SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
The hum you hear in the background is a propane generator giving me just enough juice to charge a laptop and brew some coffee–day four in life without power in post-ice storm New England; telephone and power poles, power lines, and every other tree, all epically askew, if not exploded altogether. All creepy-pretty, for the first 72 hours, when everything was packed in light-refracting ice. But now the temperature is up and the ice has melted and gone thudding to the ground. Enter the days of mud.
Naturally one’s thoughts turn to fiction, particularly those fictions that put disasters at their center. I do not mean, of course, disaster porn like The Towering Inferno or Titanic. Rather, stories that borrow the power of actuality and loan it to fiction. The external disaster–the flood, the fire, the tsunami, the ice storm–artfully employed, can intensify and clarify a character or characters’ inner misadventures.
Of course, the fiction writer temped to make such a loan puts himself at risk: it’s very easy to overextend the enterprise, to push it or be pushed by it. Imagine a short story called, say, “Powerless”. Would I even need to sketch the plot? Probably not. And yet the temptation to have the outer mirror the inner is old, and its rewards are rich. The Greeks were good at maintaining a balance, keeping the usefully clear from becoming the terribly obvious. Frogs, clouds, plagues: Nature in its varied forms arrived punctually and dramatically to inform the human state of things, to allow the literal to resonate unto the metaphorical.
Such a balance is, I’m sure, a challenge to maintain. Too easily, the weight of the natural can overwhelm the actual, can make fiction merely metaphoric, starved of literality. Less riskily, moments in nature can be used to inform moments in fiction. From Eudora Welty’s story “The Wide Net:”
Then the light changed the water until all about them the woods in the rising wind seemed to grow taller and blow inward together and suddenly turn dark. The rain struck heavily. A huge tail seemed to lash through the air and the river broke in a wound of silver. In silence the party crouched and stooped beside the trunk of the great tree, which in the push of the storm rose full of a fragrance and unyielding weight. Where they all stared, past their tree, was another tree, and beyond that another and another, all the way down the bank of the river, all towering and darkened in the storm.
More from Wyatt Mason:
On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.
In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A tourism company in Australia announced a service that will allow users to take the “world’s biggest selfies,” and a Texas man accidentally killed himself while trying to pose for a selfie with a handgun.
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”