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“We live and spawn and want — always there is this ghastly wanting — and we have done irredeemable harm to so much.” In a 2014 Paris Review interview, Joy Williams talked about the novel she still wanted to write. It had been well over a decade since her fourth, The Quick and the Dead, a Pulitzer runner-up, was released. She hoped her next novel would “frame and reflect our misuse of the world, our destruction of its beauties and wonders.” Harrow, which just won the Kirkus Prize for fiction, has more than realized that hope. The judges called it an “unapologetic rebuke to the aspirations of the boomer generation, all the more lacerating for its mordant wit and avoidance of dewy-eyed uplift.” An only child, Williams was raised in Maine by a Congregational minister and his wife and claims her only other job besides writing—there are five highly regarded collections of short stories and two books of essays in addition to her novels — was researching shark attacks for the Navy, which might explain a few things.
Set in the not too distant future, Harrow takes place after an unspecified environmental apocalypse has ravaged the world. As a baby, Khristen may have died and come back to life, something her mother very much wants to believe. She hounds Kristen to reveal whatever “ruthless and troubling mysteries” she witnessed while dead, but Khristen can’t recall any. When her boarding school shuts down and no one comes to retrieve her, she sets off toward the last place she thinks her mother may have gone on one of her spiritual quests. With the exception of Jeffrey, a law-obsessed ten-year-old, almost everyone she meets along the way lacks conviction, or, if full of passionate intensity, is unable to do anything with it. Take for instance the dispirited pilgrim wheeling a large black Styrofoam cross through the mostly barren landscape. He tells Khristen that people have lately been informing him that the Lord’s work is done. “I even got beat up,” he adds. “Got some of my teeth knocked out.”
Khristen eventually finds the resort that her mother visited but discovers, instead of a the sort of complex that might host a “visionary conference,” a rundown rat-infested hotel/motel beside a lake so polluted “a crow could not be made blacker than her sick waters.” (Water in Harrow is never clean. It’s “flabby” or “leaving nasty bubbles” on the ground or clinging to things “grayly like sticky-bodied caterpillars.”) Mom is nowhere to be found. Instead, Khristen is taken under the wing of Lola, the proprietress, and introduced to the other residents, elderly revolutionaries too diseased or decrepit to actually revolt. As younger idealists they had planned to murder various captains of industry and commerce – those whose ghastly wanting ruined the world – but somehow they never got around to it. Only one of them, Gordon, has sallied forth and returned to tell the tale. “All that is nonhuman is considered detrimental to the future,” he reports. “Rules are considered too onerous in this time of stress. People have to blow off steam. Arson has become popular again.” He might be describing a Trump rally or California, where so far this year 103 people have been arrested for arson, a figure that probably doesn’t include prospective parents at all the gender-reveal parties gone horribly awry.
Womb banks. Wind turbines whose blades are plastered with ads that can only be read when there is no wind. “Young blood” transfusions for the wealthy. Cadaver wafers. I finally began looking these things up to see if they had any basis in reality. Turns out they do. Turns out Thomas Edison really did test out electricity on a hapless elephant, thereby paving the way for the use of electric chairs. Williams doubtless kept a file of weird news items that she dropped into Harrow like seeds to grow our awareness of how badly we’ve fucked up. Lola’s gang hasn’t given up on their mission to restore some justice to the world, but time’s running out and their plans are clearly too wacko to work. Gordon wants to assign Khristen the job of killing all the poets. “But they don’t congregate as a rule,” someone points out. The plan devolves from there. Another resident, Honey, wants to destroy Phoenix, a city full of “stolen water” and “a vast and smug population.” Cheered on by a friend, Honey proclaims, “They’re going to think it was an act of God but it’s going to be an act of Honey.” Will these old folks actually go forth sword in hand before the hand has withered? Or will their talk turn out to be the kind of “blah blah blah” that Greta Thunberg accused our leaders of at COP26?
Boats and boaters appear throughout Harrow, but it isn’t until the final section of the novel that we see Williams has been weaving elements of Kafka’s “Gracchus the Hunter” into the plot from the start. In Kafka’s story, Gracchus dies while hunting a stag, but the boat ferrying him to the land of the dead accidentally sails off course, dooming him to forever roam the world, neither wholly dead nor fully alive. That the names Gracchus and Kafka both mean “raven” adds an intriguing layer to the end of the book when Khristen encounters young Jeffrey again. This time he’s wearing the flapping black robes of a judge.
The term “world-building” gets a lot of play these days. Dystopic fictional worlds are popular for obvious reasons. Their creators show us the way we have made things wrong. Occasionally they also let us glimpse redemption, give us some sign that all is not completely lost. The harrow, a symbol adorning public buildings, squalid shacks, and much else in the ruined world of this book—“goddamn harrow was everywhere”—is not such a sign. What’s redemptive is how brilliantly Williams has built a world both darkly comic and scarily recognizable. It is a harrowing place.
By Joy Williams
Knopf, 224 pages
Beth Spencer founded Bear Star Press (1997-2019) and is the author of The Cloud Museum, a book of poems from Sixteen Rivers Press. Other work has appeared in Winning Writers, Split This Rock, Best Microfiction 2020, Tin House, The Guardian, Litro, and elsewhere. She splits her time between Cohasset and Noyo, California, with her husband and dog.