Late in the afternoon of March 27, 1964, members of the community theater group in Anchorage, Alaska, were preparing for that evening’s performance of Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play that, on its surface, is about small-town life in early 1900s America but that, in the words of one critic, is really about “how mankind confronts overwhelming disaster.” Their neighbors, meanwhile, were closing up shops, cooking dinner, or grabbing a beer before heading home for Easter weekend. Shortly after 5:30 PM, Genie Chance was driving her son downtown on an errand when her car started pitching violently. At first she thought she had a flat tire. Then she noticed buildings swaying and the road undulating and she realized what was happening.
The earthquake lasted for almost five minutes. When it stopped, Chance dropped her son at their house (luckily it was intact) and rushed to Fourth Avenue, Anchorage’s main commercial thoroughfare. She found that one entire side of the street had dropped ten feet below the other. Patrons walked out of sunken bars in a daze, looking up. A half-hour later the sun had set, snow was falling, and Anchorage’s 100,000 inhabitants had no idea how bad the damage was or how many people were dead. Power lines were down and most of the phones were out of service. But the radio station KENI was still broadcasting, powered by a generator.
For the next thirty hours, Chance, the first female newscaster in Alaska, talked her city through the crisis over KENI’s airwaves. She became the de facto public safety officer, letting listeners know which roads were blocked, where fires were burning, where temporary shelters and first aid stations were located. She told them that plaster of Paris, electricians, and plumbers were needed at the hospital. After taking a brief nap, Chance kept broadcasting until Easter morning. She read aloud messages from those seeking missing loved ones and from people who wanted to let their families know they were okay. One man later described her voice coming through his transistor radio as “our only beacon of light in a night of terror.”
How Chance bound together the young, fractured frontier city of Anchorage is the central narrative in Jon Mooallem’s This Is Chance!, a carefully reported chronicle of a mostly forgotten disaster. At 9.2 in magnitude, the Great Alaska Earthquake was the strongest on record in North America and remains the second most powerful ever recorded worldwide. Nine people were killed in Anchorage; at least 131 in all died because of the earthquake, most of them in tsunamis along the Pacific coast.
The death count in Anchorage was so low in part, Mooallem explains, because almost all of the injured had been recovered from the wreckage by “unofficial first responders” before night fell on Friday: “Everywhere in Anchorage, clusters of ordinary people had gone to work immediately, spontaneously, teaming up and switching on like a kind of civic immune response.” A mild-mannered psychology professor and amateur mountaineer from a local college led the search and rescue efforts. Bystanders used their own tow trucks and jacks to pull apart the rubble of the partially collapsed J.C. Penney building downtown and the crumbled control tower at the airport, swiftly pulling out survivors.
These vignettes can give the impression that This Is Chance! is another contribution to the body of literature on the species of solidarity that sprouts up among people who live through disasters.* So can Mooallem’s extended treatment of the work of Enrico Quarantelli, a young sociologist who, on the Sunday after the earthquake, flew into Anchorage with some colleagues to interview city officials, emergency responders, and people on the street, as part of their burgeoning research into the psychological response to catastrophe. Quarantelli was a pioneer in the academic field of disaster studies, documenting how, across cultures and geographies, people in such circumstances almost always discover and tap into deep currents of fellow feeling and selflessness.
But there are early signs that Mooallem’s true subject lies elsewhere. In the first few pages he reflects on the “terrible magic” that disasters perform on our sense of time, “moments when the world we take for granted instantaneously changes; when reality is abruptly upended and the unimaginable overwhelms real life.”
“Disasters lead to a focusing of attention on the present,” Quarantelli and a coauthor wrote in 1975. The exhilaration that many find in their experience of sudden solidarity comes from their sense of standing together outside of time: “Worries about the past and future are unrealistic when judged against the realities of the moment.”
Disasters scramble and toss together not just layers of sediment, edges of tectonic plates, buildings, and boulders, but individual lives. They strip away the illusions—both comforting and discomfiting—that tomorrow will be like today, that the ground beneath us is stable, that we are alone in our struggles. They remind us that instability, rupture, and upheaval are the world’s default settings, and that we are all—always—united in our shared precarity. As one earthquake survivor tells Mooallem fifty years later, “Even now, I can look at this solid ground out my window and know it’s not permanent. It can change anytime. It just moves. Everything moves.”
