This month in book reviews: What The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have to do with climate change. A sequel to Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus. An author and character, one and the same. A champion of metamorphosis. A nail-biting, sobering, armchair adventure. Read more below and check out the rest of our book reviews.
CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE HEALTH OF NATIONS
By Anthony McMichael
This is a book to inspire thoughts of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—famine, plague, war and death—and how we rarely stop to realize that they ride on the winds of environmental change. It rains too little or too much, it’s too hot or it’s too cold, and customary ways of life can no longer be sustained. If it keeps up long enough, the situation isn’t just a bout of bad weather, it’s climate change. We and our ancestral species have been through it before—indeed, a changing climate has been the prime driver in human evolution ever since we came down from the trees over two million years ago in response to a cooler and dryer Africa. As climate-change skeptics like to point out, humans have been here before, even in terms of the rapidity of change: some 5,500 years ago, when the African monsoons started falling short of the Sahara—then a lake-dotted and human-filled oasis—it took only decades for the desert to arise.
But climate change has never been at the current planetary scale, involving so many people whose lives are dependent on fragile global supply lines, retorts author McMichael. The eminent Australian epidemiologist, who died in 2014 (the book was completed by his colleagues), sweeps through past history as a cautionary tale for those who think we will weather—with some discomfort, of course—what is on the near horizon. The more complex a society, the more it is predicated on environmental stability, McMichael argues, and the more at risk when experiencing rapid-fire change.
The four horsemen ride right through history’s records of climate-related upheavals that have precipitated starvation, disease, war and social collapse. The famous Medieval Warm Period, a three-century stretch of excellent agricultural conditions, underpinned European medieval civilization while wreaking harm elsewhere. When it ended in a period of equally bad conditions in the 14th century, Europe’s malnourished population was wide open to the Black Death, delivered to it by an explosion in Central Asia’s rodent population—sparked by the same climate developments. In 1998, McMichael soberly notes, Malaysia saw the world’s first documented cases of the deadly Nipah virus, picked up from pigs, which had acquired it from bats put on the move by extreme heat and habitat destruction.
McMichael is not a climate determinist: “human ingenuity and imagination may flourish as never before,” he writes, in—take your pick—hope or desperation. But reasoning our way out requires acceptance. Those who scoff at climatologists’ predictions should take a look at historians’ accounts.
THE SCHOOLDAYS OF JESUS
By J.M. Coetzee
In 2013, J.M. Coetzee produced a strange, spare novel, The Childhood of Jesus, about a philosophy-spouting stevedore called Simón who has come to live in an unnamed, Spanish-speaking socialist country. Simón has assumed the care of a parentless young boy, Davíd, whom he met on a ship during his migration. Later, he randomly determines the boy’s mother to be a woman, Inés, who takes on her imposed maternal role with overbearing gusto. When local authorities deem the school-resistant, Don Quixote-obsessed Davíd intractable and insist he be sent away for treatment, Simón and Inés decide to flee with him to another town.
Even by the standards of Nobel laureate Coetzee’s enigmatic oeuvre, the novel had a confounding effect on critics and readers, sometimes to the point of hostility. So Coetzee, never a slave to public opinion, has naturally produced a sequel.
The Schooldays of Jesus begins with Coetzee’s fugitive quasi-family’s arrival in the town of Estrella. As with the novel’s predecessor, time and place are so ascetically devoid of detail here that the casual mention of pizza, dry cleaners or walkie-talkies feels almost perverse. Simón and Inés find work on a farm whose owner notes Davíd’s exceptionality and suggests he attend the Academy of Dance, an establishment whose headmistress—the beautiful but cold-as-marble Ana Magdalena—espouses a vague, flaky philosophy that uses dance to express aspects of astronomy and numerology. Though often intransigent, Davíd takes to the method immediately and becomes the school’s star pupil, his “education” coming to an unexpected halt when Dmitri, a guard at the local museum obsessed with Ana Magdalena, commits an act of violence against her.
Those unhappy with Coetzee’s latest turn seem to resent his refusal to write relatable characters or a recognizable, consistent worldview. The Jesus novels provoke endless questions—though their titles imply allegory, they strenuously, and intriguingly, resist easy equivalences. Davíd, the putative (or not) Son of God, is headstrong, petulant and vain: his interest is in those who, in his words, “recognize” him. Not being one of the latter, Simón elicits only Davíd’s contempt when he earnestly tries to rationalize Ana Magdalena’s teachings (a response familiar to anyone who’s tried to do the same with the adherents of various major religions).
And yet its subversion of fictional forms, its fearless soliciting of the obscure through plain language, is exactly what makes The Schooldays of Jesus so thrillingly, mysteriously powerful.
By Rachel Cusk
It’s often folly to assume author and character to be one and the same. With Rachel Cusk, however, it is inevitable, perhaps even more pleasureable, to read the person on the page as an immediate stand-in. Few writers are so careful and arduous in their search for self.
Transit, the Canadian-born, U.K.-based author’s follow-up to her Giller- and Governor General’s Award-shortlisted Outline, features the same narrator, Faye: writer, mother of two, inert as a result of her broken marriage. The split has rendered her passive, almost ephemeral. She is referred to only once by name. She receives scant physical description. We learn her hair is going gray. She often keeps her coat on and when she does remove it, she is told her clothing is too dark. She is central yet hidden, a character of such unreality that she describes herself as being outside her own life. This is, of course, a very writerly thing to say.
