Love, Rage – and Laughter
Ness, Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood, 2019, 83pp, £14.99 (hardback)
It is hard to smile at the apocalypse. Extinction Rebellion, the global climate crisis movement occupying cities and social media feeds from Cairo to Melbourne, signs its newsletters: ‘In love and rage’. The climate-induced societal breakdown is, this sign off implies, no laughing matter. Higher ideals and deeper, more searching emotions – love, rage – are a more fitting response; humour has little place.
Reading their dispatches, I was reminded of something the Welsh poet-priest R.S. Thomas once said when asked by an interviewer what was the ‘use of literature’, he replied, ‘Literature is the supreme human statement. I should like to think of man, on his last day on earth, speaking words of love and beauty in his native tongue.’
Much contemporary nature writing follows this prescription to the letter. It takes the assumption that, as Aldo Leopold had it, we are ‘living in a world of wounds’ – that our relationship with the natural world has become fatefully, fatally unstuck. Against such a background, writing in a language that is anything other beautiful and loving feels cheap, irresponsible – a betrayal.
The trouble is, though, too much reverence is dull. Worse, it dulls the message. Even the most sympathetic reader will eventually weary of sentence after sentence of doomstering, wrapped in prose that has all the chill beauty of a stubble field on a winter’s dusk – and about as much life. The end of the world can, on occasion, be told oh so ploddingly.
Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood’s Ness has no such issue. One of its pleasures – and surprises – is its spry, dark humour. In all fairness, Macfarlane’s previous work was not immune to jokes. There is a very good one, for instance, in his second book The Wild Places, when he reads in a remote bothy’s guestbook that,
‘A Major Leak was discovered in one of the pipes.’ The author did not record whether the Major had yet managed to make his escape.
These flashes of levity, though, were rare. Mica glints in the impermeable solidity of his prose; Macfarlane crafts sentences which fit as close and snug and weather-proof as a dry stone wall.
Ness feels very different. In texture and construction, it is looser, spikier. Its blend of poetry and prose, voice and verse, wordplay and lush linguistic games, perhaps comes closest to the ‘spell-poems’ of The Lost Words; the delightful book Macfarlane produced with artist Jackie Morris, written to summon back a vanishing natural world to children’s vocabularies and imaginations. There, too, the influence of Gerald Manley Hopkins was keenly felt: a delight in the slop and dash of words – language used as Monet deployed paint, in generous, big-hearted strokes and sudden splashes.
But Ness is emphatically not a children’s book. Rather it owes much to the eco-punk sensibilities of Stanley Donwood, Macfarlane’s long-time collaborator, whose stark woodcuts illustrations accompany the text throughout. In fact, Donwood’s illustrations are key to unlocking a book which, at times, revels in its atmosphere of oppressive, haunting strangeness. They envision Orford Ness – not just the book’s setting but a character, its hero even – as a smashed landscape of denuded trees, branches stretched like thorns to the sky. They present endless, flattened vistas of beach and sea and sky which march to the horizon; with military-industrial ruins hunkered low over the land, stripped and skeletal; while, above it all, storm clouds boil.
These visual references are straight out of cli-fi – whether Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy, or, more closely, the monochrome, poisoned world of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where ‘nights [are] beyond darkness and the days more grey each one than what had gone before’. But while McCarthy’s vision drew its extraordinary power from the bond it depicted between father and son – their love a thin point of flame in an otherwise elemental dark – Ness goes one step further and elides people out of the picture almost entirely. In Macfarlane and Donwood’s telling, it is the land which has agency, autonomy and independence; it is not the backdrop to the drama, but the drama itself.
Ness’s story is a two-hander. In a riff on the extended introductions of Epic poetry, we meet the protagonists first: it, he, she, they and as, five more-than-human forms composed of ‘plastic … willow … hagstone … and shingle’ – these bizarre assemblages of matter are nature personified. But it is a post-Anthropocene nature, one that has been moulded and polluted by human presence. So while he ‘sings in birds’, it ‘builds itself from pallet slat & bottle-top.’ The other half of the story follows these forms counterparts; a group of humans – The Armourer, The Engineer, The Physicist, The Biologist/Bryologist, and The Ornithologist – who have gathered in a bunker, the Green Chapel, to perform a rite which is part nuclear necromancy and part farce. Towards the end, these two strands of narrative intertwine and the island of Orford Ness itself rises up to reassert its presence.
Suffice to say that Ness is so short and so strange that to explain much more would be reductive. Nonetheless, the storytelling has verve, and there is such commitment to this bizarre world that the reader is carried along – a radioactive Alice Through the Looking Glass. Indeed, the difficulty of Ness is the difficulty inherent to any depiction of the Anthropocene: its multi-faceted effects are so scattered in space and time that any response which attempts comprehension, or even a cohesive vision, flirts with failure. Put differently, the Anthropocene boggles precisely because it breaks our habitual human-sized frames of reference and timescales. In fact, there is a lovely moment in Ness which dramatises this struggle to contain the outsized concept;
Even as The Physicist is trying to represent this phenomenon to himself in language he is simultaneously, furiously trying to reject the possibility of the phenomenon’s existence within the realm of the real as he comprehends it.
