Risen Waters: The Books That Captured 2020

(Note: this is a more targeted piece, but I’ll do my “Favorite Books of 2020” tomorrow. There’s some overlap, of course)

Books discussed:

Afropessimism, Frank B Wilderson III

A Children’s Bible, Lydia Millet

Angry Weather, Friederike Otto (translated by Sarah Pybus)

Empire of Wild, Cherie Dimaline

The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking), Katie Mack

High as the Waters Rise, Anja Kampmann (translated by Anne Posten)

Leave the World Behind, Rumaan Alam

Weather, Jenny Offill

On the last day of February, I was at a friend’s quadrennial Leap Year party, a celebration of the calendar delaying its way into what would prove to be an endless March. Talking to another friend about books, we discovered we had both just read Weather, by Jenny Offill, a short punchy novel that feels like the lived experience of doom. 

We agreed that it was brilliant, mordant, funny, and deeply difficult to read. It carries dread on every page, a sickening almost unnameable feeling of portent. Discussing it, we consistently stumbled around some variation of “And it feels especially strange, considering…”

Considering what might happen. Considering the gathering news of the epidemic that had shut down China, terrified the world and at the time was ravaging Italy, Spain, and other European countries. The virus that had already been spotted in Seattle. The thing that was coming. 

Offill’s book deals, in a gut-level way, with the ravaging of the world, with the distinct and quest knowledge that things are wrecked, that the climate is ruined and that the worst is yet to come. But it isn’t dystopian. It’s not a vision of the future. It’s the knowledge that the terrors are here now, that they are around us, and that while it can and will get worse, we are no longer living in the good times. 

In a way, even though I feel like I read it in another lifetime, Weather is a book that captures the experience of 2020, of knowing that there is no more road down which to kick the can. That all of our devil’s bargains have come due. It’s a book that doesn’t so much frighten you about the future as pull the blindfold off the terrible present we feel but had trouble acknowledging. 

But now, 10 months later, I don’t think many people have trouble seeing that present. 

Even though it was written before 2020, then, it stands as a testament to this year of sickness and fire, of ruin and anger. It joins what, for me, are books that capture 2020. Because we aren’t at the apotheosis of a disaster, nor at the fateful beginning. We’ve realized that we’ve been descending a dark staircase that descends into the unknown, and the steps above us have fallen away. 

Imagining the End

When we think of “the end”, there are at least three distinct types. There is our own personal gotterdammerung, death, which is essentially the end of the world as far as we are concerned. Then there are actual apocalypse stories, which imagine the end of society, of the things we’ve built, of our great civilizations and our hopes and fears as we plunge into some kind of pre-and-post history savagery (Emily St John Mandel’s Station 11 is, with good reason, the most celebrated recent entry in this canon). 

These driving engine of these kind of books can vary, from zombie horrors to nuclear war to environmental disasters. They can be as bleak as The Road or carry within them the seeds of a rebuild, like the monologue at the end of Fahrenheit 451. But, historically, they usually always involve human agency. Even post-Earth dystopias know where to assign blame. 

That’s not the case when you look at the third category of “the end”, which is the actual earth being destroyed by forces outside our control (like in the film Melancholia). To take an even broader view, we can look at what astrophysicist Katie Mack titled The End of Everything, a wonderful book in which she detailed the various ways that the universe might end. 

That phrase alone is enough to send one into tremors of awe and sacred terror. After all, the idea that the universe can end is at once both absurd and mystifying. How can everything…just end? 

Mack explores the different models with humor, grace, and a commitment to science. Whether she is talking about the narratively-satisfying Big Crunch, in which we collapse back into a singularity (to maybe be reborn again!), the sad sigh of heat death, or the (relatively) sudden disaster of the Big Rip or Vacuum Decay, she paints a universe that is far stranger and more vast and inhuman than most of us can conceive. 

Luckily, Mack conceives it, and explains it in a way that even non-physicists can grasp. Even if the science is much bigger than I can quite wrap my head around, and the implications of nothingness give lie to my attempts at meaning, the book makes you feel like the end of the universe is a possibility that can be explained. It isn’t an apocalypse; it is math. 