In 2005 an earthquake roused Hugh Raffles from his slumber in a Tokyo hotel room. He watched as workers in the office building across the street reached out their arms, “searching for balance,” and then saw that he had struck the same pose. He realized that he and the office workers were companions inhabiting an alternate dimension, “all together in an unstable and intimate energy-space.”
“Something happens to time in that space, too,” he writes in The Book of Unconformities, his mesmerizing, genre-melding work of history, memoir, anthropology, travel, and time travel.
It breaks, ruptures, comes apart. Something similar often happens in moments of heightened danger: as your car spins out of control or you fall off your bike or you receive unexpected news of a close friend’s or relative’s death or, no doubt, when you pull back your curtains to see red fountains of lava gushing from the Earth. Time breaks, it suspends in two senses of the English word: slowing to almost zero and leaving you actually hanging, like particulate spun out of liquid, no longer grounded because the ground no longer is the ground, no longer balanced because there’s no longer a spatial matrix to which your senses orient.
Catastrophes crack open our assumption that time is a linear process. When the earth shakes, tsunamis strike, or trains derail, normal time is revealed as the “time that is in suspension, the fragile time we take to be the safety of the everyday but which is always just waiting, always ready to be blown apart.”
In the first sentence of Raffles’s book we learn that in the mid-1990s his sister Franki died in Scotland while giving birth to twins and, less than three months later, his sister Sally took her own life outside London. Disoriented by grief, he began searching for something to hold on to: “I started reaching for rocks, stones, and other seemingly solid objects as anchors in a world unmoored.”
The Book of Unconformities is the record of his decades-long search for sense and solace from stones. Raffles, who is a professor of anthropology at the New School, journeys around the North Atlantic, to Iceland, Orkney, the Svalbard archipelago, Greenland, and the margins of his home island of Manhattan. On a remote Icelandic beach, Raffles picks up a smooth, rectangular piece of basalt formed from flowing lava seven thousand years ago and imagines it “on the polished wooden ledge by my window on Ninety-first Street alongside other stones from other places, not so much a map of the world as the world itself.”
That’s what he’s reaching for: the there-ness of rock, the stabilizing pressure of its presence. But instead of answers and anchors, he finds only bottomless enigmas. The stones to which he is drawn—whether the secret, half-submerged veins of marble interlacing the Bronx with Manhattan or a twenty-ton meteorite in the courtyard of the Natural History Museum of Denmark—represent vanished worlds. In his insatiably curious quest, bits and chunks of gneiss, sandstone, marble, muscovite, and iron become catalysts for musings about the other people who may have once come into contact with them. Everywhere he goes, he combs this wreckage of time’s long landslide and pulls up glinting remnants of past lives.
On the main island of Orkney, off the northern tip of Scotland, Raffles visits a cluster of elegant sandstone slabs known as the Standing Stones of Stenness, heart of a once bustling Neolithic complex. For millennia one of them, the Odin Stone, an eight-foot-high block with a symmetrical oval opening partway up, drew people to perform rituals that promised health, fertility, and fidelity. Couples would swear oaths on it, exchanging pennies or clasping hands through the hole.
The twentieth-century scholar of religion Mircea Eliade argued that stones like these are examples of what he called “hierophanies,” objects that serve as portals to illud tempus (that time), the sacred plane that stands apart from the historical march of time, the time out of time. For the people of Orkney, the Odin Stone was such a gateway, until Captain William MacKay, a tenant farmer irritated at the tourists and devotees tramping across his fields, blew it to bits in 1814. Several of the monoliths still stand on a windswept plain above a sea inlet, where they exert a magnetic pull on visitors like Raffles.
One windy June day, he climbs an ancient hilltop quarry where stonecutters hewed their sandstone prizes five thousand years ago. When he tries to “imagine the masons punching a window in time through that long-lost hole in the Odin Stone,” he comes to a nourishing impasse: “The impossibility of knowing filled me with an irrational flush of happiness.”
