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The Never-Ending Story

Joy Williams asks: What can narrative do amid an apocalypse?

Harrow by Joy Williams. Knopf, 224 pages.

In Joy Williams’s short story “Health,” a stout tween named Pammy romanticizes the tuberculosis she both has and doesn’t have. The contagion sleeps latent in her body, powerless save for the gravity she awards it. “Pammy feels herself in possession of a bright, secret and unspeakable knowledge,” Williams writes; she cherishes this knowledge as a “great drama” unfolding invisibly. Pammy is a quintessential Joy Williams character—young, stubborn, and intent on chiseling a narrative out of nothingness. She looks at others the way I imagine Williams looks at her characters: when Pammy watches a successful skateboarder preach his “deep respect for the concrete,” she muses that “it is wonderful that the boy was able to tell himself something that would keep him from thinking he might fall.” Williams, too, finds wonder in rationalizing uncertainty. Her ingenuity is her droll exposure of precisely this device: the story that keeps one from falling.

Joy Williams’s latest novel, Harrow, has higher stakes than “Health” in that the fall in question is of mankind. Climate—and with it, society—collapses, leaving a purgatory of wandering survivors. The plot loosely follows two youths, Khristen and Jeffrey, as they navigate the postapocalyptic world while trying to recover something of what came before it. Harrow lingers in a period when the “old dear stories of possibility” are not wanted anymore, yet “nothing had replaced them”: a time that’s both ripe and decaying. In doing so, the novel expands far beyond Williams’s usual parameters. The question of what narrative or language can do during total environmental collapse is immense. Can it do anything at all?

When considering narrative’s power in the face of oblivion, true purgatory provides a telling example. In Harrow’s first few pages, Khristen’s mother listens to her lover explain some theological calculations. He recounts a priest who estimated an hour of purgatory for each wrongdoing—precisely seventy-five thousand sins would equate to “seven years, ten months and fifteen days”: a clean frame to shape the afterlife’s abyss. Despite the silliness of this particular application, purgatory was initially a radical idea. In heaven and hell, souls stay fixed, but in purgatory, they could change, meaning the idea of being “stuck in purgatory” belies the belief’s basis. The living could directly advance purgatory’s dead to heaven, while other souls laid behind an impenetrable wall. In the twelfth century, though purgatory was then enshrined in Catholic doctrine, it was considered dangerous by some to believe the soul could be redeemed after death. It could awaken a larger sense of freedom. A couple of centuries later, Dante would stretch purgatory’s purpose even further. Its souls were not being punished or repaying debts, he argued: their suffering was a conscious restructuring of malevolent habits. His narrative gave the dead agency. Perhaps more agency than one can afford the living, who are so often duped into banal evil.

Joy Williams has always walked the line between the dead and the living. Her settings are not quite of this earth and are often embedded in a more terrestrial type of purgatory: arid deserts conjure yappy ghosts; nursing home kooks pine after left-behind phantoms; dystopian communes harbor geriatric ecoterrorists. Her characters dwell on the cusp of oblivion or have just crossed its threshold. “The dead are part of our community,” a dinner guest in the short story “Hammer” declares. In Williams’s fiction, that’s difficult to forget. Not only because the dead are more active than the living—who prosaically destroy the planet through carelessness and inertia—but because they sponge up the beliefs those on earth project on them. “You don’t go to it when you’re dead,” another character in “Hammer” opines about “that other world.” “[It] exists only when you’re in this one.”

Joy Williams has always walked the line between the dead and the living.

Harrow plays with this illusory divide between worlds. It is split into three books, each with a wide range of characters struggling to articulate a sense of purpose amid an ongoing disaster. Book One primarily focuses on Khristen, who is this section’s first-person narrator. Much like Pammy’s both having and not having tuberculosis, Khristen’s mother is fixated on a millisecond when Khristen may or may not have died during infancy. This supposed death consumes the mother’s entire identity, and she hoards pseudo-Zen koans that deflate in the face of true tragedy. When she regales a parable of geese flying into the sunset—never to return—to a confused, grieving friend, the woman retorts: “What the fuck, Martha.” Eventually, unable to disclose the secrets of the afterlife her mother so desires, Khristen is dumped at a boarding school, from which she emerges into the start of an apocalypse.

Jeffrey, a ten-year-old aspiring lawyer who loves “legal fictions,” makes his first appearance in Book Two. Khristen meets Jeffrey at the edge of “Big Girl” pond, a sorry remainder of a lake now steeped in “avernal black” and eerie stillness. He is staying in a nearby motel run by a commune of geriatric (or at least terminally ill) ecoterrorists with whom Khristen involves herself. Around the commune, the earth steams and the wind snaps. While there are few living animals left, the elements have become akin to mysterious animals in their own right: “The wind glided away from the pool, pushing at a bit of refuse as a dog might with his nose, considering its worth.”

Williams delves into the individual stories of the “gabby seditious lot” who make this patch their home—the violent and dying ecoterrorists striving to revenge themselves on destructive corporations. They coexist in what’s meant to be a community, but which functions as a hierarchy with a single judge resting at the top. His name is Gordon, and he delivers rulings via “party-favorish” paper scrolls; each scroll dictates the target of an activist’s suicide mission. With these orders, Williams gestures to the friction between agency and submission in the activists. Many see themselves as forces in a narrative of redemption, but how can that be true if an equally fallible human designs their death? Not to mention that those whom they kill are sometimes low-level workers whose banal evil hardly poses the largest threat to humanity.  

