Joy Williams published ten editions of her guidebook to the Florida Keys before she gave up the gig in 2003, after her novel The Quick and the Dead (2000) was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. I make the following endorsement without hesitation: Should you read a single guidebook in your life, make it The Florida Keys: A History and Guide, though it has not been updated in nearly two decades, even if you’ll never visit Florida, even if you have no interest in the Keys. It can be read as a helpful, if somewhat dated, guide (“Chad’s Deli (853-5566) makes good sandwiches for your boat trip”); as an assault on leisure travel (“To be a happy tourist is to remain determinedly ignorant about a great deal”); as a sleeper-cell sabotage of the genre itself (“The guidebook writer is beneath the travel writer, the nature writer, the journalist…probing the very bottom of the literary pile”); and—scaling a fifth epistemological peak—as an unstinting critique of Williams’s own motivations for writing the thing: “I must admit, I’m unsure as to what those aims exactly were. I believe they were benign. Maybe, as a breed, guidebook writers are a little simpleminded.”
Above all, however, The Florida Keys is a work of mournful and ominous natural history that, like all of Williams’s writing, manages to be uncompromisingly entertaining. Its original publication was delayed because her editors balked at her relentless emphasis on the Keys’ desecration by the very people who had “developed” the islands into a tourist destination. Williams pauses over ecological degradation wherever she finds it, and she finds it everywhere. To the most galling examples she dedicates sidebars, the kind guidebooks typically reserve for amusing historical tidbits or charming slices of local color. We learn of the savagery of John James Audubon (“the premier avian slaughterer of his time”), the ransacking of the Everglades by the sugar multinationals, and the near extermination of an endangered deer by “Cuban immigrant hunters who jacklight them at night, kill them with two-by-fours, and take them home to eat.” Even a casual reader will be left with the unescapable conclusion that to visit the Keys is to be complicit in their strangulation, notwithstanding the fact that Coco’s Cantina at mile marker 21.5 has “turkey dinner on Wednesday nights!”
In a 1987 interview with South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel, Williams spoke more candidly of her interest in the assignment, saying that it gave her “an opportunity to discuss my environmental concerns, something I’ve never been able to do in my fiction.” This observation is striking when read today, since in the last quarter-century such concerns have come to dominate Williams’s fiction. It is possible to find peripheral references in the early work—the tropical vacationers unable to see the fish beneath the scrim of suntan oil floating in the water (“Rot,” 1987), the maimed pelicans (Breaking and Entering, 1988), the stray apocalyptic pronouncement: “The land itself is no longer safe. It’s weakening. If you dig deep enough to dip your seed, beneath the crust you’ll find an emptiness like the sky” (State of Grace, 1973). But it remained no more than a motif, like the lush weirdness of her former home state (“Outside it was Florida”), the young children who speak like socialites in a Dawn Powell novel, the delirious wives and bovine husbands.
As with any unclassifiable writer, Williams frequently inspires her critics to pursue fruitless taxonomies of her fiction, with a woolly consensus gathering around such weightless terms as “minimalism” and “dirty realism.” Yet hindsight reveals that Williams and our global environmental disaster have been converging for decades. The disorienting sentences, the deceptively plain declarations of fact, the perpetual sense of a great unraveling, the bathetic juxtapositions of social nonsense and bottomless anxiety—all are perfectly calibrated to our age of ecological dread. The motif grew into a major theme in The Quick and the Dead, about an aspiring ecoterrorist, and the essay collection Ill Nature (2001), which includes excerpts from The Florida Keys—and it has now, five decades into her career, become her totalizing subject. With Harrow, a screwball fantasia of environmental collapse and other forms of self-harm, Williams and the ecological crisis join in ferocious embrace. The sound is that of an explosion. “An inhuman sound,” writes Williams in the novel’s final paragraphs. “A violent crack as of a great breaking.”
