Denial by Jon Raymond. Simon & Schuster, 240 pages.
Though the pleasures of reading dystopian novels may be as varied as the fallen worlds they depict, the books all have one thing in common: unlike our very real world, the crises resolve soon enough. The floods, wildfires, superstorms, plagues, refugees, or perhaps all of the above cease once the last page is turned, whereas in real life everything continues to carry on, business as usual, against a background of a broken political system rigged like an off-shore oil rig waiting to explode. Failing to stop oneself from consuming these fictional dystopian worlds, especially when viable alternatives exist, has proven as difficult as any other kind of bad consumer habit—at least for this reader. To suggest otherwise would only be admitting one’s denial. Such is the title and theme of Jon Raymond’s fourth novel, a quiet, sharp, dystopian fiction, and a slim addition to the ever-growing CliFi subgenre.
The book’s length, at just over two hundred pages, is almost an admission of guilt, as if the story itself were all too aware of the trees murdered in its making. Set in a future not too far away, in the year 2052, Denial tells of a world where climate change has been more or less mitigated—sort of. At least the world’s kicked fossil fuels thanks in part to a breakthrough in solar vanadium energy and a wave of political unrest. Remnants of that major global protest, referred to in the book as The Upheavals, more than linger from the onset of the novel, set around the twenty-fifth anniversary of when they first began. “These days, the protests were a permanent fixture in town, like fire hydrants or garbage trucks. At all times, somewhere, a crowd was massing to remind the rest of us of some social injustice or historical wrong.” Twenty years before the setting of the novel, these protests led to what’s referred to as the Toronto Trials, which indicted the worst of the oil executives and lobbyists for crimes against the environment, taking dead aim at those who profited from the destruction of the planet. Think no Obama Administration standing between the bankers and the pitchforks (leaving aside how empty this threat turned out to be), and Denial’s world is something like that. That Raymond gets by with merely capitalizing these otherwise under-described events, and not throwing the whole story out of whack, is a testament to the cleverly limited focus of the novel, which he maintains with a brisk, hardboiled prose style.
Not everyone gets what’s coming to them. A few of the perpetrators manage to escape their punishment by going into hiding. Among the fugitives is Robert Cave, ex-vice president of NovaChem, and a former impassioned spokesman of pseudo-academic lectures on the “moral case for fossil fuels.” When Jack Henry, a journalist at an independent Portland-based newspaper, gleans a tip from one of his trusted sources claiming to have spotted Cave out in the wild in western Mexico, he convinces his incredibly rich eccentric boss, who owns the paper (purchased for “personal fiefdom,” not unlike, say, Bezos and the Washington Post), to let him investigate the story before the competition beats him to the scoop. Whether or not he’s able to track down Cave and successfully secure an interview becomes the main plot that fuels this undramatic dystopian story, which reads at times like an intellectualized episode of Black Mirror.
Raymond approaches the well-trodden territory of doomsday literature from aslant. Even if a reader may not find the book as sui generis as some of the over-the-top praise it has garnered (“I haven’t read anything like this before,” writes Jenny Offill), still, the decision to treat the enormity of global warming as an event already settled—and its attendant political paradigm shift—mostly through quiet moments of interpersonal human interaction certainly distinguishes Denial from the more familiar apocalyptic narratives. The futuristic references, lightly peppered throughout the story, make the world Raymond depicts all the more harrowing. In many ways, the novel relies heavily on its predecessors—not just the references to Twain and homages to Hemingway throughout—but the unacknowledged recent dystopian literature that’s come before it, from The Hunger Games and Jeff VanderMeer’s eco-horror Southern Reach Trilogy to Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (a reader is welcome to make their own selection here) as well as the proliferation of images and videos of unchecked climate disasters wreaking havoc on our planet already circulating constantly on social media. All of this adds up to a sort of meta-infrastructure that makes Denial’s subtlety possible. What’s left to depict futuristically, an author might wonder, when so much real and unreal is already mixing out there? In fact, Denial isn’t as much of a departure from the realism of the author’s previous novels as one may guess from its futuristic premise. Raymond doesn’t spend much time on what the world (the United States or other so-called first world countries) is truly like, and having much of the action take place in a less developed country like Mexico eases the burden on his imagination and keeps the sci-fi elements at bay.
