- Published: 6 August 2021
- ISBN: 9781529109870
- Imprint: Ebury Press
- Format: Hardback
- Pages: 304
- RRP: $48.00
The Anthropocene Reviewed
The Instant Sunday Times Bestseller
MY NOVEL TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN was published in October of 2017, and after spending that month on tour for the book, I came home to Indianapolis and blazed a trail between my children’s tree house and the little room where my wife and I often work, a room that depending on your worldview is either an office or a shed.
This was not a metaphorical trail. It was an actual trail in the woods, and to make it I cleared dozens of the prolific and invasive honeysuckle trees that choke much of Central Indiana, and I dug up the English ivy that had taken over, and then I covered the path in wood chips and lined it with bricks. I worked on the path ten or twelve hours a day, five or six days a week, for a month. When I finally finished, I timed myself walking along the path from our office to the tree house. Fifty-eight seconds. It took me a month to build a fifty-eight-second walk in the woods.
A week after finishing the path, I was searching through a drawer for some ChapStick when all at once and without any warning, my balance failed. The world began to roll and spin. I was suddenly a very small boat in very high seas. My eyes shivered in their sockets, and I began vomiting. I was rushed to the hospital, and for weeks afterward, the world spun and spun. Eventually I was diagnosed with labyrinthitis, a disease of the inner ear with a wonderfully resonant name that is nonetheless an unambiguously one-star experience.
Recovery from labyrinthitis meant weeks in bed, unable to read or watch TV or play with my kids. I had only my thoughts—at times drifting through a drowsy sky, at other times panicking me with their insistence and omnipresence. During these long, still days, my mind travelled all over, roaming through the past.
The writer Allegra Goodman was once asked, “Whom would you like to write your life story?” She answered, “I seem to be writing it myself, but since I’m a novelist, it’s all in code.” For me, it had started to feel like some people thought they knew the code. They would assume I shared the worldviews of a book’s protagonists, or they’d ask me questions as if I were the protagonist. One famous interviewer asked me if I also, like the narrator of Turtles All the Way Down, experience panic attacks while kissing.
I had invited such questions by having a public life as a mentally ill person, but still, talking so much about myself in the context of fiction became exhausting for me, and a little destabilizing. I told the interviewer that no, I do not have anxiety around kissing, but I do experience panic attacks, and they are intensely frightening. As I talked, I felt distant from myself—like my self wasn’t really mine, but instead something I was selling or at the very least renting out in exchange for good press.
As I recovered from labyrinthitis, I realized I didn’t want to write in code anymore.
In 2000, I worked for a few months as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital. I was enrolled in divinity school and planning to become an Episcopal minister, but my time at the hospital disavowed me of those plans. I couldn’t handle the devastation I saw there. I still can’t handle it. Instead of going to divinity school, I moved to Chicago and worked as a typist for temp agencies until eventually landing a job doing data entry for Booklist magazine, a biweekly book review journal.
A few months later, I got my first chance to review a book after an editor asked me if I liked romance novels. I told her I loved them, and she gave me a novel set in seventeenth-century London. Over the next five years, I reviewed hundreds of books for Booklist—from picture books about the Buddha to poetry collections—and in the process, I became fascinated by the format of the review. Booklist reviews were limited to 175 words, which meant each sentence must work multiple jobs. Every review had to introduce a book while also analyzing it. Your compliments needed to live right alongside your concerns.
At Booklist, reviews do not include ratings on a five-star scale. Why would they? In 175 words, one can communicate far more to potential readers than any single data point ever could. The five-star scale has only been used in critical analysis for the past few decades. While it was occasionally applied to film criticism as early as the 1950s, the five-star scale wasn’t used to rate hotels until 1979, and it wasn’t widely used to rate books until Amazon introduced user reviews.
The five-star scale doesn’t really exist for humans; it exists for data aggregation systems, which is why it did not become standard until the internet era. Making conclusions about a book’s quality from a 175-word review is hard work for artificial intelligences, whereas star ratings are ideal for them.
It’s tempting to make labyrinthitis a metaphor: My life lacked balance and so I was devastated by a balance disorder. I spent a month drawing a straight line of a trail only to be told that life is never simple paths—only dizzying labyrinths folding in on themselves. Even now I’m structuring this introduction like a maze, coming back to places I thought I’d left.
But this symbolization of disease is exactly what I’ve tried to write against in my novels Turtles All the Way Down and The Fault in Our Stars, where I hope at least OCD and cancer are portrayed not as battles to be won or as symbolic manifestations of character flaws or whatever, but as illnesses to be lived with as well as one can. I did not get labyrinthitis because the universe wanted to teach me a lesson about balance. So I tried to live with it as well as I could. Within six weeks, I was mostly better, but I still experience bouts of vertigo, and they are terrifying. I know now with a viscerality I didn’t before that consciousness is temporary and precarious. It’s not a metaphor to say that human life is a balancing act.
As I got better, I wondered what I would do with the rest of my life. I went back to making a video every Tuesday and a weekly podcast with my brother, but I wasn’t writing. That fall and winter was the longest I’d gone without trying to write for an audience since I was fourteen years old. I suppose I missed writing, but in the way you miss someone you used to love.
I left Booklist and Chicago in 2005, because my wife, Sarah, got into graduate school in New York. When she finished her degree, we moved to Indianapolis, where Sarah worked for the Indianapolis Museum of Art as a curator of contemporary art. We have lived here ever since.