Harrow begins with an untitled three-page prologue in which an indeterminate number of unnamed tourists visit an unidentified canyon in an unspecified future. The tourists—or at least these ciphers who “believed themselves to be tourists”—observe vague figures fleeing into shadows and distant shapes wheeling slowly in the air. Most of the scene is rendered in dialogue, the characters delivering the kind of absurdist, ominous, defiantly unhinged non sequiturs familiar to Williams’s readers:
Where are the antelopes with their lovely masks…Where are the milty streams…
I think the world is dying because we were dead to its astonishments pretty much. It’ll be around but it will become less and less until it’s finally compatible with our feelings for it….
Oh what have we done!! someone cried.
It’s easy to imagine an alternative version of Harrow that proceeds in this fashion for its full two hundred pages—a prose poem of disembodied monologues, interrupted by postapocalyptic panoramas. It’s easy to imagine because Harrow periodically withdraws into this mode, as if pulled gravitationally, the plot abstracting into a bedlam of voices, alternately outraged, numb, and screamingly insane.
The novel begins conventionally enough, at least by Williams’s standard. The teenage narrator introduces herself as Lamb, though she is addressed by that name only once. Her erratic young mother is convinced that Khristen (as she’s henceforth known) briefly died as an infant and returned from purgatory, making her some kind of spectral being—a prophet, perhaps. “What was it like there,” her mother asks, “the dead world?” Khristen can offer nothing to support her mother’s thesis and, together with her mother, it recedes from view.
Khristen soon enters another kind of dead world: ours. Or our world plus a few years (who can tell how many?). Khristen’s childhood is defined by anxiety for “the environmental and moral challenges of a ruined, overpopulated world.” By the time she is sent off to boarding school, society has entered a phase known as “the verge.” The verge looks a lot like the United States in 2021:
The hiking trails, the aquariums, the infertility treatments, the oxygen nutritional supplements continuing in cheerful tandem with the oil-soaked birds, the twelve-lane highways with bicycle supplements, the tailings dumps and filthy rivers and deserts blackened with solar panels, the billions of plastic bags translated in magical symbiosis into ethically responsible leisure equipment.
This litany conveys the particular warp of Williams’s disdain, which encompasses both environmental atrocity and the familiar solutions offered to let us off the hook. The failure to notice the modern world’s ugliness—what Evelyn Waugh called “the grim cyclorama of spoliation” that surrounds human experience—is a form of insanity. To imagine that our pious efforts to stave off environmental collapse might succeed is insanity squared. It is hard to think of another American novelist brave enough to structure a novel around this theme.
The verge, which “people thought would go on forever,” abruptly ends during Khristen’s third year at boarding school. How it ends, exactly, is unclear, apart from a few overheard bytes of officialese that would feel at home in a novel by Don DeLillo (an outspoken admirer of Williams and one of her closest stylistic cousins). “The situation in the world,” Khristen learns, “had changed.” “Priorities had changed.” “There was talk of a third of the once familiar world outside us being gone.” From beyond the school walls come sounds like cars and trucks backfiring “for a considerably long time.” The dining hall menu is reduced to powdered eggs and toast, children go missing, classes are canceled, and finally the school shuts down. We learn that theaters and prisons have been closed and the only remaining businesses are casinos on Indian reservations. Depictions of a harrow are posted in public spaces. “Something,” we’re told, “definitely had gone wrong.”
Khristen boards a train without a destination. Before long she’s the only passenger. The train stops in the middle of a barren field. Khristen wanders to a green grove littered with packages of plastic-wrapped supermarket meat. Over a hill comes a man hauling a giant Styrofoam cross, painted black. “Where you headed?” he asks her, in an exchange that assumes greater resonance on a second reading:
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“Yup, that’s the answer I get most frequently.”
In a promising development she joins a roving cult of giddy young nihilists called the Fallout, but they soon disappear as well.
Khristen ends up at the Institute, a repurposed vacation resort on a noxious black lake. The Institute is a training academy for elderly environmentalists who plot to commit murder-suicides. Their targets include trophy-hunting conventions, bulldozer dealerships, and the city of Phoenix (“They have fountains there which is criminal!”). The suicide bombers don’t believe their murders will shift public opinion or change anything at all. They just hope, however halfheartedly, that their deaths will achieve some small measure of redress. “They don’t believe in absolution, and you know why?” asks the Institute’s director. “Because absolution for what has been done is impossible.” Khristen does not really understand where she fits amid this elderly cabal, nor does Williams, nor do we. At this point—about a third of the way through the novel—Khristen’s story effectively ends.
