Stillicide: A Novel
Catapult, 2020. $15.95, 192 pages.
How can writers describe our strange world as it is, and as it is becoming? Right now, Texans are frozen in a climate/infrastructure nightmare, rare Kenyan giraffes are being towed to flood safety in a handmade open-top ark, and zoo gorillas have caught COVID-19 from humans. Our sad, weird reality is, literally, stranger than fiction. In The Great Derangement (2016), Amitav Ghosh argues that such climate change–driven eruptions may disrupt notions of “realism” and “plausibility” for writers everywhere, thus disrupting the novel’s form itself. So what’s a novelist to do?
One answer is suggested by the lean novels of Welsh writer Cynan Jones (b. 1975), each a shock of highly specific experience: badger baiting, drought, sheep farming, drug smuggling, and surviving a lightning strike at sea. Yet his latest, Stillicide (“n[oun] . . . 1. a continual dropping of water; 2. Law: a right or duty relating to the collection of water from or onto adjacent land”) may not be a novel at all. Set in a future London of water shortages and desperate geoengineering, Stillicide is described on Jones’s website as “twelve interlinking stories” (broadcast as a series of episodes on the BBC), and on the front cover of its American edition, as a “novel.” Perhaps the second description of the book is driven more by marketing than by the thing Jones has actually made, which changes shape as it rises from the page and lingers in your mind: melting, re-forming, resolving itself into something new. But if Stillicide is a novel, it represents a fair response to Ghosh’s challenge: its form reflects our world by taking the protean form of its own main subject, water, by which our world will both die and live.
In Stillicide’s first scene (or story), cop John Branner guards the city-bound water train from thieves and terrorists, stunned by his wife’s terminal illness, wondering what to do about the red dot of some living thing that’s wavered into his night-vision goggles. (This noirish territory isn’t new to Jones, who’s also written for the dual-language English/Welsh crime drama Hinterland.) In other stories, Branner’s wife herself speaks a recorded love letter to him, helped by her nurse; the nurse, walking through the park, dreaming of an illicit affair, notices bags hung around tree leaves (“Leaves breathe out,” she’s told, in Stillicide’s typical blend of wonder and alarm, “there’s water in their breath. After a while they breathe enough to make a single coffee.”) An aging couple resists pressure to move from the coast; a chaffinch taps the window; corporate spin doctors speak brightly of towing icebergs inland and fostering urban gardening in “alittlements” (“A lot’s got from alittlement!” they chirp, handing around glasses of ice water). A scientist hunts for rare dragonfly larvae and tends his bees, “reassured by the tight pats on his suit as the returners knocked busily into him.” And always, in the background, a climate march roars on.
Fragmentary fictional structures can represent something true about reality and time; they can also be incoherent or evasive, enabling a writer to dodge the work of building narrative pressure or of following through on the implicit promise any good novel makes: I will take you somewhere meaningful, even if it’s difficult, and I will not leave you there alone. Yet there’s nothing evasive about Jones. In addition to the unobtrusive connections among the stories, he’s also brilliant at what writer Benjamin Percy calls “set pieces,” scenes in which a near-cinematic concentration on detail catalyzes an entire story’s energy: a boy helping pheasant chicks across a road, a farmer wrestling a shard of metal from the ground, a badger at bay. In Stillicide, it’s “Sound,” an episode (that is, a set piece) about what seems at first to be a whaling party. “The calf gave a confused hiss,” Jones begins, “and lowing, then dipped slightly as if it would bury into the water. // When the second harpoon hit, thumping its flank a second later, it seemed to groan somewhere deep within itself. A contained sound of suffering such that it was impossible not to believe the thing understood.” Suddenly, Melville’s nineteenth century (in which, as Ghosh notes, human-caused climate change really took hold) is breathing its mighty, melancholy smoke in our ear. Yet this boat’s made of “Hypalon-coated polyester,” not wood. And that’s not a whale on the harpoon’s point. The shudder of fear and wonder and back again exemplifies one thing about fiction that will never change: at its best, it defamiliarizes, casting a strange light on the familiar to shatter our assumptions about what we think we know, and to see the world anew when we lift our eyes from the page.
Before the pandemic, I stood on the bank of the Thames, at the emergence point of a small London river closed over and channelized as a Victorian sewer. Closing Stillicide, which suggests those rivers’ reclamation, I wondered: will Jones’s prediction come true? Looking with fresh uneasy eyes at what comes out of my tap, and at snowmelt boiling on stoves in Texas, I thought of the Kenyan lake rising around the island where, last I knew, conservationists were still trying to lure two female giraffes, with calves, onto the handmade, motorboat-towed ark. As truth and difficult hope, I carry with me the words of Stillicide’s scientist: “A silverfish under a mat. A marigold established in the crack of a kerb. The belligerent will of a thing to exist. // Give Nature space, and she will take it.”
Amy Weldon, professor of English at Luther College, is author, most recently, of Eldorado, Iowa: A Novel.