I am now 38. I live in a rented house in Pittsboro, N.C., with my wife, my two daughters and my dog. I try to be kind. I try not to hurt people. And though I have just told you all the things I know with certainty about that day in September in Tal Afar, Iraq, when I was 24, I’m still not sure what it means. I don’t know if my being there in that place and at that time makes me a bad person, but on most days I think it means I do not get to claim to be a good one.
There is an eminently useful thought experiment with which I suspect you are familiar. It goes something like, “What would an alien think of ____?” The blank is typically filled in with something like sex, or our destructive relationship to the natural world, or money. War is sometimes used to fill that blank, too. The point of the thought experiment is to invent a kind of critical distance between a particular aspect of human behavior and ourselves, the ones behaving un-self-consciously like humans.
Just 150 years ago, in 1869, Tolstoy published the final installment of War and Peace, often regarded as the greatest of all novels. In his time, Tolstoy was known as a nyetovshchik—someone who says nyet, or no, to all prevailing opinion—and War and Peace discredits the prevailing views of the radical intelligentsia, then just beginning to dominate Russian thought. The intelligentsia’s way of thinking is still very much with us and so Tolstoy’s critique is, if anything, even more pertinent today.
His voice came to me right before the world began to end. It was a cold evening in October of 2016—slate grey skies, the highway flat, that Sunday feeling where the worries of the week ahead overtake the pleasure of a weekend away. Leonard Cohen on the stereo, speaking more than singing. He put all casual conversation to an abrupt end.
That wasn’t the first time I heard Cohen. I knew his best-known songs, what his voice sounded like. But it was the first night I really heard him, the first night his voice reached inside and gutted me. It always seems so strange and stupid, in retrospect, when something precious is handed to you, and years go by before you accept it and give thanks for the gift. Until then, I simply hadn’t been paying attention.
This is not a book to devour mindlessly. It is much like Harriet’s gingerbread: “a square meal and a good night’s sleep and a long, blood-splattered howl at the moon rolled into one.” This is a wildly imagined, head-spinning, deeply intelligent novel that requires some effort and attention from its reader. And that is just one of its many pleasures.
“The Uninhabitable Earth” wagers that we’ve grown inured to cool recitations of the facts, and require a more direct engagement of political will. “There is no single way to best tell the story of climate change, no single rhetorical approach likely to work on a given audience, and none too dangerous to try,” Wallace-Wells writes. “Any story that sticks is a good one.”