Joy Williams’ Harrow, her first novel in 21 years, has something fundamental in common with most recent fiction: it takes place in an America of the near future or in a modified present that has suffered a combination of political crisis and environmental disaster. There have been several good books like this (Sam Lipsyte’s Hark; A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet; Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun) and as many or more bad ones (Richard Powers’s Bewilderment). Harrow is the strangest and most beautiful I have read, and the one that separates the most radically from realism and mainstream psychology. Its concerns are spiritual, existential and metaphysical. It more often resembles a prose poem or a litany of fairy tales than a contemporary novel. Almost nothing is plausible, and it hardly matters. Everything is pleasure, so pleasure of a dark and violent kind. It’s also often quite funny, in a straightforward way.
America itself seems to have become a dead pool, a continental shelf of contaminated soil where hardly any trees stand yet, vegetables are stunted and deformed, wildlife absent or at risk. The how and why of the ruin are never explained. Harrow does not participate in the quasi-journalistic or false encyclopedic fashions typical of dystopian fictions. There was a before, and now we are in the after, “post-catastrophic”. Yet it’s an America with some recognizable totem poles from the old days: there are corporations, chain stores, even Disney World. One character quotes a line from Al Pacino from Heat. The novel is also full of allusions to the Greek myth, Nietzsche, Kafka, etc. and the recent history of America, in particular the Cold War, the bomb, the development of biological weapons, and the experience of domestic and Islamist terrorism.
Many of Harrow’s characters are terrorists themselves. They are also old people. With teeth drooping and memories fading, these residents of an abandoned seaside resort venture into the company’s hellish landscape to wreak havoc. It makes sense that very old people would make ideal suicide bombers. There is a significant generational gap in this novel. There are a few young people and several very old people. In between, there are people like this: “She had endured the brief and starving banality of one of these last childhoods before including the great attrition and the corresponding resolution of the survivors, before being pampered by eco-people. – ruminant nuts whose concern because the tusks and the shells, the fins and the adults, made them the shame of their species and more rejected than any Azazel goat of the Hebrews. If you like the arc and the sound of this phrase, you will like this novel.
Harrow doesn’t have a plot, but there is a three-part progression. It begins in a seaside town, where Khristen, the narrator of some of his passages, was born and as a baby momentarily ceases to breathe, an episode his mother equates to death and knowing the kingdom beyond. living. His near-death experience is suggested as an allegory for the catastrophe that has befallen society as a whole. She was sent to a boarding school, with a philosophy of Nietzsche citing the Great Books, with a lot of rules. This institution experiences its own collapse and Khristen is sent on a train. This brings him to the Institute, the former seaside resort full of old eco-terrorists. The final phase of the book takes place mainly in a courtroom where a 10-year-old boy met by Khristen at the Institute delivers judgment on those offenders against nature and its creatures.
If this summary doesn’t make sense, keep in mind that this is a novel about a world that no longer makes sense. It is elementary and at the same time very specifically American. Much of its energy is drawn from the memory of a cohesive past, a childhood shared by elderly American citizens now determined to avenge the betrayal of their youth, and the awareness of a decaying present and a degrading future. There are plenty of reasons to believe that the future could be as bad or worse than that portrayed in Harrow. The title of the novel comes from the word for the tool used to tear up soil on farms, which at one point appears to be used to murder one of the characters in the book. It is the only image that would be represented in public art of this terrible future. Ripping things up for future fertilization seems to be Williams’ point of view.
Harrow by Joy Williams is published by Hurst at £ 16.99. To order your copy for £ 14.99, visit Telegraph Books