‘It’s like the apocalypse out there.’ How many times I heard it said in the summer, in the bushfire season. The exclamatory tone of the early months made way for weariness in January, and desperate humour by early autumn as floods, brown rain, the COVID-19 virus and the great toilet paper crisis of the first weeks of March replaced drought and fire.
Fires are already burning outside Brisbane in early September when I get there for the writers festival. The air is hazy and the temperature is in the low thirties, and I feel a lurch of dislocation. It’s not only that the air seems weird and thick, and that I feel uneasy, but also that local people don’t comment on it until asked. Yeah, they say, it’s fires burning, coastal scrubland, unusual, and, Yeah, it is hot. They’re ‘alert but not alarmed’. On social media there are images of bone-dry, smoke-haze sepia landscapes, but they’re not enough to hold the country’s attention, which shifts to New South Wales, a state that seems to be immolating. There is no end in sight and no control. No-one knows what will happen. Sydney fills with smoke and everyone wants the best air mask. The prime minister is missing, then in New York it is said, helping to expedite a real estate deal or the coming of the rapture, or so people speculate.
In Sydney my daughter, C, passes a billboard advertising new stocks of facemasks in fashion colours. She’s heading to the country for work and has to check her app for safe routes through the ring of fire edging the city. She and her friends laugh that checking these apps will be the norm in the future. It’s not yet normal, not quite, I think, and it gives me a little lift.
Social media feeds turn into art, documentary, narrative, therapy and social glue combined, a town square in which different groups meet and separate and reconfigure: See what I have seen; see what happened … The strangeness of it is heightened by the chill early summer we are then experiencing in Melbourne. I put on a heavy jumper, wrap a shawl about my shoulders and sit at my desk. The dogs stare at me until I tuck them up, and brood.
I take screenshots of images on Twitter: the sun as faint as a snuffed ember, air the texture of felt, tree branches lit up like burning filaments of wire, the sinister pastoral of smoke-filled rural dawns, the sky not poetically ‘bruised’ but as if it’s been pulverised with a club until its entire surface bleeds, the sun a fatal entry wound, buildings and bridges lurking like prison hulks in a Thames fog, all the shapes tentative and mutable in the muffling smoke. I tell myself I’m documenting this weird time. But I find comfort in the shared feeling, and am startled every day by people’s words. People are more compassionate; they’re also angry and engaged and looking for answers. Perhaps that’s me too. It feels personal to us all, I think, and keeps being shocking and gripping. Every day I read a new chapter of this story:
10 Dec.—Tracy Sorensen: Just brought my washing in off the line. It smells like bushfire smoke. I could rinse it and hang it inside, but it feels right to go around smelling of climate reality.
10 Dec.—Tina Perinotto: Just been sent this pic from Canberra … NOW do they get it? (Image: a vast burning sky behind the night lights of Canberra)
10 Dec.—Irma Gold: Every day I think the smoke is starting to lift and then every evening it rolls in again. It seems this is how we live now. (Image: smoke-shrouded Lake Burley Griffin)
People have become more alert to animal behaviour:
20 Dec.—Sandra Leigh Price: Currawongs singing so strangely this dusk, a different song to their usual evensong. Alarmed, plaintive. All we could do was listen.
21 Dec.—Martine Maron: 48.9 degrees C on the farm (western Vic) yesterday. Cockies falling dead from the trees. People and wildlife cannot withstand the extremes we are already experiencing and this is just 1 degree of warming. We are on track for more than 4. (sad face emoji)
10 Jan.—Phillip Adams: kangaroos are laying down and dying in the garden. Unharmed by fires they’re simply giving up—like scores of beautiful old trees
A tawny frogmouth falls from a tree, dead, in New South Wales; grass parrots and rosellas fall down dead after surviving the fires. There are countless others. ‘This is just so sad’, ‘so sad’, people say. Ritual creeps into people’s mourning of these losses, each one standing in for the billions of creatures that have died this season.
23 Dec.—Helen MacDonald: Rose petals soften the earth where I buried this young ring tailed possum felled by summer’s heat. Melbourne #FlowerReport
Someone discovers Scott Morrison holed up in Hawaii.
