NOVEMBER 22, 2021
THE PUBLICATION OF Harrow, Joy Williams’s first novel in 20 years, is a literary event. Her work glows with cruelty and humor; her sentences showcase the dread at the foundation of our lives. Not much happens in a Williams novel, but that doesn’t matter when you feel the trembling that her characters go through on every page.
Harrow begins with the main character, Lamb, being watched over by a babysitter while her parents are at a party. She dies and comes back to life when her parents come home. Post-rebirth, Lamb goes by Khristen. Her mom sends Khristen to a boarding school out west, where school ends with an ecological apocalypse, the eponymous “harrow.” Khristen plods across the blighted landscape a young adult filled with ennui. Both the end and its aftermath are boring! Khristen meets a 10-year-old named Jeffrey, obsessed with the law, and a group of ecoterrorists who prattle on while she regards them with nonchalance. Harrow has all the markings of millennial literary fiction, novels that — as writer Jess Bergman notes — tend to “replicate the sensations of apathy and tedium they seek to describe.” The apocalypse is not so much an end as it is a purgatory — a world emptied of options that curiously resembles the world younger generations have inherited, where the only way out is through but the path is a slog. Khristen’s rebirth, in this world where the Lamb of God and the Second Coming hold little meaning, is barely credible. In the end, she simply descends to the next stage, and we are left wondering what we have just learned. Harrow, like purgatory, is a place that leaves you wanting more.
Harrow reads like a young person’s novel because it is concerned with the question of what, if anything, comes next. It was nature that used to allow Williams’s characters to see beyond the barren human landscape they inhabited. Now nature is gone, replaced with Twitter posts filled with impotent rage. On her way to boarding school, Khristen sits next to a fellow classmate, Brittany, and her mother, watching them fight. Suddenly, the mom “wordlessly pointed out the Rio Grande. Her mother said, ‘I heard it was much diminished.’ ‘What have you left us?’ Brittany demanded. ‘You haven’t left us anything!’” Later, among the ecoterrorists, Khristen hears one of the leaders declare, “The old dear stories of possibility. No one wanted them anymore, but nothing had replaced them.” Khristen feels nothing because “[i]t’s too late to be afraid.” Like any good author of millennial literary fiction, Williams has written a Joan Didion passage. Living through the end is whatever and asking what’s the point is a very boring question. Khristen wants out, but along with all the people she meets, she seems to get nowhere.
The move from adolescence to adulthood has become a doldrums, but Williams still wants to write about the slow progress forward. The first chapter begins with Khristen’s mom asking the babysitter, who is Catholic, to explain why even people of faith still have to go to purgatory. The boy explains that the place no longer exists: “They abolished it, but that doesn’t mean we’re relieved of the necessity of going there.” In purgatory, you make up for the sins you committed in order to get into heaven. In the harrow, Disney World still exists, more popular than ever, and most people seem happy being stuck where they are. The millennial tone takes on a theological dimension: we want to know as young people what can be done to save ourselves and the world.
Williams’s point is an old one: we have destroyed the natural world and have thus become unmoored and lost all meaning. This may, in fact, be the only point. Khristen learns this lesson from the ecoterrorists, who are also terminally ill; their goal is to have deaths that matter by taking out those responsible for the devastation. One member of this group, James, once planned to kidnap a scientist named Frick who experimented on animals. He now tries to psychically manifest Frick’s death, spending years in a motel room praying for the event and making vision boards of the abused creatures. Khristen tells James that Frick has died an old man surrounded by his loved ones and venerated by his community, but the information does not deter him — because, he claims, “deliberately poisoned and maimed animals are one with the tortured savior. Both suffer so man can ultimately be saved. And it never ends. But no matter! The tomb is never empty. The tomb is forever full. Immanence is everywhere.” The problem with a wish is that it is for naught until it is fulfilled. Acts are better than prayer, but prayer is better than nothing.
In Williams’s novel, everything has “a last station feel,” actions have no consequences, and the harrow reigns over all. We meet the rest of the ecoterrorists during an endless debrief, as they assert that there’s “[n]o need to bother with manifestos anymore. There’s no interest in tolerating arguments for paradigm shifts.” Everything has gotten worse: “All conservation attempts are considered reactionary. Any suggestion to repair or renew our relationship with nature is perceived as an attempt to exploit a crisis.” Compared to these sad sacks, James’s monkish behavior is admirable. In a profile published in The New York Times Magazine in 2015, Williams lamented the general apathy about the imminent death of the planet: “Why be polite about this? […] Why be reasonable? […] Nothing is going to change until they kill every last wild animal on this planet.” Harrow is working out what should be done in the meantime, and the answers are confusingly bleak. Williams’s sermon cannot make up its mind. She excoriates us for not doing more, but she also understands that there is nothing that can be done to save us. And this is how Williams leaves us, with this painful paradox. As a congregant, you wish the minister was rather less conflicted.
Joy Williams’s Harrow leaves us with confusion, and a conviction that at least we should recognize our boredom in this purgatory. But how do we get out of this in-between space where everything needs to change but nothing will? It is unfair to demand that Harrow answer that question, but it does set it up. In the last analysis, the book is a guide for younger readers on how to find meaning before death. As one of the characters says, “I have absolutely no horror of dying. One can only have a horror of dying in a world that has invited one to live.” What most terrifies Williams is a world where death is just as boring as life. Khristen’s purpose, as a savior figure, is to remind us that we should try and make the world more livable so that we are terrified on our way out the door.