Tales of Two Planets
One generation passes away, and another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.
The sun also rises, and the sun goes down,
And hastens to the place where it arose.
– Ecclesiastes, 4-5
John Freeman has been busy in the last decade trying to rouse people from their somnambulant lives by means of narrative wake-up calls. “Part of writing, the best part of it,” he tells us in the introduction to his new collection, Tales of Two Planets: Stories of Climate Change and Inequality in a Divided World, “is to wake a reader up into the present, by transporting them into a dream—one vivid enough to reorient how they see things upon waking.”
Such alarms can be startling, such as his inclusion of an account of the ‘mole people’ living like Morlocks beneath Manhattan’s surface in “Near the Edge of Darkness” by Colum McCann, which appeared in Tales of Two Cities, a previous collection (reviewed here) that gave Jacob Riis-like voice and vision to neglected denizens of NYC.
More recently, Freeman tackled the enormous moral morass and economic debacle that the country has become in his Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation (2017). His 36 contributors in that collection included lesser-known writers, as well as more established ones, such as Annie Dillard, Roxanne Gay, Joyce Carroll Oates, Ann Patchett, Richard Russo, Rebecca Solnit, and Joy Williams. If Two Cities was a redux version of How the Other Half Lives, then Two Americas provides the reader with a stark reminder that 99% of Americans are increasingly at the beck and call of the 1% — the two-jobs poor are teetering on the edge, the middle class buffer zone is eroding, while the rich flaunt their luxurious ‘self-isolation’. Covid-19, eat cake.
If Freeman’s first two collections left the impression that it was just the world’s Exceptional Democracy™ that was in deep shit and needed to address some serious political and economic issues immediately, well, you were wrong; it turns out we’re all in quick shit, sinking by the moment, and Tales of Two Planets, though filled with inspiring, even poignant writing that depicts the morning after we’ve had our filfy MILFy way with Nature, the tales go beyond America’s exceptionally parochial problems and lay out a vision of smelly melting glaciers, rivers of shit, and crazed responses to the Climate Change calamity. In short, we best keep snuggling with our teddy Corona, and waving Brady Bunch-style to each other on Zoom, cuz we in a world of motherfuckin’ trouble.
Two Planets features 36 mostly foreign writers who, with the exception of Anuradha Roy and Margaret Atwood, are unlikely to be known to most readers. Freeman gives us essays, stories, and poetry from Iceland, India, Canada, Lebanon, China, Bangladesh, Denmark, and America — covered in detail below — Argentina (a river as wounded animal), Thailand (spicy soup city), Colombia (a mountain gives way), Pakistan (a language without “terrorism”), Eritrea/Ethiopia/Sudan Britain/Belgium (climate change as refugee), Haiti (toxic algae), Guatemala (sedimental journey), Burundi (dark dead fireflies), Hawai’i (49 inches, 24 hours), Indonesia (angry rain), Kenya (flying toilets), Palestine (the pushy grab), Mexico (we called it maize), and more.
Like grumpy Greta Thunberg, Freeman’s angry. “To turn away from the greatest threat humankind has ever faced has required a staggering dedication to distraction and lack of empathy for the suffering of others,” he writes. And how. Humans may have peaked, like oil and the dinosaurs it came from. Even with our current distraction, Covid-19, we seem incapable of using the opportunity, ostensibly afforded by our current situation, to take stock on the near-future of our species.
When the dinosaurs got hit by meteorites, that probably came at them like coronavirus fireballs, did they just stand around getting giddy over the shit they were in? Everywhere people seem to be taking selfies with Covid-19 — virtual weddings, funerals, sex romps, concerts — instead of leveraging the moment and talking turkey about Climate Change. Has Congress re-convened since the Super Bowl? If the rest of us can hold virtuals, why not Congress?
Frankly, we never even responded to Covid-19 sanely. We were distracted. We were exhausted by the impeachment hearings and the Super Bowl was upon us. By the time people converged on Miami, it was already known that Covid-19 was on its way — according to the NEJM, “As of January 30, 2020, a total of 9976 cases had been reported in at least 21 countries…”– and Florida governor De Santis now admits Covid-19 may have been “circulating” at the Billion Dollar Bash. Distracted from distraction by distraction, as Eliot puts it.
Distracted, but, as Freeman says, also devoid of empathy. He writes, “Climate change is affecting us all, but it’s going to hit the poorest parts of the globe first, and hardest.” Many of the accounts in Two Planets describe a level of destitution and degradation, not just in the Third World but in America, too, that give the lie to the notion of material progress and electoral integrity. Depending on where you are born, you can be locked into poverty all your life, your environment a hazard you must accommodate in order to survive. Climate Change exacerbates the tenuous existence poor people are forced to endure.
There are two excellent essays from Iceland that begin and end the collection. The first bears the title “N64 35.378, W16 44.691,” which represents the GPS coordinates to a glacier described in the article. It’s a glacier out there somewhere in the alien wilds of our planet, hostile and forbidding. But for Andri Snær Magnason, the article’s author, there is (or was) an element of the familiar to this terrain. “In the north,” he writes, “we had an abandoned farm by the ocean, just below the Arctic Circle. It is one of the harshest homesteads in Europe, and you can see the next house only with binoculars.”