This recognition of the past’s fundamental unknowability is central to Raffles’s project: “Sometimes the gaps are too wide, the people, the animals, the objects, the worlds too gone, the time too much for the little time we have.” Later he explains that an unconformity, according to geologists, is a discontinuity in the deposition of sediment, where two pieces of rock from different ages, perhaps even hundreds of millions of years apart in their provenance, are brought into direct contact. An unconformity indicates a gap in the record embedded in the earth’s layers, a spot where geology’s record skips.
In this way, an unconformity is “both a seam and a rupture: a juxtaposition that reveals a cleft that can’t be closed,” Raffles writes. Life, too,
is filled with unconformities—revealing holes in time that are also fissures in feeling, knowledge, and understanding; holes that relentlessly draw in human investigation and imagination yet refuse to conform, heal, or submit to explanation in ways we might desire or think we need.
Despite the intractability of it all, Raffles can’t help but imagine his way into that breach again and again. Like a geologist drawing out the individual grains in some hundred-million-year-old layer of sediment with a magnifying glass, he has a particular gift for composing close-ups of his subjects, for making the long-lost feel immediate, as if those ancient quarriers were slogging right by us, cursing and grunting.
For his epigraph, Raffles borrows a line from Roberto Bolaño’s novel Distant Star: “…as if time were not a river but an earthquake happening nearby.” It’s an arresting thought: What if time’s ravages compelled our attention with the same ineluctable force as an earthquake? What if time were experienced not as a flow but as a phenomenon whose energy overcomes you, terrifies you, forces you to reach out in search of balance?
That premise animates the wanderings chronicled in The Book of Unconformities, which is neither a memoir nor a meditation on grief: Raffles’s sisters are mentioned just a few times, his own mental states scrutinized only when necessary to parse the particular signal he is picking up from the earth’s deep past. He takes us instead through the wormholes of dusty archives, forgotten diaries, and blurred photographs. He invites us to speculate along with him about long-ago, often violent encounters between disparate worlds.
Some stones become portals to chapters of exploitation and genocide—overlooked origin stories for both the rapacious colonialist enterprise and our modern extractive economy. We get glimpses of Henry Hudson and his crew first meeting then abducting and killing a few of the Lenape people who inhabited the island that would become Manhattan, and of Viking raiders bringing their Irish slaves to new farms in Iceland.
On the island of Spitsbergen, in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, above the Arctic Circle, Raffles coins the term “blubberstone” to describe the traces of rendered whales, “spilled oil congealing with sand, gravel, and coal in a rocky mass,” left by the hunting parties and whalers who turned Svalbard’s beaches into industrial-scale processing centers from the 1600s to the 1800s. Blubberstones—“a product of human geology”—are outlines of the copper cauldrons that men used to boil down whale blubber. Raffles describes the mechanics of the whale hunts that produced these ghostly remnants, and he traces the wider linkages and lures by which remote Svalbard became a central hub of the “early modern world economy.”
A twenty-ton meteorite named Agpalilik, which sits today in the courtyard of the Natural History Museum of Denmark, leads Raffles to the village of Savissivik, in northwest Greenland. Agpalilik is one of many iron-streaked meteorites deposited by the Cape York meteor shower, which were prized by the local Inughuit people as raw material for knives, spears, and other tools. These precious rocks came to the awareness of British sailors in the early nineteenth century. Raffles reconstructs from diaries and other sources the strangeness and asymmetry of their first encounters with the Inughuit in 1818. He also writes at length about the American polar explorer Robert Peary’s predatory dependence on and exploitation of the Inughuit, including the six—one woman, three men, two children—whom in 1897 he brought to New York (along with three meteorites he sold to the American Museum of Natural History), where they were put on public display and treated as specimens. Four of them died there.
These speculative forays don’t add up to a conventional narrative arc. What makes the book’s incantatory lists, quick peregrinations in time, and archival research all cohere is Raffles’s fierce commitment to looking, looking closer, and looking again. The result reads like the product of decades of compression, like the rocks he studies. In lieu of time and gravity, the forces that extruded The Book of Unconformities are compassion, grief, and wonder.
Structure, of course, is most writers’ rock and salvation. Raffles relies instead on the binding force of his attention. He’s after “not so much a map of the world [but] the world itself,” and the world itself offers only gaps and riddles. He is a student of unconformities, after all—those spliced-together zones that defy definitive explanation and easy structuring. His implicit premise is that the present world, with all its ravages and richness, its cruelties and consolations, cannot be understood without attending to these absences.
