“A hallucinatory head-spin” – Harrow by Joy Williams

IMG_2022-12-6-180835Khristen’s mother thinks Khristen died as a baby and, if she’d just try, she’d have access to truths unavailable to the rest of us. And maybe she does. When Khristen’s a teenager, comes the harrow – a massive environmental collapse that takes down society as we know it – and Khristen is left wandering a strange, depleted U.S., where dying elderly eco-terrorists target the possible culprits (or chicken out of trying), capitalism is making a defiant resurgence (viva Disney!), and Jeffrey, a ten-year old judge, oversees what might well be the Last Judgement as the Earth’s final tree is slated for the chop.

Well, that’s an approximation of Harrow, anyway. It’s not a book that’s easy to summarize, and it’s definitely not a commercial dystopia: forget The Road, and think instead Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet mixed with Chris Adrian’s Gob’s Grief, Lydia Millett’s The Children’s Bible, Don DeLillo at his weirdest and Annie Dillard’s essay on the surreal horror of a solar eclipse, and you’ll be in the right arena. This is a book that’s staring unblinkingly into the abyss and isn’t pandering to any foolish notions of ease. The world is dying, Williams reminds us, and who are we to look away? Harrow isn’t quite set in a recognisable now, but it’s not much of an extrapolation; Williams has taken the horrors we’re already living with (mass extinction, toxic pollution) and skewed them just enough to make us see them anew. And what are we to do with this? If the harrow, in agricultural terms, evokes a breaking of the soil that leads to renewal, Harrow is less optimistic: we have suffered the earth to endure the unendurable, the book suggests, and it can only be arrogance to imagine a future better than the past (ourselves) that brought us here. As its characters discover, we’re well past all tipping points—humanity, if not the earth itself, is largely beyond redemption.

Stylistically, Harrow is both a challenge and a pleasure to read, a linguistic feast and as intertextual as any lit prof could ask for—a Christian reader is likely at an advantage when it comes to picking up the Revelatory allusions, as is a conscientious fan of European philosophy: Kafka’s here, Nietzsche’s here, and Khristen’s boarding school makes the kids from The Secret History seem like terrible philistines. If the world is ruined, there’s still beauty to be found in doomed contemplation of its decay; maybe what will actually save us is a solid education in the humanities.

Any Cop?: A hallucinatory head-spin of a novel that rewards a careful read. It won’t cheer you up, though it might make you justifiably annoyed that Williams’ back catalogue is chronically under-published in the UK. And be warned: don’t get it as a stocking filler for your resident Hunger Games fan. This is a whole different ball-game.

Valerie O’Riordan

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