TC Boyle, A Friend of the Earth

TC Boyle isn't a cheerful man, telling the Guardian a few years ago that "It's all over. The planet is doomed. In a very short time, we're probably not even going to have culture or art." So ... yeah.

The occasion for this remark was the 2012 publication of his book San Miguel, but he was actually thinking about his turn-of-the-century novel A Friend of the Earth, which is set in the late 80s / early 90s as well as 2025. The question at issue was whether 2025 was too far in the future, or if 2015 would have been a more appropriate date for imagining a future after climate change gets truly cataclysmic. We've made it through 2015 now without falling into Boyle's apocalypse just yet, but with 15 of the 16 hottest years in recorded human history having hit since 2000, and with 2016 on pace to beat the record set in 2015 (which smashed the record set in 2014...), who knows what's about to come.

A Friend of the Earth, though, even given all these complexities, is a strange read. Its protagonist, Ty Tierwater, was born around 1950, and while humanity has developed and deployed technologies to drastically extend the human lifespan, it hasn't done anything to escape the cultural touchstones of the 1960s and 1970s. The apocalypse, in other words, is a perpetual Boomer society (the horror! the horror!), and while this feels like the right place to lay certain kinds of blame, you're stuck as a reader with those sorts of references, narrative decisions, and novelistic details. (Strange names, for one detail, but also the continuing into the 2020s of hippie life choices as the height of counterculture.)

The novel basically follows Tierwater through two critical periods in his life, the earlier his radicalization as an environmental activist (including jail time and the adolescence of his daughter) and the later his arthritic years in California as the custodian of aging rock star Maclovio Pulchris' private zoo, after a planet-wide spasm of extinctions underwater and on land that puts humanity on track for The Road. New Zealand is a desert, Africa is unlovable hot, California fluctuates between flood and instant evaporation, and almost the only surviving live protein sources are genetically modified because nothing else can survive in such a changed world. And then things get even worse, suddenly, for Tierwater and for everyone else. The book asks where Tierwater's life might go when what everyone has taken to be the apocalypse, which came in spite of years of his struggling against it, turns out to have been only a prelude.

Anyone reading George Monbiot will find here the shock of recognition, the comfortable familiarity of shared despair, but this is a world beyond collective hope. The novel ends with something approaching the bucolic, or what passes for the bucolic in a shredded world, but it seems to take atomization and what amounts to the end of culture for this small hope to present itself. In the end of the world comes a chance for a new world, in short, but a new world without continuity, without community, without children.

A light and frothy summer read it's not, and yet when you're reading the enviro news, this might be your best option.

Yay, humans.


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