin
A digitised consciousness deletes all its memories of climate breakdown after the suicide of its human progenitor, except one memory of his husband ‘walking hand in hand […] while a summer shower breaks over us, heat leaving the concrete under a fizz of rain.’ Else Fitzgerald’s debut short story collection, Everything Feels Like the End of the World, is about love in a time of climate grief. The crux of the collection points to how even though we are now experiencing relentless change—climate-related or otherwise—love and loss remain constant.
The collection has an intense focus on place and on the emotional landscape of different scales of annihilation. Fitzgerald writes Victoria’s soils and eucalypts as we know them and as we are yet to know them; in city and country, in fire and deluge, in the future and now. The titular story reads like autobiography, set in a time that has recently passed—a nihilistic love letter to youth amid climate catastrophe in Naarm/Melbourne, with a granular knowledge of the city’s character. It is all evening parks, pills, and booze with friends; ‘Our futures were erased and there was only now, now, now.’
The 37 short stories range from things that have already happened—having to buy P2 masks for smoke particles from distant fires; struggles with petrol and water shortages—to a couple of forays into hard sci-fi. There is a sense that Fitzgerald’s stories precede and continue even without our attention. What they hinge on, however, is not catastrophic climate events themselves but what goes on in people’s lives as the events unfold, such as in ‘Feather/stone’, where the unnamed, second-person protagonist crushes on their best friend from afar, with raging bushfires as the understated backdrop.
Across the collection, Fitzgerald writes stories that are thick with description without ever descending into oversentimentality or purple prose. In the story ‘Coast’, about living alone after leaving the city and a relationship, she writes, ‘The wattles are luminous, almost glowing with bloom against the weird mushroom-coloured sky.’ The sky is coloured like a rotten tooth. The dry river chokes and burps up debris. Everything Feels Like foregrounds in its rich detail what extractive capitalism has ignored: the world that humans are responsible to is alive, and we are interdependent. This collection is a comment (or a warning) for those who may think that we in so-called Australia are insulated from scarcity and discomfort, unaffected by place, race, and/or class. Fitzgerald gives voice to a kind of narrative inequality in our futures. Characters cannot make plans and have the feeling of ‘a whole life incinerated, a kind of grief too big to understand’. Some, of course, remain insulated, while for others they’ve ‘… always liked to walk—not that there’s much choice now with the petrol prices’. Scarcity looks different for different classes as well: in ‘Fibian’, New Melbourne is safe and dry high above watery Yarratown. Reproduction is a recurrent theme, with characters making difficult choices for and against birth as they struggle with their own lives. Other characters desire to reproduce, yet they are outside the social class that can access it; they miss out on children as a gesture towards the future, an unbroken line, remembrance.
But change is not an end: the point is not the rupture in the future we thought we’d inherit; it’s having to live with it. In the quiet and lovely ‘Coast’, Fitzgerald depicts the possibility that comes into a life when we are not the partner or mother we thought we should be, and instead slowly find new ways to be oriented towards the act of living. Fitzgerald’s stories want us to stick around with the difficulty, assuring us that ‘it is important to be here, through all of this, one way or another. There is still so much to come.’