21 Dec.—Barrie Cassidy: C’mon mate. They’ve turned the lights out. Time to go home. (Image: A solitary Scott Morrison sitting stolidly at a poolside table in Hawaii)
Christmas comes and goes:
21 Dec.—Nigel Featherstone: Notes from an Australian summer no. 1 … meanwhile another day of near-unbreathable air due to smoke from 100 bushfires and extreme heat. Happy Christmas, I guess?
Things turn political. Scott Morrison finally reappears and tours burned-out communities, forcibly shaking people’s hands. Some ponder the possibilities of a class action against the government. I’m so angry with politicians that I take beta-blockers to calm my racing heart before going to sleep. Geoff Goldrick writes: ‘2019 may go down in history as Year Zero of the climate apocalypse. The tsunami of extreme events has been so relentless that each is quickly forgotten in favour of its successor.’
He lists the events. I had forgotten the Menindee fish kills and the immolation of Tasmanian forests dating to the last ice age. I had forgotten.
There are two more months of summer to go, but news broadcasts have stopped mentioning the word. Effortlessly, the boundaries of that old season blur and disappear. We have ‘bushfire season’ now. There is no ‘summerness’ this year. As a matter of course the weather report now includes fire alerts, the status of existing fires, the winds that will exacerbate them, fire probability and fire bans. Also the temperature.
We head to South Australia on holiday and have a few clear days. I walk on the beach at dawn, and on the third morning, though the light is glittering and hard around me, in the distance beyond the end of the peninsula a brown smudge rests on the horizon. Kangaroo Island is burning. The smoke blooms and grows during the day. By late afternoon it has arrived. Sea and sky form a horizonless plane of luminous grey, and the smoke rests on the still water. C walks out until she is waist deep, a black silhouette against the grey, and then in it, and swims away. When she comes back she tells me she wanted to see what it was like swimming into nothing. It is deeply unsettling. A son, in New Zealand for a week, says it’s smoky there too from the Australian fires. Another son, in Europe, says everywhere he goes people tell him it’s the warmest winter they can recall. Another son decides not to go rock climbing in the Grampians. It’s too risky.
Smoke haze is everywhere and it’s from everywhere. Back in Melbourne when I take the dogs for their walk, our street is a smoke-filled canal that cars glide along, disappearing into the murk like leviathans into the deep; the sky is bronze. I pause and look around, assessing rather than observing, like an animal, I think. The dogs do the same, lifting their noses, because they are more advanced animals than me in this moment. Must remember to get some bananas later, I think.
The smoke comes and goes for days, and then the sky fills with brown clouds the colour of da Vinci’s sketches. The next event has arrived. ‘What is that?’ a son asks. ‘The Mallee, I presume,’ my partner says. We watch for a while, with sober attention. Rain brings the dirt hurtling down, coating everything. ‘Lucky I didn’t get the white car,’ a neighbour says. For days afterwards people take brooms to the lace trim of their houses, hose the weatherboards and scrub their patios. I have a half-hearted go at cleaning our brick paving. It turns out half a heart isn’t enough, but since there’s more dust rain a few days later I call it a win. No-one bothers washing their car this time. Soon there is more rain, then floods, then the creeping awareness about the coronavirus, and of course then the toilet paper wars. This is how events unfold. There is hardly time to think of anything else.
Mark Mordue speaks for many when he describes his suffocating existential dread:
My experience of the city and its skies feels like an omen. I fret for my children getting home from school and the world that is coming for them … I’m tight and tense … A state of emergency has settled in around us all. I can taste the ash. I can see the pink sun.
This is what these months have done to us all. They have drawn climate change close and the future closer—not only temporally (we have all known it was coming, even the people so frightened of change that they deny it), but also physically. We had understood what physicist Alan Lightman (Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine) would call its ‘materiality’ but have not until now experienced its ‘fleshiness’. Now we have smelt it in the air, we have breathed it into our lungs, we have been unnerved and felt fear, we have seen people like us in the midst of it, some of us have been among them, we have visited those incinerated places, we have washed the dirt from our clothes, we have withered in the heat. The things we have read about have become manifest. We know now that we are not omnipotent. Our feelings of certainty about the future have gone and we are all in shock.