It takes a moment to orient yourself to the juxtapositioning of the Arctic with Europe, but before you can get comfortable with the notion, he adds, “It is a place where you can listen to fourteen species of birds singing or quacking at the same time.” Life! But now there are signs of death, “…skeletons everywhere, parts of wings, and the smell in the air was actually rotting seaweed.” Magnason brings us further on our textual trek through his childhood family stomping ground, and sees melting, “Areas that look as if God had only two materials left after she created the earth: black rock and green moss.” We go on, with him, sherpa sure, ahead.
We come to the point he’s trying to make. “In the geothermal areas, our earth reveals what it is actually made of. We are standing on a thin crust on a ball of boiling magma floating around a burning sun,” he writes. This strange place of ice and heat could be another planet — “Solaris” or “Jupiter” — but no, it’s early primordial Earth, now in distress, where “you can feel the power that moves continents… the hostility…muddy, boiling pools like something from Dante’s Inferno.” In short, a place that would give SETI scientists an erection if they saw it out there through a telescope. (I wonder what alien SETI scientists would make of us?)
As if to counter this image, Magnason recalls how his grandma and grandpa got stranded in a snowstorm hereabouts once and “they were stuck inside their tent for three days, until only the tip of the tent could be seen from the glacier’s surface and they had to be dug out. I asked my grandfather, ‘Weren’t you cold?’ ‘Cold?’ he responded. ‘We were just married!’ Two sticks rubbing, just building a fire, trying to keep warm, in a hostile world, creating next of kindle, and here I am, Magnason seemed to say, like a subliminal ice cube in ads of yore.
He guides us through more IcyHot wilderness,until you start to think about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein up here somewhere jumping from floe to floe. Magnason (or is it Magmason) writes,
We travel through landscape unlike anything I have seen before, over terrain that looks like miles of turtles’ backs, through a forest of black pyramids, past cracks that moan and gurgle, past streams that fall into bottomless holes that remind me of the lair of some alien, snakelike creature, an ice version of the sarlacc sand monster.
It’s Earth; and then, we reach the mental glacier known by its coordinates N64 35.378, W16 44.691, and this forceful place you would not think could be affected by Man is dying.
Magnason makes us watch, little reader-performers, all self-conscious blue, as: “The glacier vanishes softly, like a silent spring. It just melts, retreats slowly, calmly, but its appearance is strangely dead, almost like a slain fish.” We’ve come to the place we potentially started from and know it for the first time, all bigbang and whimpery in our poopypants. Gosh, did I do that?
A second Icelander, Sjón, makes us similarly suffer in the collection’s closing piece, “On the Organic Diversity of Literature: Notes from My Little Astrophysical Observatory.” Sjón tells us he “spent seven weeks as an artist in residence at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research” and claims scientists there have “begun to question whether mankind possesses the intrinsic ability to respond to its imminent extinction.” As if juicing up for his self-isolating stint amongst the Climate crew, Sjón brought with him a thoughtful collection of books:
The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti; In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, Vol. 1, by Eugene Thacker; and Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Experimental Futures) by Donna J. Haraway—all of which deal explicitly with mankind’s threats to itself and its possible disappearance from the face of the Earth.
Hear Ye, Hear Ye, read all about it. Old Werther’s got syphilis and is now suicidal.
In between these ice bread slices is an enormous tasty turd burger bound to wipe the shit-eating grin off the face of even the most recalcitrant climate deniers. On point, Lina Mounzer gases it up in her piece from and of Lebanon, “The Funniest Shit You Ever Heard.” Lebanon has become renowned for its decline into corruption since its Civil War ended in 1990, when its reconstruction began, contracts for work establishing the New Leb Order, and leading, inevitably, to an upstairs/downstairs economy that never favors the have-nots. As with every state now dealing with the ever-widening income gap, there has been growing tension in Lebanon.
Mounzer tells the story of being stalled one day in a line of cars going up a Tripoli hill: “One of the sewer drains had overflowed, blasting away its manhole cover, and a gleaming brown waterfall cascaded down the hill.” I immediately thought of the Boston Molasses disaster of 1919, when a vat exploded and 2 million gallons of brown stuff down nearby streets, drowning 21 locals. Back in Tripoli, nobody drowned, but lots of people laughed, at first, except for one guy who Mounzer says “got splattered, perhaps with the remnants of the very same meal he had consumed at his dinner table the night before, and then unloaded into his toilet that very morning.”
But the best bit about this article was Mounzer’s wonderful description of how all shit comes together, like the free-flow of ideas, until, ideally, the occasional plumbing is needed. She writes,
Beneath every city, its underground twin… A network of pipes connecting to every shower drain, every kitchen sink, every toilet, disappearing a household’s dirt and grease and vomit and urine and feces down the gullets of small pipes that flow down into the ground, that then feed into bigger pipes, and ever bigger pipes, all our shit merging: the organic, fibrous roughage of the rich, the nutrient-deficient poop of the poor, and all the middle-class crap in between, all democratically flowing together in a single system….