Usually. One of the great joys of the book is how Mack admits what we don’t know and what we maybe can’t know. As she says, talking about the “Hubble-observable-universe thing” in which, far out in the universe, distant objects appear bigger than they actually are, “The universe is frickin’ weird.”

It’s that weirdness, that unknowableness, and the way in which it reminds us of how small things here really are, that makes her delight of a book unsettling. And to me, anyway, it echoed two of my favorite fiction books of the year, where unknowable disasters began to befall people as the world fell apart. Because unlike the apocalypse stories of yesterday, where madmen mashed buttons to rain fire on ideological enemies, the disasters of today seem like they are already beyond our control. 

The idea of control, and the loss of it, is central to Leave the World Behind, a novel by Rumaan Alam. This novel is many things: an exquisite and minutely-observed comedy of manners about race and class, a character study of recognizable types made real, and an end-of-the-world novel in which the end is a rumor that the characters attempt to ignore. 

Two families are in a house. One older couple owns the place, far in the wilds of Long Island, and the other couple and their two young kids was renting it for a getaway. The couple that owns the house comes back after there is a sudden blackout in New York. No one’s phones work. There’s no signal. 

As the couples decide what to do, aspects of ownership come into play. Who is in charge? Whose house is it? How do you react when thrown together with strangers in extreme circumstances (really, in any circumstance, as our world gets more extreme)? They consistently try to rationalize away what is happening, and assume that things will be fine soon enough. How could they not be? That’s not the way things work? 

Alam never quite lets us in on what happened, at least not in any way that we understand everything. There are terrible noises and unexplained tooth-losings and odd animal behavior. The books focuses on the house, but sometimes you get a glimpse of the world outside. A cleaner someone thinks of, we learn in a brief aside, had been trapped in an elevator for hours, and he would die there, “though not for many more hours.” But for the most part, we focus on the families, and their increasingly-desperate denials that anything has happened. 

That denial is a luxury for many of us, and this year has made it even harder. Denial is one of the main themes in Lydia Mallet’s A Children’s Bible, in which the rains finally come, and they don’t stop. 

Many families, old college friends, meet on a raucous vacation near the water. Booze flows day and night. Grotesque economic and sexual entanglements ooze into the daily routine, lechery and forced laughter and sloppy parenting. The children are left to their own devices. There are pairings and cliques, there is mysticism and hard-earned reality, and most of all, there is the knowledge the children have that the adults don’t: the storm is here. 

Waters rise. Hurricane winds lash. At times the books feels like a standard “after society” book, sometimes a leering fable, and sometimes a harshly realistic book about how we will act when it is too late to act. 

Really, though, those are all the same thing. What is happening to our planet feels like fiction, feels like a fable, feels like an impossibility. And so we drink and carouse and have bitter meaningless fights over nothing and bitter and meaningful fights over how to make lives better for those victimized by the changes. But underscoring those actions is the idea that it isn’t too late — or, rather, that the worst of it hasn’t started, and maybe if we just pretend it’ll be fine it won’t impact us. 

A Children’s Bible takes those who believe that and turns them into degenerate infants, shows them — us, me, maybe you — for what the are: fools. Deliberate, mewling, fools, who deny the waters around our feet. When the children started taking over, Millet throws in this line, which has stuck with me all year. 

“The parents complained, indignant. It was so sudden, they said. They’d all been told there was more time. Way more.”

That, to me, is the heart of 2020. We’d all been told there was more time. We’d all been sure that these things could be fixed, the scientists would figure it out, we’d be ok. Carbon capture! Yeah, carbon capture. And pandemics? Well, they seem to get those under control. The big one might come, but not in my lifetime. Right? 

That was an illusion. But, to be fair, it wasn’t an illusion shared by everyone. 

The Ones Who Saw It Coming

Not wanting to see the terrors of the world is more than an illusion conjured up by holy fools; it is a luxury for those who, maybe until this year, didn’t feel the terrible weight of today. The way that the ground underneath you can fall open and you can plunge into poverty, at Whole Foods one week and a food line the next. The way that a shift in ocean temperatures too small to feel can create storms that ruin your city. The way the government can suddenly turn against you. 