It seemed like there were a thousand threads running through the season, stitching it all together, or fraying loose. A small insistent one for me was wondering how novelists will write in its aftermath. If we write about it, which things will we choose to leave out, and in what vein we will write them: as comedy, as tragedy, as portent, or as bit parts in the larger body of work? If we leave its effects entirely out of our next books, why? And will that absence be eloquent in a different way?
The terms ‘apocalypse’ and ‘end times’ began to be used easily during those months and became commonplace, horrifying though they were. At first people felt that, then it seemed as if they used the words to mock the darkness and hold it at bay. Terms such as ‘dystopia’ and ‘climate change’ with relation to novels do something similar; words contain and distance as well as explain. (More problematic still is the term ‘cli-fi’, as climate-related fiction is sometimes known, which with its echoes of ‘sci-fi’ pushes climate-related material in the direction of future speculative worlds rather than the lived present, thus narrowing categorisations.)
You don’t have to be very attentive to geopolitics, global or domestic, to see that we live in a dystopia of sorts already (as Indigenous people have for centuries). The formerly stealthy trickle of events is rushing in like floodwater, and not only in Australia. It’s there in the aberrant weather and its effects (flood, fire, drought, collapse of ecosystems), the increasingly Orwellian words, lies and actions of politicians, the erosion and theft of decency and democracy, the ongoing misappropriation of funds and water, and the short-changing of bushfire-ravaged country and communities. There is no end to it. It is here and it is real.
Yet if a writer set a novel in a major city surrounded by fire, and that fire and the events that followed were acknowledged and depicted or perhaps became metaphorically resonant, the novel would likely be described as a climate-fiction dystopia in which vast fires rage unchecked, lives are lost and ancient lands destroyed (cover blurb: ‘What future lies ahead for the people of this ravaged world?’), when it might also simply be seen as a timely realist novel. After the events of the last year, climate awareness is part of the lived texture of our lives.
This is not to downplay the importance of climate fiction in helping readers imagine the future of our world, and for the extraordinary scope of its vision. Among the best in this country: Mireille Juchau’s gorgeous, lyrical The World Without Us; the visionary compression of James Bradley’s classic of the genre, Clade, and the devastating Ghost Species; Jane Rawson’s hilarious and wonderful A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists and the intense melancholy of From the Wreck (one of the saddest books I have ever loved); the dislocated beauty of Jennifer Mills’ Dyschronia; Alice Robinson’s The Glad Shout, which interweaves a realist present with future climate-affected disaster to breathless and devastating effect. And Alice Bishop’s A Constant Hum, about the catastrophic Ash Wednesday bushfires of a decade earlier, which seemed documentary on publication, then prescient as bushfires raged out of control. Apparently I’ve written a climate fiction myself (Wolfe Island), though this was not exactly my intention. But it’s not climate fiction that I’m wondering about; it’s realist fiction.
Reading realist fiction in the aftermath of our summer I am alert for evidence of the changed climate, however shadowy and slight, in characters’ lives, thoughts, conversations and the landscapes they live in. But increasingly I feel a cognitive dissonance between the world around me and the world of realist fiction, in which climate change hardly exists, even as an afterthought. It’s not that I want to read only about climate. I really don’t. I’m after a general acknowledgement, I suppose, that the world has changed.
Mostly I find what I’m looking for in nonfiction: in Kathleen Jamie’s marvellous Surfacing, saturated in observations of nature and the reappearance of the past in the present as climate change strips away time; in Sophie Cunningham’s City of Trees, which interweaves the political, the personal, and survival itself in this time of habitat and species loss; and in Julia Blackburn’s Time Song, about personal grief and her search for relics from the ancient world of Doggerland, drowned beneath the North Sea 6000 years ago. These writers make rich use of the metaphorical possibilities of landscape and understand the ways fallen worlds speak to the writer, to the reader and to our times.
My questions around the representation of climate change have a heightened import for me after this summer. I’m working on a new novel and all the time I’m thinking, How do I make sense of that, will I represent that, how do I acknowledge the change in climate if I’m not writing about climate? Is a novel realist without that? Does it matter? Somehow not acknowledging the changes that the summer and its aftermath have wrought feels disrespectful.