And when it breaks down you’re paying union wages to fix it.
And the near-comedy of the ineptitude of our dealings with our demise continues in Anuradha Roy’s tale, “Drowning In Reverse,” in which an Indian village is flooded to make room for the construction of a novel “high altitude lake.” While a protagonist laments and recalls fond memories, a bubbly government bobblehead, Mr. Negi, sees the bright side:
Midget submarines would take tourists past the underwater wreck of the old town—the palace, the market—all crumbling away, but the state had no doubt that visitors would flock there and pay good money to enjoy this mini Atlantis so far inland, a thrill very different from the region’s standard menu of mountaineering and bird-watching.
Bizarre shit happens. After bin Laden was killed, Abbottabad put up an amusement park.
Roy’s narrative witness to this seemingly thoughtless government whimsicality finally observes, with insight that could include us all,
There is resignation, cynicism, and fury as government after government ravages the country’s forests and waters in a tight embrace with giant companies. Nobody can reverse this or stop it: it has been and will be coitus uninterruptus continuous until there is nothing left to destroy.
Will this mummyfucking never cease? Liebfraumilch all around! Who cares if they’re falsies we nickname Silicon Valley. Proust!
In China, where authorities gagged and threatened a doctor before his warning about the impending Coronavirus could go viral (he’s since died of it), a prize-winning photographer, was arrested and disappeared for sharing environmental photos that portrayed the Red System in an unflattering way. This arrest and burial of Oriental journalism is recounted in “Recording Is His Priority:
On the Photographs of Lu Guang,” and should be a worry in the Occident, where public stories are routinely buried by vested interests who control the Message.
In Bangladesh, it’s the same old story. Tahmima Anam recounts it again in “The Unfortunate Place.” As John Freeman pointed out in the introduction poor people take the brunt of the world’s economic and ecological disasters. Anam’s story begins,
Once upon a time, there was a girl from a terrible country. The country was battered by the worst combination of natural and human-made disasters: floods, cyclones, famine, war. The country was small and the people were poor. Every bad thing that could happen to a place would happen to that country.
Anam remembers how Kissinger called it a “basket case” and George Harrison, Dylan, and others made it a Cause — all those years ago. The Earth abides, but apparently, and inexplicably, so does poverty.
Poetry also features in this collection. Lars Skinnebach, from Denmark, gives us “TEOTWAWKI” (the end of the world as we know it), and proffers up images that evoke siege and desperation:
And when the ants came
I followed them down
underground where they lived
blocked their exits
and plundered their nests
and plundered their stores
This conjured up Derinkuyu, the underground city in Cappadocia (Turkey), which I visited a million years ago (and froze my ass off in a B-and-B cave). Folks went there to escape the onslaught of the Ottomans. Wikipedia tells us the cave cities were still in use into the 20th century.
In another poem, Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, lyrically ponders, ala Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice”, how we might perish and the magic we have lost:
We breathe hot pudding.
We stand on the non-lawn,
arms outstretched, mouths open.
Will it be burn or drown?
Though we’ve forgotten the incantation,
the chant, the dance,
we invoke a vertical ocean,
pure blue, pure water.
Let it come down.
Let it rain. Let it rain. Let it rain.
Towards the end, Freeman brings it all back home with the inclusion of “The Psychopaths” by Joy Williams and “In This Phase In The 58th American Presentiad (United States)” by Lawrence Joseph. Williams’s story condemns the mindless activities of Big Game hunters, psychopaths who think they’re Hemingway, but behave more like the dickheaded hunter (with his trophy wife) in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” than the thoughtful Gregory Peck-driven hunter, Harry Street, of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” who falls in and out of reveries as he lays fading, hyenas, vultures, and gangrene closing in. Williams’s psychopath could be a one-percenter head-hunting for a trophy corporation. Joseph’s poem attempts to tear Trump a new one: “His own hell, he owns it, in his own shit, / feet of lackey weasels clamped / onto his pot-bellied stomach, teeth stuck / in his puffed-up jaw.” There’s a lot of anger out there. Thunberg’s not the only one pissed off at the world.
We’ve had so many warnings for so many years. I can still recall as a teenager ads that came on TV reminding us of our obligation to our environment. Only you can prevent forest fires, Smokey the Bear told us. In 1970, even the diabolical Dick Nixon founded the EPA, perhaps realizing that the environment needed protection from people without empathy and incapable of understanding, or indifferent to, the effects of their money-driven malevolence. In 1971, in a legendary TV ad, Iron Eyes Cody, aka the Crying Indian, wept a single strong man’s tear at the white trash epidemic that was polluting the nation (updated, it would include the information highway). No doubt, had someone seriously suggested at the time that we switch our national anthem from the current martial noise, that no one can sing, to “America the Beautiful” (even the Russkies wanted some of that) it would have passed in Congress with not a dry eye in the House.
But in the end, we preferred the artificial over the natural, meddling with Nature rather than letting her be, and when we got around to having the temerity to tell Hippie Mama, to her face, that we were just fucking with her, she went bonkers, and sent a Republican bouncer to make us pay. We’re paying, loan shark-style, with exorbitant interest.