So, what is different about the world in this future? For starters, everyone—well, mostly everyone—has gone meatless. “My parents loved hamburgers,” says Jack Henry’s sort-of-girlfriend Sobie. “So did mine,” he replies. Leaf blowers are solar-powered, text messages contain hologram capabilities, and crowded “superbuses” speed through the streets. A government program of tree planting in Jack’s home state of Ohio was so successful it has forced him to revise his memories since his “childhood had been swallowed by a forest.” China has finally got an NBA team, a development that no doubt seemed more promising when the author began the novel in late 2019. Shopping’s done via VR now, except you still have to go to a physical store to wear the headset, which would seem to undercut the convenience of the new technology. Also, later in the novel, we see Jack looking for a pair of socks at a physical Old Navy store, a moment that only adds to the contradictions. Lastly, professors of American literature will be happy to know that decades from now people are still reading Mark Twain!
Like one of those coincidental plot points out of a Paul Auster novel that it’s best not to think too long about, Jack arrives in Guadalajara with a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to help ease the hours of staking out at the coffee shop Robert Cave is said to frequent. Sure enough, the morning Robert appears, he’s equipped with a beat-up copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. With their mutual bonding over Twain and literature, the two immediately hit it off, and exchange cliché-riddled observations about books-as-objects: “The whole smell of a book, the physical weight. I don’t think you get the full experience on a screen. Even these soft screens. . . . A book is a perfect technology,” says the nearly octogenarian Cave to the much younger Jack.
From there, it’s a cat-and-mouse game, or rather, a bull-and-matador duel, to use the metaphor of the book’s concluding scene, a somewhat ungainly homage to The Sun Also Rises. Jack is looking to outmaneuver his opponent and ultimately score a confessional interview with “Bob Beck,” the alias Cave goes by. Cave is a charming man with encyclopedic knowledge of seemingly every subject, he’s happy to volunteer his time with kids (perhaps because he’s helped ruin their future), he frequents local museums, and even takes up painting as a hobby, like another disgraced former world leader who’s no doubt suffering from denial. Before long, Cave invites Jack over to his Wittgenstein-quoting, hospital headhunter “non-girlfriend” Maggie’s apartment, Maggie being twenty years his junior. This insider’s look is exactly the golden journalistic opportunity Jack’s after, a chance to see how the evil pipeline tycoon personally conducts himself in private. We know some facts already: Robert Cave barely changed his name, and decided against undergoing cosmetic reconstruction surgery, which some of his fellow executives are rumored to have done to make their faces less recognizable in a world even more heavily surveilled than ours. By all accounts, Cave lives a simple life within his means, but so many questions remain, including where exactly these “means” that sustain his newfound modest existence come from.
Once Jack manages to officially confirm Cave’s identity with some data sent back to the newspaper, he returns to Portland, only to be later flown back to Guadalajara to nab the sensational confession from Cave, since merely arresting him wouldn’t be punishment enough. The goal here is public humiliation. During this second trip, Cave continues to disarm readers with his quiet dignity and generosity. He doesn’t hesitate to offer Jack his Tesla-like electric car, as rentals are impossible to come by. Complicating things even further, Cave surprisingly says as an aside, “They said we couldn’t break the fossil fuel habit . . . but they were wrong. The car is a wonder . . . Thank God for the Upheavals, I say.”
