Black holes, environmental catastrophe and disease—this month’s selection is not for the faint heartedby Olivia Laing / October 17, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
This is not a crop of books to make one feel sanguine about the future. From Alzheimer’s disease and climate change to black holes capable of swallowing up entire galaxies, there seems to be an unending phalanx of potential disasters ahead. Fortunately for the anxious reader, these are also books with an infectious faith in the diagnostic and curative powers of narrative itself.
Take The Robber of Memories: A River Journey through Colombia (Granta, £16.99). In 2011, travel writer Michael Jacobs voyaged up the Magdalena, the once beautiful and now grievously polluted setting for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s famous novel Love in the Time of Cholera, and still a dumping ground for bodies in the nation’s long civil war. A year earlier, Jacobs had encountered Marquez at a Colombian party. The writer was already displaying symptoms of dementia, a disease that had likewise destroyed the memories of both Jacobs’s parents. As he inches towards the river’s source, Jacobs reflects movingly on the importance of remembering and bearing witness, particularly in a nation so acutely affected by violence and war.
Making sense of a disordered and contested past is also a theme of Harvard history professor Jill Lepore’s engrossing The Story of America: Essays on Origins (Princeton University Press, £19.95). “Politics,” she notes beadily, “is a story about the relationship between the past and the future; history is a story about the relationship between the past and the present.” Neither is exactly straightforward to tell, and Lepore’s elegant account of America’s genesis is alert to discrepancies and exaggerations of all kinds. It’s characteristic of her genial style that while examining the sticky history of Captain John Smith (he of Pocahontas fame), she observes that while he probably wasn’t a liar, his pantaloons did on one notable occasion literally burst into flames.
Lepore may be a skilled historian, but she lacks the farsightedness of Caleb Scharf. In Gravity’s Engines: The Other Side of Black Holes (Allen Lane, £20), Scharf provides a virtuosic history of the universe, explaining in simple terms such advanced concepts as event horizons, white dwarfs and general relativity. While his intention is to explain the creative role black holes appear to play in shaping galaxies, he also serves as an appealing tour guide to the eerie, infinite corridors of the cosmos in which we reside.
According to Julian Barnes, the best way to understand this messy and sometimes frightening place is by way of the novel. In Through the Window: Seventeen Essays (and one short story) (Vintage, £10.99), he asserts that “novels tell us the most truth about life: what it is, how we live it, how we enjoy it and value it, how it goes wrong, and how we lose it.”
Barnes is best known as a fiction writer, but as this peachy collection attests, he remains a devastatingly brilliant critic too. It’s hard to think of a writer so adept at conveying the sheer pleasures of reading. He dips through the centuries, moving lightly from Penelope Fitzgerald to Lorrie Moore by way of Kipling’s motoring reports and the infelicities of Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary. I’m still reeling from his microscopic, thrilling analysis of the unsteady architecture of Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, a book I’ve never before felt moved to open.
How life goes wrong and how we lose it is also the subject of Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel. Flight Behaviour (Faber, £18.99) tackles the grim inevitability of climate change with delicacy and insight, particularly illuminating issues of poverty and class. When millions of monarch butterflies appear on her father-in-law’s mountain in rural Tennessee, Dellarobbia at first believes she’s seen a sign from God. In fact, the butterflies have strayed from their usual migration route, driven north by rising temperatures. As scientists, tree huggers and TV crews surge up the mountain, tensions begin to simmer in Dellarobbia’s own troubled family.
Climate change is a tricky proposition for a novelist, particularly if she wants—as Kingsolver evidently does—to be accurate without reducing her audience to tearful despair. She solves the first problem by inserting an attractive Caribbean climate scientist into the mix. The appealingly named Ovid Byron takes on didactic duties, presenting a terrifying vision of melting ice caps and burning deserts, while Dellarobbia provides a much needed shot of positivity. It’s both touching and inspiring to witness this bright, barely-educated backwoods mama get to grips with the challenges facing the planet. The result is a master class in fiction’s ability to tell us where we are. I only hope someone thinks to give a copy to the international corpus of climate change deniers, before there’s no world left for the novel to portray.