After a Cataclysm, the Nature Lovers in ‘Harrow’ Struggle to Stay Sane

After the coming apocalypse, when prizes are handed out for the greatest novels that presaged our finish, Joy Williams’s new one, “Harrow,” might be a contender in the experimental class. Our mutant overlord critics will ask about it, squatting round a pixelated campfire, carrying goggles, sucking the marrow from squirrel bones, “What the hell was that?”

As Williams’s books go, this isn’t a excellent one. Her wit misfires greater than regular; the ecological themes are overly acquainted; there aren’t any actual characters to grasp onto, and little or no plot, not that anybody comes to Williams for situation.

Expectations are humorous issues, although. If you blacked out Williams’s title on the cowl and advised me that “Harrow” was written by a current graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I might most likely have thought to myself, “A wild one has escaped the infirmary! I greet you, wild one, at the start of an interesting career. Please stop making me laugh while unspooling my intestines.”

Such are the psychological contradictions when studying a lesser Williams novel.

“Harrow” is her fifth novel. It’s about a teenager named Khristen who washes up, after some undefined pure cataclysm — there aren’t any extra birds or oranges, and cockroaches are kitten-size — at a pale retreat stuffed with aged, vaguely fatuous eco-warriors.

It’s Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” — a cynic, or a Williams character, may assume — meets Mike White’s prickly, resort-themed “The White Lotus.” “We’ve been punched right back,” Williams writes, “to the Middle Ages.”

Khristen’s mother has advised her all her life that’s she particular, a chosen one in all kinds, as a result of she died briefly when younger after which rose once more. Khristen doesn’t really feel particular. No one however her mother thinks she is both, although she’s completely nice.

The greatest moments in “Harrow” arrive once we tag together with Khristen assembly the decrepit and unique inmates — excuse me, the decrepit and unique company — at this previous place. They’re a frisky if innocent type of monkey-wrench gang, taking their final rolls with life’s fuzzy cube.

“They were a gabby seditious lot,” Williams writes, “in the worst of health but with kamikaze hearts, an army of the aged and ill, determined to refresh, through crackpot violence, a plundered earth.”

One man plans to blow himself up at a truck and bulldozer dealership. A lady is “supposed to shiv an herbicide representative but is dragging her heels.” A man named Tom “had planned on going to a trophy-hunting convention and poisoning all there including the children with their tyke-sized AK-47s,” however he’s misplaced his eyesight.

They’re all too drained to consider grander missions, and so they don’t really need to harm anybody. No one’s considering, as Conrad prompt in “The Secret Agent,” blowing up the prime meridian, in the type of the Greenwich Observatory.

Joy Williams, whose new novel is “Harrow.”Credit…Rattman

Khristen desires an project, too. “Maybe you should kill all the poets,” somebody suggests, including: “They’re so repulsively, tremulously anthropocentric.” The plan falls aside. Poets don’t collect usually sufficient. And the indignant ones are OK, proper?

What’s left of America in this novel sounds as if it’s being run by a coalition of Trump dead-enders, shock jocks and each 1-800 accident lawyer from each unholy billboard. All conservation makes an attempt are seen as reactionary. Tax breaks are given to households with weapons, and thus “no one pays taxes because everyone has guns.”

Activists are imprisoned. “Nature had been deemed sociopathic, and if you found this position debatable you were deemed sociopathic as well.” The Smithsonian ought to get out and stick no matter nature is left into a breathable baggie, for everlasting storage.

The rich raid blood banks, as a result of transfusions are “tremendously rejuvenating and less superstitious than ingesting powdered rhino horn.”

Williams’s characters strike poses and dispense thought bubbles, verbal pellets; they will appear to have stepped out of a Jules Feiffer strip. Everyone skitters sideways, as in the event that they have been crabs. Her people are given to epiphanic exclamations that always don’t have anything to do with something that’s occurring. They’re making an attempt to stay sane in a demented world. They’re whole weirdos, in the greatest sense.

Early in the novel, we meet a lady who’s described this manner: “She was a sun-wrinkled dope-fogged ex-hippie whose highest ambition in life was to have someone give her an old Mercedes diesel that she could run on waste fry oil from the restaurant where she worked.” I learn that sentence and laughed: There she is, an ur-Joy Williams character, double distilled.

You skim “Harrow,” as if it have been a ebook of poems, for the writer’s observations, threaded as they’re with acuity and chagrin and unusual harbingers and vestiges of previous mythologies: “What came first in your opinion, Lola, the rabid rain or the birdless dawn?”; “Future humans, such a reckless concept”; “There aren’t meteors in meteor showers anymore. It’s just space junk from rockets and satellites”; “Have you ever seen anything stiller than a ham?”; “Something definitely had gone wrong. Even the dead were dismayed”; “That light show at the corner of your eyes is not a celebration in your honor, it’s the tumor moving in.”

My favourite element in “Harrow” could also be this one: There’s a tv channel that broadcasts solely minutes of silence. “They describe what the minute of silence is for and then they broadcast it. It’s all some people watch.”

In the novel “Winter” (2017), Ali Smith requested: “Things never go so wrong, do they, in real nature writers’ lives, that they can’t solve it or salve it by writing about nature?” Williams isn’t that sort of nature author, one in all the tenderheaded, cry-of-the-loon selection. Even if this novel is half-realized, like a wire body awaiting clay for its head, its skepticism and sanity are persistently on show.

Someone wrote on Twitter lately that Williams’s followers ought to name themselves The Joy Division. That’s an agreeable thought for a lot of causes (I’d purchase a hoodie), together with how a lot loopy pleasure her characters derive from merely being outdoors and searching round.

As for these after-the-fall ebook prizes, whoever picks up Williams’s award can settle for by studying this sentence aloud, from Page 123, as the entirety of the speech: “The world’s heartbreaking beauty will remain when there is no heart to break for it.”