Soon, Jack and his maybe-girlfriend Sobie join him for a long weekend, and they trek to the beaches in Cave’s fabulous car for the best view of an upcoming rare solar eclipse dubbed the Totality. Tourists from the United States, Europe, and Africa have flocked to this spot for what’s supposed to provide the best views of the massive solar event. During this melancholic, if laboriously drawn out scene, of Jack and Sobie swimming and making love (just before the influx of tourists starts to arrive) a reader has to wonder, considering all the jet fuel consumed by said travelers, how much have things really changed. It’s a question Jack later admits he asks himself every day: “Had anything been won? Had society progressed? Or had the chairs simply been shuffled? I looked around most days and it seemed like nothing had changed.” The scope of the book’s title stretches to cosmic proportions as we’re invited to contemplate a “once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event.” As the darkness covers everything, it’s a chance to imagine a world filled with days without light. Of course, the sun also rises, but the second part of that Ecclesiastes quote that serves as an epigram for Hemingway’s famous novel is that the sun also goeth down (and will, one day, albeit five billion years from now, burn out.)
Jack, having recently learned from his doctor that the odds are pretty good (in other words, not great) that he’s suffering from a rare new fatal neurodegenerative disease that claims a patient’s life within a year of symptoms, struggles with his motivation to finish the assignment. The inclusion of such a disease, given our plague-like pandemic era, no doubt makes the novel even timelier—and also tragically broadens the theme of denial once more to Jack’s own mortality.
Despite being a journalist, we never really know Jack’s attitude towards the Upheavals and the Toronto Trials, and what he really thinks about this runaway executive bad guy. The truth is, Jack doesn’t know how to feel about it all either. This utter ambivalence, the kind of which runs abundantly throughout Hemingway’s Lost Generation novel, permeates Denial as well, only the characters here are lost not from the brutality and emptiness following World War I, but from the indefatigable battle over global warming and fossil fuels. “Twenty years later, we still didn’t know if we won that war or not.” Robert, too, remains silent on these issues; his stubbornness is what gives him his dignity, however undeserved it may be. Jack wonders, at the moment of the big, failed interview attempt, where exactly is justice being administered here? “I was about to destroy another person’s life. He was someone who’d destroyed much life on the planet himself, and yet I wanted to warn him, to tell him to flee.” After all, it’s fair to say we all used fossil fuels, ate the burgers, polluted the planet—the lucky ones, anyhow—so why should only a few be punished? The book asks but doesn’t answer these questions. To do so in the same minor key or tone of the novel would have been difficult, and it would have made for a more explicitly political read.
Denial ends at a bullfighting ring on the outskirts of the city, where Jack and his newly arrived cameraman follow their soon-to-be disgraced subject around the streets, capturing him dressed like a gentleman, standing out in his “fedora in a sea of sombreros.” Cave quotes facts and figures about bulls and other animals while Jack tosses unanswered question after question at him. Just as we know the bull will die, we already know Cave is done for. Whatever he has to say isn’t of much interest anymore, and the much-sought-after confession from Cave never comes. Pretty soon, the police arrive to escort him away to prison.
Since Jack’s Google Glass-like frames record everything he sees and hears (“My glasses, as always, were recording the scene.”), a reader can’t help but question if the presence of the intrepid cameraman, whose arrival is described at length, or even Jack writing the book itself, is all that necessary. Incidentally, Raymond, a successful co-scriptwriter of such indie darlings as Meek’s Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy, has a knack for rendering scenes cinematically, making the prospect of a film adaptation of Denial seem, well, undeniable.
While reading the novel, I was struck by the misguidedness of the politics that gave rise to the notion that it would suffice simply to put oil executives on trial like Nazis and move on. The novel is, of course, far from being prescriptive; it is, indeed, a novel, and one that merely touches on the question of what the world might look like should the kind of naive cultural forces faintly outlined by Raymond take charge. (“Kids are pretty sensitive these days, aren’t they?” the narrator says, later lamenting, “Every revolution became a bureaucracy in the end.”) Just as the muckraking journalist Jack finds an unlikely friendship in the ultra-wealthy Robert Cave, there’s a surprising Burkean conservatism running through the story by the Oregon-based writer and progressive Raymond that would prefer us to suspend our judgment for a while, at least until, as Edmund Burke famously wrote, comparing the forces of liberty to a wild gas broken loose, “the first effervescence is a little subsided, till the liquor is cleared, and until we see something deeper than the agitation of a troubled and frothy surface.”