Writers have their own views and make their own decisions, which might change from one book to another. They write what they must, what is urgent, or they write what they can. For many, a novel is a place that people retreat to for escape and certainty; people choose a novel form or genre in the understanding that it will adhere to some rules: a crime will be solved, lovers united, a drama drawn to a close. The world will be shut out for a while.
I think books, not only novels, are where I am facing things, in writing and in reading. I’m trying to make sense of where we are right now. Everywhere I look, I’m asking the same question: What does it mean? What did the plague-like proliferation of harlequin bugs last summer mean, and what does their paucity mean this year? What does it mean that the 14-strong flock of red-rumped parrots that were fixtures of a local park for three or four years has dwindled to a single pair this year, or that I’ve not seen a snail in our garden for years. Last summer’s butcherbird has moved on. Bats disappeared for a while, then reappeared in much-reduced numbers. A huge one flew ahead of my car up Brunswick Road one night, a shadow in the darkness, wings moving slowly, and I couldn’t look away. All of my wondering is edged with grief. Remember this moment, I tell myself, when you could stand in the garden and watch insects move and fly on their different arcs all around and between the plants. Remember how they lit up in the sun. And I’m thinking about them, and wondering how to write it into a novel, without it being the novel, and how not to wallow in it, though I don’t see why we should be other than sad in the circumstances.
It’s not all bad, in the writing sense at least. The effects of climate change create opportunities too, through increased attention to changed landscapes and the possibility of exploring their metaphorical resonances and psychological effects. This is what I tell myself.
Although the explanatory phase of climate change is mostly over, it still presents problems for realist fiction. It’s difficult to introduce change or novelty in such fictions, observes Amitav Ghosh in his influential The Great Derangement, since they’re more concerned with ‘individual moral adventures’ than with ‘men in the aggregate’, and with culture over science (this includes nature, and therefore the uncanny effects of climate change in the present). Richard Powers, author of The Overstory, agrees. For the past 200 years or so literature has invited ‘the reader to believe that there is a separate story called humankind and a separate story called nature’, he says. He argues for a rapid shift in people’s thinking and behaviour from managing and dominating to focusing on the ‘broader question of who we are inside the larger community of life’.
A recalibration of this sort has clear implications for literary fiction. If you observe nature you are likely to be observing climate change; if you make note of your observations, your work will likely be categorised as climate fiction, and this will frame the response to the book, not always in positive ways.
How and when a novelist chooses to represent ‘novelty’ of any sort has always been difficult. Mention something zeitgeisty—mobile phones, email, text messaging, social media, computers, the internet (remember those descriptions of the old dial-up sounds?), electric cars—and it risks simultaneously lunging at modernity, and almost immediately becoming dated. As one review of Jenny Offill’s Weather said when pointing out how it is an expression of this precise time—‘How do you write a novel that doesn’t go stale by the next election?’—then rather waspishly observes that there was no reason why the narrator Lizzie’s observations ‘should be organised as a novel and not as a particularly literate Twitter feed’.
Of course realist fiction, any fiction, has always depicted a curated reality: the cast of characters culled to avoid confusion, conversations condensed, action compressed, and the plot shaped around thematic or genre concerns. They present a constructed ‘seeming’ truth with a satisfying plot arc, which in the confines of the text the reader accepts as reality. In some ways novels are strong. They can hold worlds, universes, multitudes of feeling, thinking, understanding, wondering. But throw a diamond on a beach and fail to answer the question it raises and the novel’s foundations tremble. It’s not so much a loose end as a loose start. An uncanny weather event or a strange sight—a toxic algal bloom, a drowned landscape, or thousands of cuttlefish washed onto a shore—present a similar problem. Mention them and they catch the readers’ attention and threaten to pull the novel out of shape. It is the particularity of an event that presents problems. How then do you depict climate change when its effects are so variously weird?
The past sometimes has a way of illuminating the future. The first commercial locomotive journey in England was in 1830, and more than 24,000 kilometres of track were laid over the next few decades, yet in the 16 years between that journey and the publication of Charles Dickens’ novel Dombey and Son (about the effects of railways on working-class families) Dickens rarely mentions trains; his characters mostly travel by horse and coach. Dickens lived alongside the building of a train line and would have witnessed the immense clamour and upheaval; I imagine him, like many a modern novelist, brooding over how to deal with change of this magnitude. What do railways mean? What do they do to people? What might they add to a novel? Here in these gleaming, implacable lines appears Dickens’ finding: ‘The yet unfinished and unopened railroad was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement.’