Despite such a conscious absence, both Cusk and her character are remarkably present. There is nominal action in the book—Faye and her children move back from the country to London, she buys a house in dire need of repair, she meets up with friends—but she comes alive only through the conversations with people she encounters. Cusk is clearly speaking through all these voices, a Greek chorus of contractors, divorcees, writing students. She bumps into an ex-lover, now married, who has kept the same apartment they once shared, and he notes how strange it is “that you always changed everything and I changed nothing and yet we’ve both ended up in the same place.” The man who dyes her hair tells Faye “to stay free you have to reject change.” Another writer says that he “often caught himself living in the mistaken belief that transformation was the same thing as progress.”
Freedom and denial, responsibility and change. Cusk is not always subtle when it comes to dialogue. Her true skill lies with form. She carves out Faye from her relation to others, a bas-relief approach to character. She even comes into focus beside the inanimate. Her beat-up house has to be rewired, replastered. A new floor needs to be put down. Her realtor notes that creative types usually choose to buy property in up-and-coming neighbourhoods, where homes have more light and space and possibility. Faye’s choice to settle in an established spot seems doomed to fail and the closer she comes to realizing this, the more she is nudged toward her own renewal, the limits and hopes of her gentrified self.
LIGHT COME SHINING: THE TRANSFORMATIONS OF BOB DYLAN
By Andrew McCarron
When Bob Dylan was awarded 2016’s Nobel Prize in Literature, an honour he claimed left him “speechless” (though he sent Patti Smith to Stockholm in his stead), it was intended to salute his entire body of work, now spanning six decades. So, in fact, the Nobel judges were paying homage to several Dylans. Diehard fans have long appreciated and, indeed, deified, Dylan’s ability to constantly reinvent himself—musically, spiritually and philosophically. As pop culture maven David Hajdu notes in Love for Sale, his sterling recent history of of American music, “Bob Dylan would take so many turns as an artist that his changeability would become the greatest trope of the public myth he nurtured as conscientiously as he tended his music.” While plenty of A-list performers, stretching from Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles to David Bowie and Madonna, have proven masters of metamorphosis, Dylan seems the champion.
Many chroniclers have examined Dylan’s chameleonic nature, but writer and educator Andrew McCarron is the first to devote and entire volume to it. In what he calls a “psychological biography,” he cites Dylan as a “prince of protean self-reinvention and deflection,” adding that “his musical identities have channelled…a dustbowl Okie, a Beat poet, a Nashville cat, a Civil War general, a born-again evangelist, a Delta bluesman” (not to mention a Sinatra-styled crooner). Further, “Dylan’s personal stories of transformation are redemptive in form and theme,” shaping a “narrative of exile and return.”
To prove his point, he focuses on three transformation loci, each separated by a decade: the aftermath of Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle accident; his religious conversion in 1978; and his mid-’80s recommitment, after a lengthy fallow period when he’d deemed himself “whitewashed and wasted-out professionally,” to song-writing and performing. McCarron demonstrates how, at each of these key transit points, Dylan’s subsequent musical output supported an entirely fresh persona, and cites a specific song—respectively “I Shall Be Released,” “In the Garden” (a retelling of Jesus’ arrest at Gethsemane, written, said Dylan, “about my hero”) and, echoing his rediscovery of seminal American musicians like Bill Monroe, Charlie Christian, Muddy Waters and the Carter Family, “Where Teardrops Fall.”
It’s a tidy package, brief but meticulously researched and well-argued. Yet, in the end, McCarron cedes Dylan his inscrutability. “The point,” he concludes, “isn’t to figure him out but to take him in.” In other words, don’t think twice, it’s all right.
THE LOST CITY OF THE MONKEY GOD
By Douglas Preston
Completely nail-biting and a sobering history lesson, too, The Lost City of the Monkey God also makes an ironclad case for remaining an armchair adventurer. Not only do fers-de-lance (vipers with poisonous fangs capable of piercing leather boots) regularly drop from trees in the middle of the “feral perfection” of La Mosquitia, the easternmost part of Honduras, but there’s a seething menagerie of dangers—crashing boars, predatory cats, “quickmud” potholes, overwhelming weather and swarms of malarial insects. What’s more, as prolific American author Douglas Preston discovers, there’s leishmaniasis. Spread by sandflies (which are teeming), that potentially fatal parasite can cause disfiguring skin ulcers. In fact, what registers from a distance as a “primeval Eden” contains all manner of harm up close. On top of everything else, the jungle-choked T1 region, code name among those seeking the legendary but lost Ciudad Blanca (a.k.a. City of the Monkey God), happens to be a haven for trigger-happy narcotraffickers.
In relating the tale of tagging along (as a journalist) with a motley crew of scientists and enthused amateurs—including a local “fixer” who assures smooth operations by bribing Honduran officials and black-market operatives—Preston, who’s never not an assured storyteller, describes the long history of adventurers and con artists searching for gold or treasure in this alleged trove. All of the expeditions, he comments, “ended in fraud or failure.” With 21st-century technology, though, the search resumed. Despite unco-operative nature and a handful of very human obstacles (ranging from squabbling academics to multifaceted corruption), the group managed to find, explore, document and establish protection for a place that had disappeared from history centuries earlier. Renamed City of the Jaguar after a sculpture of a were-jaguar (a supernatural creature) found at the site, the former habitat will be excavated for years.
As for what happened to the virtually unknown people who built Ciudad Blanca, well, over a few harrowing Preston chapters lays out the probable answer: Spanish ships filled with their own swarms of microbes for which the Blancans had no natural immunity. An “inferno of contagion” with an estimated mortality rate of 90 per cent does not, Preston observes, “just kill people; it annihilates societies; it destroys languages, religions, histories, and cultures.” With that extinction in mind, he closes an otherwise rousing account on a fatalistic note: “No civilization has survived forever. All move toward dissolution … None, including ours, is exempt from the universal fate.”
—Brett Josef Grubisic