Jurong Island, a man-made smear of sand, lies just off the southern coast of Singapore. A quarter the size of Nantucket, it is thoroughly given over to the petrochemical industry, so crowded with spindly cracking towers and squat oil-storage tanks that the landscape is a blur of brand names — BASF, AkzoNobel, Exxon Mobil, Vopak. One of the island’s most distinctive features, though, remains hidden: the Jurong Rock Caverns, which hold 126 million gallons of crude oil. To get there, you ride an industrial elevator more than 325 feet into the earth, and that brings you to the operations tunnel, a curving space as lofty as a cathedral. It is so long that workers get around on bicycles. Safety goggles mist up with the heat and the humidity; the rock walls, wet from dripping water, look so soft they might have been scooped out of chocolate ice cream. This is as far as anyone — even the workers — can go. The caverns themselves are an additional 100 feet beneath the ocean: two sealed cylindrical vaults, extending away from Jurong. They opened for business in 2014. Next year, three new vaults will be ready. Then, if all goes according to plan, there will be six more.
As a concept, underground reservoirs are not new. Sweden has been building them since the 1950s; a pair in the port of Gothenburg has a titanic capacity of 370 million gallons of oil. So the Jurong Rock Caverns are less an emblem of the marvels of technology than of the anxiety of a nation. Singapore is the 192nd-largest country in the world. Tinier than Tonga and just three-fifths the area of New York City, it has long fretted about its congenital puniness. “Bigger countries have the luxury of not having to think about this,” said David Tan, the assistant chief executive of a government agency called the Jurong Town Corporation, which built Jurong Island as well as the caverns. “We’ve always been acutely aware of our small size.”
But as 2014, 2015, and 2016 ticked by, Evans faced a different reality. He could barely get his plants to glow at all. Taxa Biotechnologies was running out of money. A cofounder quit. What had seemed scientifically straightforward had turned into a lonely, multi-year slog.
So he changed tack, setting aside the glowing plants and throwing his energies behind scented moss instead. By mid-2016, the company had grown patchouli moss that Evans considered ready for consumers. At last he could start planning for a product launch, and he picked the week of March 27, 2017. Evans had summoned me to his lab to help him tell his redemption story. He’d show the world just how amazing bioengineering could be.
Except…he didn’t. Instead, he ended up killing off the four-year-old dream that he’d shared and nurtured with his thousands of supporters.
Unlike Harry in When Harry Met Sally, I do not read the end “in case I die before I get there”. I do it because I am a literary flâneuse: not only does knowing the end mean I can enjoy the scenery, but it means I am insured against that dreadful crime – the Bad Ending. I don’t mean heartbreaking goodbyes to characters I love, I mean the dreadful realisation that everyone, including the writer, has basically gone home in the last 50 pages. Bad endings don’t just betray the characters, they betray the reader.
An Overcoat takes intellection as seriously as, say, being able to make a three-point turn in traffic; perhaps less so (“I’m beginning to go off her,” says the narrator about M.; “at heart she’s just another puritan, one of the tribe that insists that literature is good for you.”) This is the book’s charm, and possibly its point. It’s a mind at play, and Boyle’s silly pseudonym is a deliberate act of self-sabotage – as well as a nod to Stendhal’s fondness for different identities. I can’t think of a wittier, more engaging, stylistically audacious, attentive and generous writer working in the English language right now.
One of the pleasures of The Book of Joan is its take-no-prisoners disregard for genre boundaries. Its searing fusion of literary fiction and reimagined history and science-fiction thriller and eco-fantasy make it a kind of sister text to Jeff VanderMeer's ineffable Southern Reach trilogy. Yuknavitch is a bold and ecstatic writer, wallowing in sex and filth and decay and violence and nature and love with equal relish.