The Way We Live Now
The After-Normal: Brief Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet
By David Carlin and Nicole Walker
Rose Metal Press, 2019
reviewed by Seana Graham
In this latest Rose Metal Press offering, two friends who are writers—or writers who are friends–and live in opposite parts of the world decided to write a book together. Nicole Walker, who lives in Arizona, was visiting David Carlin in Australia, and as they walked along the beach, they discussed how to write a book about being people of our present moment who both think about and experience climate change. The result was this book of flash essays about subjects of their own choosing—the only requirement being that they start with A and end with Z.
In the preface they talk about the strange situation we find ourselves in, in which we know that something dire is happening, yet still go about our lives, contributing to the problem—feeling guilty, feeling depressed and yet not sure what as individuals to do about it. Walker and Carlin decided to take their cue from a book by scholar Donna Haraway called Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Haraway says:
…staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.
So that is what the authors do. In the preface they write:
We wanted to write a book that moved beyond useless despair, feel-good guilt, or callous denial. Toward noticing, and witnessing, toward recognizing the need for us—the two of us, and all of us—to respond, with care and love and justice. With grief, where it is needed, and wonder where we find it.
The authors wrote their own essay for each letter, not consulting with each other until after they were done with each one. It was a great format for me, as I was traveling while I read most of it and found it easy to read in small doses. The only real difficulty I have is giving a sense of the scope of the larger project. I was fascinated, for instance, by the chapter called Plasmodia, which is about slime mold, a being that breaks through all our usual classifications of plants and animals, and leaves us to ponder whether we really have the slightest idea what we’re talking about when we talk about intelligence. But I was equally interested when I came across a small aside on the fact that ice cubes take a lot of energy to produce, and whether the future might hold a lot more food served at room temperature.
It was also timely to be reading this book as I crossed the Midwest with my sister, where we encountered some tornadoes (or really, did our best not to encounter them), lightning storms and dangerously rising rivers. These may or may not have been just seasonal, but the Polar Vortex that my relatives had just experienced in the very recent long winter wasn’t. And in southern Illinois my cousin and his wife had only just planted their garden—six weeks late—and were skeptical that the growing season would now be long enough to bring in a good harvest.
In any case, it is quite likely that the influence of The After-Normal made me just that little bit more aware of what I was noticing and witnessing on our journey. I’d be willing to venture that you will find yourself noticing new things and making new connections as you read too.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She also reviews for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California. Santa Cruz Noir, a recent title from Akashic Press, features a story of hers about the city in which she currently resides.