The railways formed and came to symbolise Victorian ideas of modernity and progress, but it took time and the clarity of a backward-looking eye for that view to form. Trains became important symbols and portents, and train travel became essential to the plots of Victorian mystery fiction, and later of crime fiction. From being a problem, it turned into a valued device. How fortunate they were that no-one coined the term ‘train fiction’.
Climate change and its present effects haven’t receded enough for us to understand how this time might seem historically. And climate change is different from earlier changes in that its effects are not constant or ubiquitous, as William Gibson observed: ‘The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed’. Its effects will likely accelerate rather than stabilise in the future. We don’t know if our cities will be smoke-filled every summer, for instance, or whether blue skies in summer will one day seem strange.
The events of the summer still feel exceptional, unsettling and uncanny, and we still can’t see them in the longer arc of time. If you describe them, will the reader expect that to be the subject of the book; are you now working on a piece that is part socio-climatic-political commentary? Our fears and anxieties about the possibility of such events (as opposed to the occasional reality) are not exceptional, though; they’re widely experienced, and it’s in this space that a few books have been published: Olivia Laing’s Crudo, Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, and Jenny Offill’s Weather. Each of these books explores at least in part the experience—part anxiety-induced paralysis, part self-flagellation—of being an affluent but climate change–aware person living in the West.
Weather documents the narrator Lizzie’s life in Brooklyn, her thoughts in particular, and her development into what her husband calls a ‘crazy doomer’. Offill invites us in to experience the ‘terrible music’ and ‘quiet beauty’ that coexist for Lizzie, as they do for many of us. Lizzie’s world is a rarefied one; she chooses to be aware, but remains unaffected by climate change in her daily life except by choice and through her awareness of a narrowing future for her child and the diminished world that people are creating. She’s adept at identifying people’s anxieties and small griefs, including her own, and the ease with which they interchange. Lizzy’s comment, ‘No more apples; Apples need frost’, is a personal one, a domestic grief, but it is also, symbolically, about the end of civilisation. Apples: one of the most potent and layered symbols that exist.
It is perhaps because I live in a smug Melbourne near-equivalent of Brooklyn that the book resonated on first reading. It left me breathless. I put it aside again and again to recover. In it, I saw myself, all my acquisitive superficiality, my pathetic efforts to make some kind of difference—any kind of difference at all—my skin-crawling anxiety at the future, my fears for my children and the fault lines between the things we think and know and the ways we feel and act. Offill is adept at the telling juxtaposition and at permitting the silences that make them resonate. I felt skewered, because I felt seen and understood.
And yet, like Offill’s narrator Lizzie, like Olivia Laing’s Kathy in Crudo, like the narrator of Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, I remain untouched by climate change. Kathy sees the world’s terrors only through a computer screen: ‘shut it, and the proximate peacefulness of trees and birds and street noise takes its place … How can both be real?’ My fears are theoretical, though I believe that things will get worse. Part of the weirdness of our smoke-filled street was that it had happened to me. Me. The future—though still literally and metaphorically vaporous—had arrived at my doorstop (yes, I am aware of the shameful ego and privilege of taking it personally) and at the doorsteps of millions of others who might have felt the same.
The future is scarcely felt for these characters; they’re caught in the present, the acute anxiety of now, and Offill’s work keeps showing and enacting that claustrophobic loop to devastating effect, leaving the reader the space to make the connections.
Guilt is part of this, for writer and reader both. Ellmann’s narrator says, ‘Sometimes I think that people today must be the saddest people ever, because we know we ruined every-thing.’ Crudo’s Kathy faces the same truth with more bite and wit despite her curiously affectless tone (after all, it won’t affect her):
She tried to limit her husband’s addiction to the tumble dryer, she never flew to anywhere more than eight hours away, but even lying here on her back she was despoiling something … Kathy hated it, living at the end of the world, but then she couldn’t help but find it interesting, watching people herself included compulsively foul their nest.
