by David Peak
Often the most memorable depictions of the world’s end—Michael Haneke’s film Time of the Wolf, Cormac McCarthy’s survivalist novel The Road, the surreal apocalyptic futures of Brian Evenson—offer no easy explanation of how things have come undone. More important is the mythmaking involved in filling in the blanks and what that might say about the stories themselves. Lately, it seems as if each day catalogs new catastrophes both natural and man-made. When apocalypse does arrive, many of us likely won’t recognize it for what it is. Perhaps it’s already here.
Joy Williams’s fifth novel, Harrow, begins with Lamb, a teenager whose mother believes she died as an infant and saw a realm beyond—“some frightful chaos of non-being that nevertheless contained an observable yet incomprehensible future to which we would all be subjected”—and that her experience of the afterlife has given her a unique vision that could benefit others. Hoping to nurture this gift, she enrolls Lamb in a boarding school for special students, “an old sanatorium surrounded by beetle-ravaged pines and staffed with nervous self-regard by arguably the cleverest minds in the country.”
From there, the plot points don’t matter as much as the way the story moves: in leaps and bounds, littering a trail of sparkling, wondrous detail in its wake. Lamb’s mother disappears while seeking spiritual awareness. In searching for her, Lamb finds her way to a motel in Florida, where a group of elderly extremists hatch plots, speak in cryptic dialogue, and ultimately seek to punish those responsible for the end of the world. “They did not consider themselves ‘terrorists,’ reserving that word for the bankers and builders, the industrial engineers, purveyors of war and the market, it goes without saying, the exterminators and excavators, the breeders and consumers of every stripe, those locusts of clattering, clacking hunger.”
With its erratic pacing, fractured narrative, and shifting point of view, Harrow demands close reading, and it thoroughly rewards those who put in the work. Williams expertly constructs vivid scenes rendered in rich, prismatic language. One particularly memorable moment involves a birthday party at a bowling alley, aptly named “Paradise Lanes,” where endless pitchers of martinis result in crackling, frenetic dialogue. When it comes to characters, Williams has a gift for distilling an entire novel’s worth of ideas into a handful of pages. Several seemingly minor characters are given rich and intriguing backstories.
In his essay “He Stuttered,” Gilles Deleuze wrote, “A great writer is always like a foreigner in the language which he expresses himself, even if this is his native tongue.” This principle can be seen perfectly in Williams, whose writing is frequently electric on the sentence level; language itself is often the object of focus in Harrow. There’s much talk of words and names, whether they’re the right ones or the wrong ones, whether things will be remembered as they were or as they could have been. It isn’t immediately clear that the titular word refers to the tool that breaks up the surface of soil; considering that characters often speak of purgatory and judgment, it could refer to the Harrowing of Hell, the time between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Within the world of the book, however, it’s obvious that the symbolism goes beyond what a literal reader may assume: “Representations of the harrow are in all government facilities that remain and homes are encouraged to display the image as well. It started out as a bit of nostalgia but devolved into a sign of respect, of self-acknowledgment. No one gives thanks to it of course, just respect. It’s a unifying symbol. Says, We will not be overcome.”
In Harrow, it’s possible that the societal symbols and signs that replace reality, as Jean Baudrillard theorized, have paved the way to a new human experience, one that is still grasping for the language to explain itself. We know the words are out there to explain what is happening to us, if only we could find them and put them in the right order.
Perhaps the broken narratives and fever dreams that form so much of communication today truly do reflect the world we find ourselves in. They might even come to resemble a wildlife crossing beneath a highway, a place not fit for humans, and one whose purpose has been forever lost in Harrow. As Williams writes, “The tunnel had been part of an old mitigation effort. Mitigation. No one knew the meaning of the word now. Words died like everything else.”
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