Well quite. The climate crisis ties us in all sorts of knots: linguistically, morally, legally and philosophically. Academia has long spent time detangling and retangling this cat’s cradle. Therefore, what Ness is setting out to achieve is not new. It is, however, part of an exciting and increasingly assertive body of literature, one that seeks to look unblinkingly at the difficulties – and opportunities – of our brave new epoch. Macfarlane’s own Underland, released earlier this year, was, as the eco-critic Pippa Marland perceptively identifies, ‘the first work of British nature writing to devote itself entirely to the question of the Anthropocene’. Yet, as Marland makes clear, it is in good company with recent books from other nature writing luminaries, such as Adam Nicholson (The Sea Bird’s Cry), Tim Dee (Landfill), Philip Hoare (Risingtidefallingstar) and Kathleen Jamie (Surfacing), all ‘responding in a more focused, more politicised way to the Anthropocene.’
Nature writing has evidently moved away from the ‘lone, enraptured male’ that Kathleen Jamie famously skewered in her review of The Wild Places. Today, it necessarily deals more thoughtfully with the reverberations of our rapidly failing biosphere, for us but also most pressingly, for future generations. Yet it still stubs against the problem of representation: how do you give voice to the otherwise mute non-human victims of the climate crisis? How do you ask readers to inhabit the consciousness of, say, the Sei Whale whose numbers crashed precipitously in the mid-20th Century and which is still being slaughtered by Japanese fleets? Can you begin to summon the loss and the grief of the Okjokull glacier whose funeral in Iceland this summer was reported in the press with equal parts solemnity and sneer? It is extraordinarily difficult; clumsy writing is likely to veer sharply into obscurity or absurdity. After all, we are conditioned to believe that animate islands or beings made of ‘moss’ and fleshed in ‘lichen’ have little place outside of fantasy and children’s literature – or, at a push, half-buried folklore. To misquote Annie Dillard, teaching a stone to talk is easy; listening to what it has to say without sniggering is far harder.
Ness largely circumvents this criticism by pre-empting it; the wilfully oddball writing is marbled with wry, self-deprecatory humour. Consider the introduction to Drift, one of the more-than-human characters;
Drift is frequently seen as lacking any clear direction in life. Drift’s school reports repeatedly drew attention to its lack of commitment … Weary career advisors submitted Drift to the usual psychometric aptitude tests, which remarkably did not recommend Drift become a prison warden or zookeeper, but nevertheless failed to conclude that Drift had a single clear path in life.
A similar tension between sobriety and sniggering runs through Max Porter’s novel Lanny. Porter’s novel is partly told from the perspective of Dead Papa Toothwort, a kind of omniscient embodiment of the Little England village of the novel’s setting, represented by ‘plastic pots and a petrified condom’ and its Deep Time past. He is a similar construct to the beings which stalk the pages of Ness, a living suggestion of the power, and fragility, of the multitudinous presences which teem around us. To my mind though, Lanny triumphed through its gorgeous depiction of the relationship between the boy Lanny and his parents; as with The Road, nature – even the unusual figure of Dead Papa Toothwort – eventually becomes an operation of the powerfully told plot. It is the interplay between the human characters which catches, and keeps, the eye. In Ness, by contrast, nature is all we are given, whether through Donwood’s austere illustrations or Macfarlane’s Puckish narrative. Without humour, and the human warmth it implies, it would be a greyer, far less beguiling book. In the end, perhaps we need our stories to be human-sized.
During the recent Extinction Rebellion protests, I visited their encampment at Trafalgar Square. Maybe it was the dreary October weather, or the gradual hardening of public opinion, or the thick fluorescent barricades of the Metropolitan Police – but the tents and banners and flyers seemed more battened down, battle-weary, than they had in April. In fact, the square looked, with grim appropriateness, like just another refugee camp; one of the countless, anonymous communities which the UN predicts will increasingly bloom across the globe as the climate crisis deepens.
But then, someone began to sing.
Other voices took up the tune. And the steel drums and whistles kicked in.
‘People gonna rise like water.’
Suddenly, the atmosphere changed. The square came alive with movement as the whole crowd, a close press of bodies and voices, began to dance and sway. Laughter rang out. Despite the police, despite the rain, despite the newspaper headlines, at that moment and in that crowd it felt jubilant, festive, free.
It’s hard to smile at the apocalypse. But sometimes, as Ness reminds us, it is the only thing we can do.
Review by Alex Diggins.
To buy Ness by Robert MacFarlane and Stanley Donwood, visit Penguin Random House.
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