Fifteen years after his sisters’ deaths, Raffles travels to the Outer Hebrides and visits the Standing Stones of Callanish, on the Isle of Lewis. There, on a hill not far from the house where his sister Franki lived in the 1970s, he ponders “the stubborn vitality of even the most dead things” and wonders whether a huge gneiss crag rock known as Cnoc an Tursa was, as some archaeologists speculate, the sacred center of Callanish, an ancient North Atlantic trading and cultural hub:
Yet another axis mundi linking worlds as unbreachable today as they were five thousand years ago; as unbreachable and unfathomable—but no more unfathomable than the twenty-five years since my sisters died. Standing on the edge of time, I feel them washing through me. If only this cleft would open wide and swallow me, too. If only I knew the rituals required. Some fragile thing has broken. Some certainty, some confidence in the world I didn’t even know was there.
Both Mooallem and Raffles are groping their way toward coping strategies for cataclysm, and their books are more profitably read as searches for balance—like the poses struck by those Tokyo office workers with their outstretched arms—than as narratives. But while Raffles eschews structure, Mooallem has a different approach: he both borrows his structure and puts it on display.
His very first paragraph echoes Wilder’s self-referential opening from Our Town: “This book is called This Is Chance! It was written by Jon Mooallem, published by Random House, edited by Andy Ward.” The epigraph itself is from Our Town; the book is organized into three acts; it opens with a cast list of characters. And in its final pages, it hovers about Anchorage’s community theater players as they finally stage their performance of Our Town for their weary neighbors, ten days after the earthquake.
As Mooallem sets this scene, he interrupts himself to note that five decades hence, the middle school teacher playing Mrs. Webb will succumb to complications from heart surgery, and the young artistic director playing the alcoholic preacher will die a few months after Mooallem interviews him. This isn’t the first piece of time travel in This Is Chance! Early on, Mooallem relates how certain characters—Genie Chance’s coworkers at KENI, the commander of the Alaska National Guard—will meet their ends weeks or decades in the future.
There is an extended riff in which Mooallem describes himself in the third person reporting the book, as though he were recounting an out-of-body experience. He describes the “vaguely demoralizing unease” he felt while searching through boxes of Chance’s diaries and mementos and interviewing survivors: “He started picturing his own boxes. He imagined how many other boxes were already out there, in other people’s basements, and how many people hadn’t left boxes at all.” All those gaps in the human record, all those breathing unconformities, all that lost time.
Overwhelmed by his own vertiginous knowledge of how the lives of his subjects turn out, he finally gets around to rereading Wilder’s play. (In interviews, Mooallem has confessed that when he read Our Town in his school days he found it “sort of hokey” and only later, while researching his book, did he tap into its profundity.) As he reads one of the Stage Manager’s “omniscient asides” (“Mrs. Gibbs died first”), he has an epiphany: “That’s me.” This epiphany might sound canned, and at times all these self-referential feints feel somewhat forced. But Mooallem’s Stage Manager device ultimately elevates This Is Chance! from a mere disaster chronicle to a poignant meditation on a higher-order disaster.
The larger catastrophe awaiting the characters of Our Town, the people of Anchorage—all of us, Mooallem concludes—is “irrelevance.” The real disaster, in his reading, is how time consigns all we do, love, build, and record to oblivion. There are no earthquakes in Our Town, but the ground still shifts under the residents of Grover’s Corners “in the steadiest, most predictable way imaginable: by pushing away from them, traveling forward in time,” he writes.
This conclusion doesn’t seem quite right. Sure, time’s stream is relentlessly, quietly grinding all we love and all our works into silt. But the real reason Wilder’s play lands like such a punch to the solar plexus—and remains one of today’s most frequently produced plays, from high school to Broadway stages—is not its devastating portrayal of a life’s insignificance. The ultimate disaster that Wilder wants us to confront is not irrelevance but inattention.