I read so much at Booklist that I can’t remember when I first came across the word Anthropocene, but it must have been around 2002. The Anthropocene is a proposed term for the current geologic age, in which humans have profoundly reshaped the planet and its biodiversity. Nothing is more human than aggrandizing humans, but we are a hugely powerful force on Earth in the twenty-first century.
My brother, Hank, who started out his professional life as a biochemist, once explained it to me like this: As a person, he told me, your biggest problem is other people. You are vulnerable to people, and reliant upon them. But imagine instead that you are a twenty-first-century river, or desert, or polar bear. Your biggest problem is still people. You are still vulnerable to them, and reliant upon them.
Hank had been with me on the book tour that fall of 2017, and to pass the time on long drives between cities, we’d try to one-up each other with absurd Google user reviews for the places we drove past. A user named Lucas, for example, gave Badlands National Park one star. “Not enough mountain,” he reported.
In the years since I’d been a book reviewer, everyone had become a reviewer, and everything had become a subject for reviews. The five-star scale was applied not just to books and films but to public restrooms and wedding photographers. The medication I take to treat my obsessive-compulsive
disorder has more than 1,100 ratings at Drugs.com, with an average score of 3.8. A scene in the movie adaptation of my book The Fault in Our Stars was filmed on a bench in Amsterdam; that bench now has hundreds of Google reviews. (My favorite, a three-star review, reads in its entirety: “It is a bench.”)
As Hank and I marveled at the sudden everywhereness of reviewing on a five-star scale, I told him that years earlier, I’d had an idea to write a review of Canada geese.
Hank said, “The Anthropocene . . . REVIEWED.”
I’d actually written a few of the reviews back in 2014—the one about Canada geese, and also one on Diet Dr Pepper. In early 2018, I sent those reviews to Sarah and asked for her thoughts.
When I reviewed books, “I” was never in the review. I imagined myself as a disinterested observer writing from outside. My early reviews of Diet Dr Pepper and Canada geese were similarly written in the nonfictional version of third-person omniscient narration. After Sarah read them, she pointed out that in the Anthropocene, there are no disinterested observers; there are only participants. She explained that when people write reviews, they are really writing a kind of memoir—here’s what my experience was eating at this restaurant or getting my hair cut at this barbershop. I’d written 1,500 words about Diet Dr Pepper without once mentioning my abiding and deeply personal love of Diet Dr Pepper.
Around the same time, as I began to regain my sense of balance, I reread the work of my friend and mentor Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who’d died a few months earlier. She’d once written, “For anyone trying to discern what to do w/ their life: PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU PAY ATTENTION TO. That’s pretty much all the info u need.” My attention had become so fractured, and my world had become so loud, that I wasn’t paying attention to what I was paying attention to. But when I put myself into the reviews as Sarah suggested, I felt like for the first time in years, I was at least trying to pay attention to what I pay attention to.
This book started out as a podcast, where I tried to chart some of the contradictions of human life as I experience it—how we can be so compassionate and so cruel, so persistent and so quick to despair. Above all, I wanted to understand the contradiction of human power: We are at once far too powerful and not nearly powerful enough. We are powerful enough to radically reshape Earth’s climate and biodiversity, but not powerful enough to choose how we reshape them. We are so powerful that we have escaped our planet’s atmosphere. But we are not powerful enough to save those we love from suffering.
I also wanted to write about some of the places where my small life runs into the large forces of the Anthropocene. In early 2020, after two years of writing the podcast, an exceptionally large force appeared in the form of a novel coronavirus. I began then to write about the only thing I could write about. Amid the crisis—and writing to you from April of 2021, I am still amid it—I find much to fear and lament. But I also see humans working together to share and distribute what we collectively learn, and I see people working together to care for the sick and vulnerable. Even separated, we are bound up in each other. As Sarah told me, there are no observers; only participants.
At the end of his life, the great picture book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak said on the NPR show Fresh Air, “I cry a lot because I miss people. I cry a lot because they die, and I can’t stop them. They leave me, and I love them more.”
He said, “I’m finding out as I’m aging that I’m in love with the world.”
It has taken me all my life up to now to fall in love with the world, but I’ve started to feel it the last couple of years. To fall in love with the world isn’t to ignore or overlook suffering, both human and otherwise. For me anyway, to fall in love with the world is to look up at the night sky and feel your mind swim before the beauty and the distance of the stars. It is to hold your children while they cry, to watch as the sycamore trees leaf out in June. When my breastbone starts to hurt, and my throat tightens, and tears well in my eyes, I want to look away from feeling. I want to deflect with irony, or anything else that will keep me from feeling directly. We all know how loving ends. But I want to fall in love with the world anyway, to let it crack me open. I want to feel what there is to feel while I am here.
Sendak ended that interview with the last words he ever said in public: “Live your life. Live your life. Live your life.”
Here is my attempt to do so.
At the time I first realized I might be fictional, my weekdays were spent at a publicly funded institution on the north side of Indianapolis.
On the beach one day, as I was sliding my board back onto the tray of the ute and trying to clear my sinuses of salty water, an old neighbour who was passing by with his dog told me he didn’t know...
I began my rural journey as a knotty-haired tomboy playing in the singing creeks of southern Tasmania with frogs, tadpoles, skinks, mud and rocks.
Before there were books, there were stories. at first the stories weren’t written down.
I am in the spare room, which doubles as my office, and I have just finished my day’s work.