Late in Harrow, Joy Williams’ first novel in over 20 years, one young character gives to another a little known Kafka short story to read and interpret in front of him. Both of them have been through some shit by this point—mostly the climate apocalypse, but also a few odd deaths of family members. The story, “The Hunter Gracchus,” concerns a man who has died and is cursed to wander the world without purpose. Life under climate change is akin to death, Harrow suggests, a purgatory where the dead roam the torn earth waiting for their second, actual deaths. But also, life is like this anyway always, climate change or not. Earlier, someone tells the teenage protagonist (who is said to have died as a baby and come back to life), “‘Your transience is so great that you do not exist.’” And so Williams placing the Kafka story where she does feels like someone handing over the keys to a house you’ve already broken into: Sure, it would have been more helpful earlier, but where would be the fun in that?
Harrow is about climate change the same way Twin Peaks is about who killed Laura Palmer. Its concerns—time, death, the afterlife—are more fundamental and eternal. The loose design of this strange and comic novel is something of a very slow picaresque, with the orphaned Khristen going to one place, then another, then one more. Simple survival often figures heavily in stories of the apocalypse, but nobody seems to need to eat in this book. The worry, if you can call it that, is existential. What to do with oneself? For the dozen or so terminally ill seniors at the crumbling old hotel called the Institute—where Khristen looks for her mother after her boarding school closes—the answer is eco-terrorism. Sort of. “The Institute was not a suicide academy or a terrorist hospice. Or not exactly,” Williams writes. Each resident is assigned someone in agriculture or a cruel animal scientist to take out, but nobody can get it together enough to go after the guys at the top or work with anything like efficiency. The oldsters are so ineffectual that some of their targets die of natural causes. By the time Khristen arrives at their outpost, the residents themselves are dying or being asked to leave.
Williams gestures toward plot, but there isn’t tension so much as stuff happening. At one point, one of the eco-terrorists gives a report on what the world outside the Institute is like: Most people think the earth has turned against them, and conservation efforts are considered reactionary. Another author would include this expository dialogue on page seven; Williams sticks it in halfway. As with her previous novel, 2000’s Pulitzer finalist The Quick And The Dead, the writer doesn’t build up to an ecstatic narrative peak; rather, a climax materializes by way of a meditative conversation between two people who are better versed in philosophy and literature than the average citizen.
Harrow is thick with weighty symbols, but they are scattered, and looking for meaning in them can feel like reading tea leaves. Something is being suggested, but rarely precisely: Khristen finds the word “hell” etched on a table in the hospital where her father dies; on a hill, she encounters a man dragging around a Styrofoam cross; a birthday party takes place at a bowling alley called Paradise Lanes. At the Institute, Khristen befriends Jeffrey, a precocious 10-year-old obsessed with the law who later becomes a rather busy judge. (His big move on the bench is asking defendants to differentiate between two nearly identical pictures.) Were he not depicted in such an absurdly comedic way, a child magistrate in an apocalyptic novel might come across as cloyingly obvious: When it comes to climate change, older generations will be judged by their children. The book’s title is perhaps the most straightforward of these signs. Soon after the apocalypse, depictions of a harrow—an agricultural tool used to break up soil—begin to appear in train stations and government buildings. Passed down from an unknown entity, the harrow is readily taken up by the people for its symbolization of technology’s dominance over nature.
Another key piece of this novel is the idea of eternal recurrence. A professor opens the orientation at Khristen’s school with this question from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science: What if you were told you had to live your same life over and over again, exactly as you’ve lived it, without variance? Would you meet the news with joy or despair? The eternal return is treated broadly, through character and plot, but also more granularly. The smallest pieces repeat: boats, horses. Everyone gets two names, like a first and second life: Khristen was once Lamb, while Jeffrey deems himself Enoch after the biblical character who entered heaven without first passing through death. All of this—the pictograms, the philosophical conversations, the oddball characters—is tied together by the sense of a singular writer doing whatever she wants.
Then there’s the recurrence of the novel itself. It’s hard to ignore the topical overlaps between this one and The Quick And The Dead: the eco-terrorism, the orphaned teenage girl, the elderly communal living. To say nothing of the structural similarities, mainly how much the book lives inside its dialogue. The prose here is quintessential Williams, her diction alternating between formal, occasionally lofty fare and folksy slang. (When’s the last time you heard someone say “the whole enchilada”?) And there’s no living writer I trust more with an adverb: She describes the apocalypse as “a permanently ongoing situation” and a man in a car crash as “blatantly dead.”
Williams has always wielded time as she pleases, making it appear to pass either very quickly or not at all. And she’s performed a neat trick with it here. Twenty years may seem like a long time to wait from one novel to the next, but Harrow connects so cleverly to her previous work that the familiarity has a way of collapsing the span between them. The past repeats itself even as it becomes the present. Time is cyclical and permanently ongoing, whether or not we’ll be here to witness it passing.
Author photo: Jonno Rattman