The world could end with a bang or a whimper, but we might not notice either way. We’ve entered an age of hypernormalization where public outrage is dealt with in clean cycles, the massive scale of continued ecological destruction is gaslit, defeatism is a coping mechanism, and most people who want to make any sort of change to the violence of this status quo are looked at as silly idealists. It is difficult to measure improvement, or even define it, but there is a nagging feeling that things are getting steadily worse. Enter Harrow, Joy Williams’s fifth novel, a post-apocalyptic narrative where our very ability to be distressed by the apocalypse has been replaced by the more stable and comfortable definition of the title: to smooth out rough land. As Khristen, the closest thing the novel has to a main character, explains: “It is too late to be afraid.”
The novel follows Khristen (or, Lamb)—whose mother believes died as an infant, but then came back, despite all evidence to the contrary—from her entry into a Socratic boarding school, the closure of that boarding school at the precipice of society’s apparent collapse, and Khristen’s entry into that apparently collapsed society. That’s the first fifty pages, anyway. It’s difficult to give an account of Harrow’s plot because it is structured to be vague, fractured, and messy. Because (for instance) the end of the world, in the singular, in the definitive, is probably a misnomer. The cause of the end is left a mystery with nothing at all mysterious about it. Of course it was us, anyhow. But the very idea of cause and effect is a consolation of narrative, a kind of myth, where Joy Williams instead asks: Do we deserve to be consoled? How can we be consoled if we don’t even feel grief? She writes:
For all intents and purposes the apocalypse had pretty much occurred. The incomprehensible beauty of nature was no more, but most had accepted the destitution done in their name. It was over and now it could begin, was the way those on the outside justified their refreshed complacency.
What narrative could possibly extract any sense or meaning or comfort from this kind of total and self-imposed devastation? The collapsed society that Khristen enters into is one imbued by a new kind of manifest destiny bent on “transcending nature.” A self-described eco-critic explains, before the collapse: “It is our moral destiny to technologically dominate the earth. The managed enhanced invented artificial environment would be quite lovely once the messiness was past.” The ended world is one where humans—finally—have complete and utter dominion. There are no animals left, and we have convinced ourselves we never needed the Earth anyway. We are post-Earth. One character says, “Human destiny has quite played itself out.”
Because of these questions posed to narrative form, Harrow might be the most “postmodern” work by Joy Williams so far. Plots may be introduced but are just as readily done away with, as the novel refuses to bend to narrative expectations. It seems, for a few pages, to become a boarding school novel. For another few pages, it is a search for a missing person. In Book Two (the three-volume novel is, hilariously, the ostensible form here), after her reentry into an ended world, Khristen meets a promising plot development in the Institute: A group of geriatric eco-terrorists lodged in a rotting motel, would-be revolutionaries who want to burn out rather than fade away. They want to use their deaths as a last-ditch effort to wake the world to the scale of its own destruction. This meeting also happens to be when the reader learns Khristen’s name for the first time (again, fifty pages in), despite Book One of the novel starting: “My mother and father named me lamb.” Meeting Khristen as Khristen may only occur by virtue of a shift in the novel from Book One’s first-person perspective to Book Two’s third-person. However, Khristen spends most of her time with the Institute cleaning the hotel rooms and discussing maritime law with a ten-year-old boy. Eventually, Khristen leaves the hotel. More eventually, she sits on a bench near one of the last remaining trees.
Characters have no more stability than the plot. They disappear wildly and often, sometimes without comment, at such a breakneck pace that those disappearances or deaths can hardly be reckoned with before there is another. (Does this sound like a familiar situation?) Even after the third-person perspective seems to settle in during Book Two, the perspective continues to shift, sometimes going back to a first-person perspective from Khristen, later to third following another character whom we meet in Book Three, 150 pages in. Everything about this novel is constantly in flux. Absolutely nothing is stable. Time itself is dilated so completely that the ten-year-old boy obsessed with maritime law, Jeffrey, re-arrives later, still ten years old, but now a court judge who remembers, “back in his day,” that there used to be more trees. Jeffrey thinks to himself, as a judge, “Scarcely do we inhume the wreckage of our lives then we dig it up again. That is why we keep on and keep on and keep on, never progressing except in the grossest and most mundane fashion.” It’s impossible to know how much time has passed or not passed. Then again, it’s not like there are seasons anymore.
I fear I may be writing this so far in a way that is entirely humorless when in fact I find all of this deeply exciting. Joy Williams’s bend into the absurd is, in this book, so total, that one cheers when the climax of the novel is a lengthy discussion between Khristen and Jeffrey about Kafka’s story (and accompanying fragment), “The Hunter Gracchus.” Though this novel is fairly unlike any of her others (none of them have apocalypses, except of the desperately individual kind), this book feels so unreservedly Williams that fans of her work should jump for Joy. (Sorry.) The writing is quintessentially tight, yet also whimsical and acidically funny. Williams is a master of the absurd, from the eco-terrorist bemoaning that “ethics is going to be the ruin of this operation” to the fact that, after the ecological disaster, “Pretty much everything is up and running again. The amusement industry has heroically reestablished itself. Disney World has rebooted and is going strong.”
After the end of the world, we will always have Disney. Because humanity remains hopelessly consistent. When they are on stage, characters exhibit the essential attributes: aloof to the harm they cause; violent to the extreme; blind to natural beauty; fascistically imposing so-called logical order over what is not their dominion. Even our capacity for symbology is still intact, where the harrow (a tool that smooths ploughed land with sharp rakes or metal discs) is painted everywhere, signifying that, after its destruction, we can make the Earth palatable. It will look so clean, homogenous, and pure.
Though this novel is fairly unlike Williams’s others, it also feels like the logical progression of her writing. Reading through her work for this review, the prominence of animal characters, a central concern for nature, and a deservedly nihilistic outlook on humanity, is clear from the very beginning. State of Grace has a tragically misunderstood mountain lion; The Changeling features children who maybe transform into animals; Breaking and Entering has a beautiful dog familiar and a heartbreaking gull trapped in ocean trash; and The Quick and the Dead features multiple characters who could be described as eco-terrorists. Yet the book I most closely associate with Harrow is Joy Williams’s collection of essays, Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals. At times, Harrow feels like an adaptation of those essays into novel form, where Williams’s thoughts on nature are most clear. Where Ill Nature might say, Get your grubby hands off, Harrow offers the addendum, telegraphed over demented and high-pitched laughter: Or else!
By Joy Williams
Knopf Publishing Group
Published September 14, 2021
Kyle Francis Williams is a writer living in Brooklyn. He is the Chicago Review of Books Communications Director, and an Interviews Editor for Full Stop, as well as an MFA candidate at the Michener Center, and a 2019 A Public Space Emerging Writer Fellow. He is on Twitter @kylefwill.
Brilliant review of a brilliant, and alarming, novel.
We don’t learn Khristen’s name 50 pages in, we learn it 14 pages in. Her father talks about her legal name “Christen” and her mother says she insisted on the letter K at least. Her mother then calls her Khristen on page 23, still in the first-person narrative.