Of course, with the last one, that’s something that Black, Brown, and Indigenous people have always known. As I said, with the luxury of realization earlier this year, the idea of a police state is not new for many people. The idea that the state is against you, that law enforcement is meant to drive you down, is the reality for millions of Americans. 

This hot violent year of protests and rage, of police brutality, of murder and fire, of mechanized cops smashing protestors in every city across the country, has opened the eyes of millions and has produced a raft of literature. But of everything I’ve read, I think that Afropessimism, by Frank B. Wilderson III, has stuck with me the most. Because it isn’t saying “here’s how we got here” as much as “here’s how it’s always been.” 

Afropessimism is the idea that the master-slave dynamic, that the logic of slavery, is not just the groundwork on which this country was built, and with whose legacy we are still dealing, but that it is the driving force behind the whole of the Black experience. That capture and control of Black bodies and culture and history and future is more than the basis of our laws, which is damning enough, but the absolute fiber of the nation. 

From that lens, nothing that has happened for the last 450 years is inexplicable. Everything fits. And even if you don’t take that extreme point of view, and “merely” believe that much of our society is structured around erasing the civil rights movement, it is ultimately the same thing. 

This year has revealed fully the weaknesses in our systems. It’s shown that the government, if ruled by a dull thug, can clear out a public park of peaceful protestors for a dopey photo-op. It’s sent tear-gas into houses. It’s clubbed and quartered thousands. It’s very, very willing to let people get sick and die by the hundreds of thousands. It’s willing to at least try to become an authoritarian police state, if by lazy default. 

For many Black people though, that revelation isn’t new. Wilderson’s book is in the long lineage of books that showing that while some might have been comfortable, many knew that this was an illusion, and one that had to be revealed as such. 

Of course, the Black experience is not the only one that knows America primarily as a vehicle for spitting fire and bringing death. The Native experience is, if anything, more distant from the center of American life. The last few years have seen an resurgence of activism and a reclaiming of rights, partly due to the coalescing anger around the Dakota Access Pipeline and other treaty-breaking energy-based concerns, and due to the Trump administration’s gleeful attack on Native land and rights. 

It would be hard to say these are direct themes in Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild, a sort-of spooky genre book about possession, myth, religion, and family. It’s a thriller of sorts, and despite the presence of spirits and spooks, is far from “mystical” or any other trope. In this way, it is like The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones. Both deal with Indigenous stories, but taken on their own terms. They aren’t metaphors for oppression and occupation. In that way, they are striking, they are individual, and they are a reclamation. 

Of course, occupation and oppression are always on there. Racism is always there, as the old stories have to be filtered through the current realities of poverty and cruelty and indifference by the occupiers. Empire of Wild, in particular, doesn’t shy away from the way that colonizers still use corruption and the false carrot of colonizers religion is used to subject the lives and bodies of First Nations people to make money from the land. 

The colonizers might be called Canada or America or Enbridge, but it is the same story. When you look at it, the line from missionaries to mercenaries is a short one. And as 2020 showed time and again, you have to look at it. You have no choice. 

The idea that we can’t look away anymore is a big theme of this year, because while there might have been some fun times with sourdough, all the rot at the heart of intersecting systems of capitalism and climate have been exposed. Things are happening, have happened, and will happen. And what makes it almost more devastating is that we know why. 

The “why” is a question asked and partially-answered by Angry Weather, an extremely detailed science book by Friederike Otto, one of the leading proponents of attribution science. Attribution science is how a changing climate is applied to extreme weather events, whether it is as sudden and devastating as a hurricane or as insidious as a drought. 

For years, most people would avoid attributing any one event to climate change, and for good cause. Any weather event is a confluence of many different factors, from the local to the global. And so while it was easy and correct to say that climate change probably was responsible for more and more devastating hurricanes, we couldn’t say that it was responsible for this hurricane or these deaths. 

Otto’s book (translated by Sarah Pybus) goes a long way to showing how that kind of thinking is outdated. Through extremely complicated calculations, they are able to judge in real time how events are worsened by climate change, how much more damage there is, and even what might happen moving forward. 