Some of the ecoterrorists lose faith, confused by their missions and the feeling that they’re already too late. Tom, a former engineer of bioweapons, finds Gordon’s authoritarian style tiresome, but more importantly, he understands the limits of thinking in absolutes. In his youth, Tom was stationed in Russia, where his colleagues spoke of “good and evil,” “death and the mother.” “His Russian friends could go all weepy over the first sticky buds of spring, the tender leaves unfurling, and then direct their considerable energies to creating mayhem and disease,” Tom reflects. The activists he lives among now are equally sentimental, grieving mother earth only to continue a mayhem they’re not sure they still believe in. They, too, repeat good and evil, death and the mother. Their aim is righteous, but it might not even matter.

In Book Three, Jeffrey and Khristen leave the commune behind, separating and reuniting in a new town. Jeffrey has become the town judge; Khristen, a vagabond. Jeffrey spends his days sentencing townspeople to various sufferings to atone for the crimes of their past, and the souls he judges accept the sentences eagerly. They rattle Jeffrey’s door, invoking Dante: “Give us the labyrinth to walk! And don’t try to pass off that seven-ring one, we want the full eleven paths with lunations!” When Jeffrey encounters Khristen again, he deviates from his duties, requesting that they dissect Kafka’s “The Hunter Gracchus” together.

Gracchus inhabits his own purgatory. In Kafka’s tale, Gracchus dies during a hunting accident, but rather than a swift passage to the afterlife, his ship veers off course and he floats through dark waters indefinitely, fated to sail between life and death. After some time, he lands in Riva, where he moans to the mayor, “Everything happened in good order. I pursued, I fell, bled to death in a ravine, died, and this ship should have conveyed me to the next world.” But Gracchus never does get the coherency he longs for. He has placed too much value on a neat story; it doesn’t fit the abyss he’s found himself in, but he refuses to reconsider, or dismantle, the old meanings he clings to.

What ultimately threads together Williams’s disparate cast of characters is that aforementioned question: What narratives do we concoct to ease the pain of falling? And what language do we have to do so? Williams characters are constantly telling each other stories, and the book itself contains an incessant procession of allusions: Gracchus, Noah’s ark, Enoch, Galene. These symbols mostly emerge when characters are at the edge of language’s capacity. Jeffrey invokes Enoch and Galene when he releases Khristen from the task he has assigned her: to complete the ending of “The Hunter Gracchus.” “Words have enabled us to get no nearer to . . . ,” he begins, but cannot finish the sentence. That pause holds Jeffrey’s vision: “Enoch and Galena, he thought without saying.” Enoch, the death defier who enters heaven alive, and Galena, who calms unruly waters and could even quell a flood.

Williams’s titular harrow is another symbol that exists at the edges of language; it is ubiquitous in the world Khristen and Jeffrey inhabit as the only image that is universally accepted by those in power. All government facilities depict the harrow, and many private dwellings have it on their surfaces. The harrow—an agricultural tool used to cultivate land—can be seen as a harbinger of plunder. The word has grown to encompass a devastation of not only soil but spirit, too: to be harrowed. While some characters see this symbol as “unifying,” something that says, “We will not be overcome,” the truth appears to be darker. In Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” harrow is also the name for the machine that carries out capital punishment. Its needles pierce condemned prisoners until their heart stops.

With the harrow’s presence looming over the novel, the struggle of articulation—of naming the apocalypse—presses forward. Like Kafka, Williams unveils her characters primarily through dialogue; we get only glimpses of their interiority. This separates Harrow from the recent slew of climate anxiety fiction, like Weather and The Inland Sea, where intimate forays into their protagonists’ feelings of inertia expose the looming ecological collapse. Instead, Harrow keeps its distance. Its characters are alienated even from the stories they tell themselves, which can get in the way of direct action, and, more importantly, in the way of creating a new vision for their world. Just before dying, one of the commune’s ecoterrorists laments his obsession with his target’s story: “I projected pain and more pain upon them and all that happened was a further deterioration and decay of my own self . . . it took me weeks to leave the experimental chamber in my mind that I’d placed them in.” Harrow’s characters are each their own experimental chambers; within them, Williams tests the limits the limits of a story’s sway.

Joy Williams’s comedy lingers in the darkness; whether there will be any redemption is yet to be determined.

In his conversation with Khristen about “The Hunter Gracchus,” Jeffrey, perhaps giving voice to Williams herself, finds the desire for narrative coherence crude. As if to underline her point, the pair ultimately abandon the Kafka story and turn instead to the “roaring, engulfing dark.” Jeffrey ends on another ellipsis . . .

Anyone coming to Harrow expecting a tidy resolution will be disappointed (though longtime readers of Williams will know better than to seek one). In the absence of meaning, we are forced to make our own. As an elderly professor in an early part of the novel notes, the Middle Ages possessed a “quality of silence quite unimaginable today”; “that’s why music then had an almost supernatural power.” Stories also gain their power by occupying the void. In a time rife with the silence of death, Dante’s Purgatorio illustrated a rich, elaborate map to redemption. Harrow’s characters are living through an era of new silences: silence about the reality of the crisis humans have found themselves in, as well as about their role in creating it. Can Khristen and Jeffrey reclaim their paradise lost? Can we?

In “Hammer,” a character declares that The Divine Comedy is called a comedy “because it progresses from a dark beginning to redemption and hope.” Joy Williams’s comedy lingers in the darkness; whether there will be any redemption is yet to be determined. In Harrow’s last moments, all we’re left with is the rustling of the child judge’s robe, a violent crack of lightning.