[Texas Review Press; 2021]
I’m writing under a red moon. The sky is shrouded in smoke and I’m in the passenger’s seat of a truck speeding towards the Morongo Basin. The AC is pumping pungent air into the cabin. Three hundred miles away, wildfires burn ancient trees. On my knees sits a loose leaf copy of Janice Lee’s Imagine a Death, an apocalyptic novel about three lonely neighbors navigating personal and ecological degradation. They’re living in the end times: birds drop from the sky, the sky itself is no longer blue but grey with ash, and the moon is red. As I write, I keep reminding myself that I’m describing the setting of a novel and not the view out my dash.
I’m unaccustomed to reading about climate change in literary novels. As wind turbines fly by outside the window, I scroll through endless “Most Anticipated Books” lists and find few titles that significantly address the climate crisis. As novelist Amitav Ghosh points out: “Fiction that deals with climate change [is] almost by definition not the kind that is taken seriously by serious literary journals.” One reason may be modern literature’s obsession with observing the everyday — the mundane doings that fill our lives, the emotive undercurrents that steer us. Catastrophic weather phenomena like sinkholes, floods, and extinction are considered extraordinary, not everyday occurrences, in the literary psyche. When books do feature climatic phenomena, they’re often labeled political or science fiction. Yet, in 2021, destructive climate events are no longer once-in-a-lifetime happenings but are, indeed, everyday occurrences. In Imagine a Death, the distinction between domestic experiences and climatic events collapses. Lee gives equal valence to her characters’ emotional and interpersonal experiences as the wildfires that darken their skies. In this sense, the novel shares more in common with Michelle Tea’s Black Wave than classic apocalyptic novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which almost all life has perished.
In traditional apocalyptic narratives, usually it is a single, cataclysmic event that drives society’s collapse: a nuclear bomb explodes over a cornfield; a meteor crashes into the ocean; biological weapons spread invisibly through subway stations. In Imagine a Death, there is no one event that triggers ecological and societal demise. “The process of death is very, very slow,” writes Lee. Radiation slowly accumulates in waterways. Birds drink the water in tiny sips. Overtime, the bird’s organs pickle. They refuse to eat. They fall from the sky, not all at once, but one by one. I know that the birds “refuse” to eat because Lee includes several chapters from a bird’s perspective. Each chapter is written from the point of view of a different living subject: a writer, a photographer, an old man, a pack of dogs, a patch of moss growing along the sidewalk. With great compassion, Lee reveals how each being, creature or plant copes with their decaying worlds in their own way; and their differences offer the reader a stunning array of possibilities for imagining our collective futures.
Many of Lee’s characters endure the present by living in the past. Others snuff their anxieties about the past by losing themselves in the day to day grind, failing to imagine a future for themselves at all. While reading the book, time itself also seemed to slow. Lee’s sentences spool out with whole paragraphs threaded together solely by commas. Few periods appear on the page, recreating the experience of breathing smoke-tinged air by denying the reader a chance to catch their breath. The long, lyrical sentences are also strategic: they invite the reader to lose themselves in language, to slow down and feel the world. Lee wants us to experience it all, to sense it. The way a moth smells when you smash it on the sill. The sound of leaves being touched. What it feels like to walk through a polluted city with a broken heart.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Imagine a Death is how Lee makes spaces for all the different ways a heart can break: a wife dies, a beloved pet disappears, a flying object falls from the sky and kills a mother and her daughter’s heartbreak goes on and on. Despair fills a man who spends all his time alone in his apartment, observing the street below from his perch. When a woman’s neighbor assaults her, she sobs and shakes, and this is one way she knows she’s alive. Not like the photographer who is isolated and imprisoned by his fixed beliefs about himself and his world. He is not dead, but he is also not emotionally alive. “He convinced himself that one’s comfort with oneself was a redeeming quality,” writes Lee. In Imagine a Death, redemption is impossible. All living beings are implicated in the world’s demise as well as the project of reimagining its future. No one is truly free from obligation to other living beings.
Throughout the text, Lee encourages us to question what it means to be “comfortable” and “content” in the end times. If we let go of the impulse to feel happy, how else might we find personal peace? By deepening our connections with other living things, according to Lee. When the writer hops a high speed train to the desert, she finds a landscape as desiccated as the city she left behind. Yet, among the sand banks and flats of chollas, she unearths a newfound restfulness. “Sitting here, participating in this intimate communion through air, breathing among the generative and restorative power of the elements, she feels the closest thing she’s ever felt to peace,” writes Lee. “The important thing isn’t that she feels calm or hopeful, the important thing is that she feels a continuance in the development of self and environment.” For Lee, to survive is to forever become. Intimacy with plants represents a key survival tool — “plants signal a constant becoming,” Lee writes. “Certainty is an illusion, a framework for control, for cutting down trees, carving out swaths of land, for allowing some categories of living things to have hope and for others to never glimpse the possibility of a future beyond tomorrow.” If we accept Lee’s central thesis that who we are and what we know are always in flux, the possibilities for imagining alternative futures are endless.
“How does a story teach us to think about the future,” the writer wonders while weeding her desert garden. I ask myself the same question as I speed through the dark basin, moon obscured by smoke. For clues to the answer, we might turn to the writer’s own life story. From the slow decay of her home to a lover’s betrayal, she endures profound changes. Yet, these changes do not estrange her from herself, not forever. They ultimately return her back to herself, different, but more embodied in the world. In this way, Lee’s novel is a representative of a new wave of apocalyptic literature where ecological and societal collapse do not automatically displace personal trauma and toxic social hierarchies, but rather, complicates them, allowing us to fashion new worlds for ourselves in the cracks of our collective disenchantment. When I finally look up from the page, I feel changed. I walk into the starless night with greater compassion. I’m slower, more attuned — alive.
Elizabeth Hall is the author of the books I HAVE DEVOTED MY LIFE TO THE CLITORIS, a Lambda Literary Award Finalist in nonfiction, and Season of the Rat, forthcoming from Tarpaulin Sky Press in Fall 2022. Her essays have appeared in Bitch, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Observer, and elsewhere.