This is the sort of book that one would have to be a truly cynical skeptic to dismiss. While some climatologists are still iffy on attribution, largely for political reasons, it makes no grand claims. The book dismisses the impact of climate change on some events, and mediates its influence on others. On some, it shows a huge impact. It’s very scrupulous. 

And yet the picture it paints is one where things are beginning to change faster and faster, swirling like a portrait of a hurricanes forming over the Atlantic, one after the other, as we run out of names, as we forget major events that happened just this year, as the fires that ravaged Colorado and devastated California become yearly events, and become part of the background. A world in which the dryness of attribution suddenly has an acrid smell and a burning taste. It’s a year in which, in so many ways, we can ignore neither cause nor effect. 

Cause and Effect

A big theme here has been exploitation and appropriation catching up with the rest of us. America has oppressed Black and Brown people for centuries; that anger is something which the rest of us now have to support or, essentially, still fight against (placidity is support for the status quo). Europeans came to this land, eliminated the nations here, and converted all of the land, the earth, the minerals in the ground, and all the new inhabitants into capital. It’s a process that is still happening (as we see in the dying administration’s cruel push to open more native lands to mining concerns). 

That process, of extraction, of taking from the earth and making it into energy, and thus capital, is one of the driving factors of climate change. It’s destroying our world. What we don’t always see if the people ground up in its relentless machinery. High as the Waters Rise, by Anja Kampmann, is a strange and sad attempt to change that. 

Kampmann’s novel, translated by Anne Posten, tells the story of a man whose friend and lover was killed on a vast offshore oil rig, his body never found. He may have fallen into the crashing seas, or he may have been murdered. That mystery drives the book, but “drives” implies action, and there is little. 

Waclaw, the protagonist, leaves the ship. He’s comforted by some mates, men who have given their lives to this liminal world of oceans and helicopter, of months on the North Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico or maybe an onshore assignment. He travels through weary, brightly-lit but still dim areas of machinery and bureaucracy. His is a world of transitory people, a united nations of workers who power the world, who have no country and no home and no real future, who just hope that this mission isn’t the one on which they die. 

Waclaw floats, and he remembers. He goes through the surface of the world. The novel is dry and anguished and painful and feels underwater. Waclaw, like so many in this industry, in this great suppurating maw, is detached. From himself, his family, his loves. This is an exquisite novel, both suffocating and expansive, never didactic, but showing a vast world which is everywhere, but somehow underground. Showing the ruined lives that make our comfortable ones possible. 

That comfort has been taken away. Sure, for many of us, we’re still ok. We have our homes, hopefully our jobs, and food in our belly. I go to one of my local breweries to pick up beer a few times a week. We order in. As I write this we’re planning a delicious New Year’s meal for two. My life hasn’t really changed, a lot of people can say the same. 

But it’s different now. THe horrors of this year hardly need to be repeated and are still impossible to fully enumerate. Rumors of a deadly disease in China, official indifference, the magical thinking of a party devoted to a conman’s death cult instincts, Lockdown, hundreds of thousands dead, bodies piled in vans, police truncheons crunching into skulls, old men shoved to the ground, food lines stretching for miles, hurricanes and hunger, and all the while people partying, dancing, carrying guns into state houses to protest masks, heat heat and more heat…it was all too much. Even the comfortable can’t look away. 

Lizzie, the narrator in Weather, the book that somehow presaged this horrible year, has taken over the role of answering letters for Hell and High Water, a doom-and-gloom podcast that attracts end-times-fanatics from both the left and the right. Needless to say, this has made her both more pessimistic and more obsessed for answers. In one brief scene, she talks to her mentor, who left to go live in the country, about mystics. She thinks that if we can maybe learn some clarity, we can change things. 

There’s that idea in the different traditions. Of the veil. What if we were to tear through it? (Welcome, say the ferns. We’ve been expecting you.)

“Of course, the world still continues to end,” Sylvia says, then gets off the phone to water her garden. 

2020 has revealed everything to those who thought the end had yet to begin, who wished we had more time, who used the idea of more time as an incantation against harm and a ward against having to change. But we don’t have a choice anymore. The fire is now. The dead offer no alternative explanations and refuse comfort. The high waters are here.

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