There is a flattening effect to the self-absorbed ruminations of all these protagonists: things matter because they matter to them. Kathy’s greatest distress is over her decking being painted the wrong colour.
These three novels might exist in a cul-de-sac of realist fiction—how many more such ruminative works on the age would we want to read?—but they mark an important moment: people in realist fiction staring into the abyss of the future and acknowledging it, and surely that makes them important documents of now. They tell us something about humanness, distractibility, how hard it is for us to maintain perspective, incidentally supporting Kathleen Jamie’s observations in Surfacing.
On the island of Notland in the Orkneys, Jamie participates in a dig of a Neolithic site in the Links sand dunes, blowing away now in shifting climate change–affected winds. Despite the changes revealed in buildings over time—some fall into disuse, others spring up—and the intense hardship of this life (high infant mortality, deaths of women in childbirth, the survival of anyone into their late twenties a comparative rarity), it was their life. As for us, Jamie says, ‘What Links reveals is … the daily getting on with it that most of us inhabit, if we’re fortunate enough to live in times of peace.’
I observed the same thing in the slower disaster of drowning islands on the Chesapeake Bay while on research trips there for Wolfe Island. People were continually making adjustments, letting some houses go or jacking them up and moving them, finding other jobs when the old ways of life were gone. They were quite cheerful. It was not their lives entire, but the backdrop to their lives. (Of course, they have an advantage over island nations; they have places they can move to.)
Australia is still peaceful. For the most part, our lives are filled with the quotidian, and for a largely urban population, climate change is still somewhat distant, though we have felt its breath. People are getting on with things—even now, during a pandemic—as they did in Neolithic times and beyond. Offill’s Lizzie makes two statements and lets readers reach a similar conclusion: ‘Survival instructors have a saying: Get organized or die’ and ‘I have to go to work, says he, says me, says everybody.’
Elizabeth Strout offers a different approach to acknowledging change. Her characters are so perfectly formed and dimensional, her descriptions of landscape and place so luminous, that people miss her subtle acknowledgements of climate change, deft brushstrokes. There’s no signposting or moral positioning. She is impartial in her close observation of the normal and the abnormal. Take these two characters talking in Anything Is Possible:
They spoke of different machines then and also of the wind turbines that had been put up recently between Carlisle and Hanston. ‘We’ve just got to get used to them, I guess,’ said Tommy. And Pete said he guessed Tommy was right about that.
There, it is done: wind turbines are here to stay and, implicitly, they’re here because of changed climate.
Running through Olive, Again like a quiet pulse is an awareness of landscape, seasons and weather, and occasionally its appropriateness for the time of year. It is there in observations about it being ‘still chilly in mid-June’, and of a June day years later being ‘unseasonably hot’. Sometimes the weather is noteworthy only for the solace of its beauty. When this quiet weather-awareness is interrupted by a more detailed focus on a November landscape, we take note. Olive and her husband Jack have gone for a drive through an uncannily snowless landscape. We feel Olive’s shock: ‘There was a kind of horrifying beauty to the world … the roads were bare, and the fields were swept clean-looking, everything sort of ghastly and absolutely gorgeous.’
It’s an elegant and unsettling passage. On one level it is literal, an observation of an effect of climate change. Snow should have fallen, but hasn’t. But it is metaphor and portent too, of unsettling secrets in Jack’s life that are about to be exposed. And it is part of the ongoing life of the book: the weather-aware pulse that helps animate it. A writer as observant and landscape-aware as Strout is able to show the effects of climate change without accompanying exposition. Refugees appear, too, with no great fanfare. It’s realist fiction that quietly includes elements of the ways the world is changing.
I imagine some ways different genres might include climate change. It’s not easy; the urge to highlight is constant, because although climate change is around us, we don’t quite inhabit it. We still comment: ‘How about the smoke today!’ when we don’t say, ‘How fast are those trains?’ or ‘God, mobile phones are so handy.’
Once in a while in a fiction could someone stop to watch the insects in the garden on the way to hang out the clothes, rescue a dehydrated possum from the side of the road, notice burned tree trunks on a road trip, refill a container of water in the park on the daily walk, take real note of weather, landscape, or the gleam of solar panels on roofs?