At the play’s end, Emily Gibbs returns to her mortal life from beyond the grave, choosing to relive her twelfth birthday. As she watches her mother bustle about the kitchen, absorbed in morning rituals, Emily sees for the first time, with mounting horror, how she and her family and her neighbors really live—that is, without fully registering one another’s presence. “I can’t go on,” Emily cries out. “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.” She starts to sob as the scope of this disaster hits her: “I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed….”
“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?” she asks the Stage Manager. “No,” he replies, and then adds, after a pause, “The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.”
This particular crisis of inattention has taken on new meaning after nearly two years in which time’s passage seems to have been warped by the pandemic. Covid-19 has been its own unconformity, both world-historically and in so many private lives—a shearing in civilization’s fault lines that has left before and after in uneasy contact. Two years not spent together, when most people suddenly found themselves confronting the same question: How to attend to what is absent?
In an insight he ascribes to Genie Chance, based on a letter she wrote in the days after the earthquake, Mooallem offers an answer that also functions as his book’s main thesis: “Our force for counteracting chaos is connection.” But while Mooallem makes the case, as he has written elsewhere, for “laterally…thatching our lines together like a net”—look at your neighbors in the here and now and, even amid a pandemic, you will find solace and connection—Raffles reveals a whole other dimension available to us: the deep past.
We don’t need an earthquake to notice how cracked open the world is. Just look around. It is positively buzzing with what’s departed. It takes a saints-and-poets degree of effort to remain alert to life and its possibilities and impossibilities, the miracles unfolding around us, and the suffering of others, let alone to the intersecting paths that have brought us to this pass. But for the rest of us, Raffles offers a model.
The word “attention” is derived from the Latin ad and tendere: “To reach toward.” One thing we can attempt, he is saying, is to reach across those clefts in time while understanding that we can never quite touch the other side. He notes that “geology, like archaeology, had its utopian dimension—the promise of suturing time.”
Attention alone can never fully close that rupture. Still, Raffles shows how the act of reaching into that void—attending to the “worlds too gone”—can offer, if not exactly solace or a salve for grief, at least a way to steady oneself. When he tries to picture those Neolithic masons chiseling the Odin Stone, the effect is not unlike looking mid-earthquake through that Tokyo office window and seeing one’s own awkward, literal search for balance mirrored back. When the world is toppling over, you reach out to hold on to something or someone. It is useful to be reminded that people have been reaching out in this way—trying to punch “a window in time,” not for a lark but to meet a profound human need—for a very long time.
We have the wherewithal to reach back. Rub your hand over a grinding stone used ten or a hundred generations ago, and in that moment you tap into a current arcing across time’s gap, and access the sense of a larger shared endeavor that doesn’t erase the self but more fully situates it. The distance closes, even if just a bit.
In The Book of Unconformities, this sustained effort takes on the cast of a temporal disaster response akin to the civic immune response of those Anchorage citizens, knitting impossibly distant and disparate lives into a shared story of suffering, depredation and privation, survival, illumination, persistence, and courage. Not stories, but story.
Toward the end of The Book of Unconformities, Raffles quotes a passage from the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss:
When the miracle occurs, as it sometimes does, when, on one side and the other of the hidden crack, there are suddenly to be found cheek-by-jowl two green plants of different species and when at the same time, two ammonites with unevenly intricate involutions can be glimpsed in the rock, thus testifying in their own way to a gap of several tens of thousands of years, suddenly space and time become one; the living diversity of the moment juxtaposes and perpetuates the ages. Thought and emotion move into a new dimension [and] I feel myself to be steeped in a more dense intelligibility, within which centuries and distances answer each other and speak at last with one and the same voice.
“Steeped in a more dense intelligibility”: it’s an apt way to capture both the experience of reading Raffles’s remarkable work and the scope of his achievement. If time is an earthquake happening nearby, Raffles is that disaster’s Genie Chance, amplifying crisscrossing, faintly echoing voices—many of them overlooked or discounted by history’s gatekeepers—across forlorn steppes, forging a kind of kinship through the transistor radio of his chosen stones. In his questing, compassionate reaching across the discontinuities of geologic ages and individual lives, Raffles gives us a voice that can, for a time, hold it all together.
Perhaps the best work in this subgenre is Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Made in Hell (Viking, 2009), which captures with grace and depth the euphoric, utopian sense of community that emerges among disaster survivors. ↩