Given the popularity of the genre, chances are good you’ve probably read at least one post-apocalyptic novel by now. But have you ever read a post-apocalyptic novel as conceived by Joy Williams? 2015’s The Visiting Privilege cemented Williams’ reputation as one of our finest short story writers, putting her decidedly off-kilter worldview and rich characterization on display in a compilation of many of her best stories alongside new material. Now the author, who divides her time between Arizona and Wyoming, is back with her first novel in over two decades, following the Pulitzer Prize-finalist The Quick and the Dead.
Harrow (204 pages; Knopf) takes place in the near future after an ambiguous environmental collapse, one which more or less upends the normal social order. However, while post-apocalyptic novels utilize the end of the world to explore the usual tropes of the genre—roving bands of Mad Max-style marauders, survivors forming scattered enclaves, authoritarian governments rising to fill the void—Williams uses the breakdown of civilization as an unassuming launch point to explore what she has always excelled at: vividly rendered characters navigating an ontologically uncertain existence.
Our central protagonist is a precocious and likable teenager named Khristen who has the misfortune of being separated from her mother at boarding school as the United States collapses. The end is depicted not as a sudden flash in the sky or rumbling of the earth, but a gradual deterioration over the span of years. “I think the world is dying because we were dead to its astonishments pretty much,” one of Khristen’s classmates theorizes. “It’ll be around but it will become less and less until it’s finally compatible with our feelings for it.” Khristen soon leaves campus in an attempt to reunite with her mother, who was attending a conference of future theorists at a lakeside facility. But when she arrives, Khristen finds a strange community made up of senior citizens, terminal patients, and others who wish to weaponize their remaining days by committing terrorist attacks against the industries and corporations they deem responsible for our ecological ruin.
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Khristen is taken in by this motley bunch, which includes a sparse number of nearby motel tenants—among them Jeffrey, a boy of ten who already has his sights set on becoming a courtroom judge and will figure large in the story. The interactions among them make up the core of the novel as Williams pinpoints the bleak humor and hard truths within a group of individuals who wish to strike a blow for a dying planet but whose failing bodies make their goal improbable. Their situation raises the question: why blow themselves up just to make a point against a corrupt cosmetics corporation that will keep accruing profits long after their demise?
Williams subverts the expectations of the genre by setting the bulk of the narrative in this isolated compound. Because Khristen and the rest of the cast are far from any major urban centers, where we understand life to be more chaotic, the action of the novel feels decidedly, well, normal, which underscores one of the central ideas of the book: one of humanity’s greatest flaws is our ability to tolerate almost anything—even, our own gradual annihilation, at least until it unavoidably inconveniences us. In Harrow, our planet’s ecological collapse does not occur overnight, but rather as a series of slow degradations that the majority forgive because they do not immediately affect the routine of paying bills, buying groceries, and living our lives…until they do. There is a tension in the novel, too, because Williams does not arrive at these conclusions via any finger-wagging screed; rather, the novel presents itself as a frank and pitiless account of human fallibility, of how easily we can change the narrative of seeing ourselves as stewards of the planet once the planet begins to inconvenience us; and all the while there is a subtle undercurrent of tension because Williams makes her vision of the end of the world grimly humorous and utterly engaging. “We’ve exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity and that’s a wondrous thing,” a character remarks. “Shows we can do anything.”
Khristen will never learn what happened to her mother after this great eco disaster; this cloud of unknowability hovers over the entire novel. But her relationship with her mother had already grown thin ever since Khristen was an infant and she apparently ceased breathing for a short period of time. Her mother became convinced this designated Khristen as an emissary into the next world—and that she should be able to impart some knowledge (or secret) of the afterlife if only she could access her memory of this experience—a belief Khristen has never shared. Certainty about the next world, about a heaven or a hell, will continue to elude Khristen, and Williams remind us that our own existence is characterized in general by uncertainty.
There are many who organize their lives in such a way as to deny this. They place their faith in capital, in industry, stabilizing things; and these people will only grow in numbers as our climate breaks down, Williams argues, as evidenced by Disney World becoming one of the first attractions back up and running after the ostensible end of the world. “Denial is now an art, a social grace, a survival tool, as is apathy which has become a sign of refinement,” we are informed by one character who has returned from the outside world. It easy to see the parallels between the world Williams describes and our current political divide in America. “People who lack all sympathy are feeling better about themselves. The more a person doesn’t care the freer he becomes.”
The final section of Harrow makes a brief time jump, and we find the wunderkind Jeffrey has achieved his wish and has been installed as a judge, presiding over the overwhelming caseload that exists in his strange new world, one where there’s a television channel devoted to airing minutes of silence from all over the world. His equilibrium, however, is disrupted with the unexpected return of Khrsiten into his life. A caveat: this final third of the novel relies so heavily on references to Franz Kafka’s story “The Hunter Gracchus” that readers may want to read it beforehand to grasp all of Williams’ allusions. One can draw a ready comparison between Gracchus—not dead but not alive, waylaid on the boat ride to the afterlife—and the contingent of humanity that will be left to preside over the last days of a ruined planet.
Joy Williams was born in Massachusetts, the daughter of a Congregational minister. We might read Harrow as her Book of Revelation—it is similarly concerned with the end times and shot through with dazzling but nightmarish imagery, from black lakes to cockroaches “the size of a kitten.” But while the Apostle Paul may have sought to comfort believers, Williams’ novel is purely discomforting: there is nothing that man cannot commercialize, including his eventual demise because of a poisoned earth. Uneasy reading, to be sure, Harrow is an apocalyptic vision only Williams could provide, and a welcome return to the novel form for one of our most acclaimed living authors. Khristen and the residents of the compound are neither prophets nor guides through the dilapidated funhouse of Harrow’s devastated world, but they provide a sense of warmth and unexpected humor. Grounded by these characters, Harrow is at times challenging, at times impenetrable, but always engaging. While staring down the shape of the inevitable disaster awaiting us all, Williams does not blink.