1. Literary fiction
Around the sweep of College Crescent streamed the AWD hybrids and electrics, bikes appended at rear or roof. Soon their passengers were dragging through heat and college doorways like refugees whittled down to their last and dearest possessions: their cases and packs filled with facemasks; air and water purifiers; smoke-coloured or dirt-coloured clothes (god, who wore white any more?), brand active wear and linen; energy bars, condoms and chips, many-coloured pills, skin cleansers and teddy bears; laptops, door stops, and app-laden phones (bushfires, floods, weather, tides, emergency warnings and all the rest).
The shrill of them lifted like chattering birds: ‘Wooh!’ ‘Oh my god!’ ‘Awesome!’ And they took selfies and other pictures and posted them. How else would anyone know they existed? Sprinklers chugged water about, and away across the expanses of Carlton thousands of solar panels gleamed dully in the early autumn haze. (with apologies to Don DeLillo)
2. ‘Women’s’ fiction
Charley hurled herself into the gaggle of tiny girls. Helen looked around: no sign
of Indi yet, or Hunter. If Rosie couldn’t get them to school on time, she had no right to complain, in Helen’s view. No, there they were, emerging from the smoke through the gate, Hunter’s sobs muffled through his pink mask, which he tugged at ineffectually.
‘It’s for girls,’ he shrieked. Rosie didn’t reply.
Indi had got the army camo mask again (desert not jungle)—so much for being anti-war, Helen thought—and her triumph was evident in her high-held head and her every stride. ‘Don’t be such a baby,’ she said to her brother with withering contempt. ‘Anyway, there’s no such thing as girls’ colours, is there, Mum? Colours are for everybody.’
God, she was annoying. Helen wondered how many of her lecturettes she had to look forward to after school. A play date for Charley … what had made her agree to that?
3. Crime fiction
Wait, was that a hand reaching from the permafrost beside the mammoth’s vast tusk? As puffy and wet-looking as uncooked chicken sausages. Her mind raced. What a find. Had they both died in the hunt, mammoth falling on hunter? She squelched closer through the putrid mud—that sound, and the smell of rotten mammoth (and hunter)—and crouched before it. There was a leather thong on its wrist, a small brass cylinder bead. How had they made that in Neolithic times? With utmost care—she didn’t want to break the fragile skin—she rotated the bead with her gloved finger and peered at some markings. No, an inscription: ‘Brittney4eva’.
Sometimes I see the writing world today as the people on the decks of the Titanic: some are the musicians, playing their traditional refrains, comforting us all as the ship goes down; others are looking about, wondering at human nature, the weird things happening and the spectacular icebergs all around; some are trying to organise lifeboats while dispensing key life advice; and a few are thinking ahead because they can see there aren’t enough lifeboats and not everyone’s going to make it.
In her Stella Prize speech this year Briohny Doyle spoke compellingly of the competing urges in writing: to advance into the future or retreat:
Writing probably doesn’t feel like the most crucial response here, and maybe it’s not. There is lots of other work to be done. But writing can help us see connections, record violence, build empathy, address possible futures. Writing in an emergency means pulling yourself back from the nostalgic deep dive.
The lived experience of a crisis is with us now. We can’t unlive it. In acknowledgement of that, perhaps the doors of realist fiction could be prised open enough just to indicate that characters have noticed that the world is changing.
Of course we don’t know yet exactly how the ways we think, act and—yes—write might change after this year. Some writers, I suppose, will write around this period as an aberration while they wait for things to settle; others, as Charles Dickens once did, might begin to brood. Sliding back into the old ways—We’ll be right; Summer is done, thank God—would be easier, and people are distractible; I include myself here. Remember how the toilet paper crisis came almost as a relief. Who was going to die over toilet paper—provided that the knife fights were stopped in time. Think of what came after.
No-one wants the dystopia we live in to be true, though it is just the same. But the writing-bookselling-reading world—like every other bit of society—is a slow-moving ship sailing through time. It’s hard for a genre such as realist fiction to accommodate change; it arrives leisurely and peripherally. There is comfort in the familiar in books as in life. But change is coming anyway. •
Lucy Treloar is the author of Wolfe Island, which was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and Salt Creek, which won the Dobbie Award and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin. Her short stories and nonfiction have been widely published.