She remains intermittently present, drifting in and out of the plot, but no longer holds our attention, or the author’s. Williams trades the first person for the third, allowing her access to the thoughts and misadventures of the “depressed and misguided elderlies” and those they encounter on their sprees. (Williams has always been an expert manipulator of the roving third, a highwire act not to be risked by amateurs.) The novel’s final section takes place in the chaos outside the Institute, as a ten-year-old judge named Jeffrey presides over a continuous court session that makes the trial in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland look like Law & Order. “The whole situation is opaque,” observes Jeffrey. He demands that his petitioners, among them Khristen, solve puzzles and conduct critical readings of Franz Kafka’s “The Hunter Gracchus,” a parable that mocks the human desire for coherence and finality. Then the world’s last tree is cut down and the sky turns black.
In a 2018 review of Richard Powers’s The Overstory, Williams questioned the credibility of the novel as a literary form in an era of environmental collapse. “I have thought for some time now that the novel has to address something other, become something other, or it will die,” she wrote.
The novel concerns itself with our human drama—it always has…. But to suggest that human beings aren’t the most important or interesting items around is to invite censure. The novel must be forgiving of human foibles, certainly never judgmental. To be judgmental would be anti-humanist. To be anti-humanist is to be unacceptably dissonant, a crank. In the middle of William Gass’s ecstatically anti-humanist and under-valued novel, The Tunnel, glistening like a turd in a toilet, is this perception:
This is how the world looks. The world looks…trashed.
Which is very much the case. And should we not be affrighted and enraged by this every day and strive to un-trash it? And should not the novel—slumbering giantess that she is—awake and guide us by increasingly wily stratagems and effects and old-fashioned illuminations and impassioned rhetoric to perceive the magnificence and complexity of the non-human world?
Of course it should. It must. But it hardly ever does.*
So does Harrow pass the Williams test? No, but only because the novel doesn’t even bother showing up for the exam. At no point in Harrow does Williams attempt to use “old-fashioned illuminations and impassioned rhetoric to perceive the magnificence and complexity of the non-human world”—the thought of her doing so is laughable. It is fascinating to read of her admiration for Powers’s novel, since Harrow reads like the anti-Overstory: anti-activist, anti-sentimental, anti- pedagogical, anti-redemptive.
Williams’s reverence for the magnificence of the nonhuman world can only be glimpsed in its reverse image, as if through a mirror—the funhouse mirror of the planet that we’ve trashed. In Harrow the nonhuman world has been eradicated, reduced to baked soil, arid farms, dead orchards, and poisonous aphotic lakes: “The very earth had been pressed to chalk, to clay, as through a mangle.” Most of the animals have vanished: “The wolves, the bears, the great fish (which he had never seen) gone, even the harmless snakes and frogs of his childhood. If someone claimed he’d seen an eagle, he would not be taken seriously.” The few creatures that we glimpse have already been butchered or are in the process of being tortured and slaughtered. The novel’s indelible images include an old oil drum “brimming with amputated wings,” a staged brush fire “ringed by sportsmen shooting the crazed creatures trying to escape the flames,” a fish vendor selling extinct baiji dolphin meat out the back of an ice truck. A man dreams of a horse galloping through an apartment window and falling several stories to the sidewalk. “I felt kind of sorry for it,” he says, “but it looked kind of stupid down there too.”
Harrow may fail the Williams test, but it aces the Gass test. (Williams uses the line from The Tunnel as an epigraph.) The novel is triumphantly, ecstatically antihumanist, mercilessly unforgiving of human foibles. Its voracious misanthropy is the source of its comedy. (One elderly ecoterrorist to another: “That light show at the corner of your eyes is not a celebration in your honor, it’s the tumor moving in.”) Williams’s misanthropy is also the source of the novel’s exhilaration—for it is thrilling, enlivening even, to read a novel so contemptuous of the domineering pieties of our age.
Williams wastes little time on the obvious villains: the herbicide salesmen, the corporate scientists who inject experimental drugs into lab animals, the wild-game hunters; they are summarily sentenced to suicide bombings. (She has already dealt with their kind in Ill Nature and The Quick and the Dead; in the latter a dog abuser has his dick blown off.) In the world of Harrow, climate denialism has evolved into nature-hatred. Townspeople knock down an old tree out of spite because they suspect it will live forever. “People think the planet is attempting to make threats—the withdrawal of spring—and nonnegotiable demands, and it pisses them off,” she writes. “Let this fucking land of ours that has turned against us burn, is the prevailing sentiment.” In a novel of absurdism, this is one of the more realistic prophesies, a logical terminus of the anti-environmental tendencies of the American right. Deliberate ecocide is only a few refinements past the “rolling coal” guerrilla activism of Trump supporters who disable their trucks’ emission controls so that they can spew black clouds of exhaust on electric cars they pass on the interstate.
Yet Williams reserves at least equal ridicule for anyone who hopes to save us from ourselves—what one character describes as “all this fakery. Everyone pretending things will be all right.” This means “the fools who still want to recycle their toothbrushes and plant apple trees. Let them turn the lights off or never turn them on, it can’t matter now.” The “groups of filthy youth who think they can still save the earth by grinding up some modest nut or bean for pancake meal. Have you ever had one of their goddamn proselytizing pancakes?” The scientists who, in their efforts to study endangered ecosystems, destroy their subjects “by simple human commitment.” (There is an echo here of the episode, recounted in The Florida Keys, when a ship of marine scientists runs aground on the Keys’ most beautiful coral reef, turning much of it to rubble.) Even the elderly suicide bombers are ultimately dispatched as “brooding over-the-hill eco-nuts whose concern for the tusked and shelled, the finned and winged, made them the shame of their species and more outcast than any Azazel goat of the Hebrews.”
Those who preach adaptation, mitigation, sustainability, technological mastery—those who dare to imagine so much as a future for humanity—only humiliate themselves. To cast ourselves as the heroes in a battle to save the world reeks of the same vanity that got us into this mess. Check that—don’t even call it a battle: “It’s just become a garrulous and utterly useless call to fight a battle which long ago was lost.” Poets are useless too, even those “who hate and despise the world we’ve made…. Who write unsentimentally with cold disgust…” Their efforts have only compounded the general mayhem. If there is any salvation to be found, it is in the relief that the whole thing will soon “be taken out of our hands.” This is the relief of oblivion. A return to an oblivion from which, Williams suggests, we’ve never actually emerged.
Nihilism of this sort knows no boundaries—it laughs at boundaries. It is unsurprising, then, that its radioactivity seeps into the form of the novel itself, destabilizing the characters’ identities, the setting, the plot, the novel’s internal clock. Harrow offers a black wedding of theme and form. Could it end in any other way than disintegration? Williams has called for another kind of novel to address the nonhuman world, and she has delivered one. “The old dear stories of possibility,” writes Williams. “No one wanted them anymore, but nothing had replaced them.” Harrow has.
It is tempting to offer a timid protestation to Williams’s glittering night parade. Even if one readily concedes that literature has no power to change the course of global affairs, that a novelist intending to impart moral lessons is no more than a pretentious propagandist, that atonement is impossible, and that the so-called battle to save the world from ecological collapse has already been lost in a rout—even if one grants all of this, might there still be another use for literature? Might a great novel nevertheless help a reader to reexamine her own biases, delusions, hopes, desires, and fears? Might a novel, as Harrow does, help us to understand ourselves in an age of civilizational freefall? If so, is there not some meaning, even value, in the endeavor?
Someone could offer that protestation. I won’t. I’ve seen what quick work Williams makes of sentimentalists. Safer to end on her own conclusion in 1987 to the Sun-Sentinel. “It all seems pretty hopeless,” she said. “There doesn’t seem to be much that good people can do.”