The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet by David Carlin and Nicole Walker
Rose Metal Press, June, 2019
224 pages / Amazon
There’s a new fixture in my town. He stands at our busy intersections and holds up a cardboard sign that reads “Stop Burning Fossil Fuels.” He mostly stands silent, but sometimes he yells at the passing cars—I can’t figure out what he’s saying.
When I see him, I get angry. Because the message is too simplistic, and I can only see it backfiring with the drivers headed to work. Because he doesn’t offer any practical solutions. Because fossil fuels were burned to make his clothes, his food, and the sharpie that wrote his message. But I’m also angry because I’m guilty. While I’m usually walking when I see him, I drive to work too, and I drive farther than I’d like. The man with the sign makes me face the anxiety I can sometimes stuff down, the anxiety that’s always there, that everyday mix of responsibility and futility.
This same anxiety made me a little hesitant to open The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet. But authors David Carlin & Nicole Walker seem aware of their undertaking. A book of essays about climate change can go wrong in so many ways. It can be all doomsday, it can be holier than thou, it can be a little too shiny, or it can just be more of the same. Instead of science writing that’s “depressing, humorless, shaming, guilt-ridden,” Carlin and Walker set out to make this book a conversation between two everyday believers, for readers who understand the depth of the problem.
In their preface, they write:
For many of us, we know, we know, we know…But what do we do with that knowledge, in between picking up the kids or trying to get a gig that pays? What do we do—being part of the increasingly uncomfortable middle class who can afford to buy books and watch documentaries—beyond clicking on petitions and refusing plastic bags?
Instead, the central question in this book is “What are the chances that we, of all people in human history, should have been born into this moment of existential responsibility? And how do we face up to it?”
The book has several constraints. Carlin, who lives in Melbourne, and Walker, who lives in Arizona, have created a correspondence in essay form. Sometimes, they directly address each other, and mostly they converse through theme or trope. As the subtitle suggests, the essays are listed alphabetically by title/loose subject, with paired reflections by each author: “Albatross” and “Atmosphere,” “Bitumen” and “Bacteria,” all the way to “Zzzzzzz” and “Z.” And each essay is flash nonfiction, quick reflections that build on one another and give the reader plenty of space to join the conversation.
There is a good deal of research in this book, as well as many philosophical questions volleyed between both writers. But the focus is the personal essay. Some are more straightforward narratives, while many are braided or mosaic essays seeking connection in each of their subjects. Carlin and Walker switch from the facts at hand, to rage at politicians, to observations of their everyday motions. One essay might express feelings of uselessness while contacting a senator, while another will examine the promise of a new advancement in asphalt. Still another puts faith in the children we may feel guilty about having in the first place.
It’s when we touch down in the vivid that the essays find their strength. Walker discusses the acres in Utah she and her husband bought, so they can grow fruit trees years from now when the climate becomes hospitable. Carlin reflects on his childhood in isolated Perth and its “love affair with flying” (and black swans!). We’re told the story of an Inuit woman who was relocated from her igloo to a pre-fab home where, “Even in winter, she can see rocks. She can see dirt. Sometimes, instead of snowing, it rains.” We watch a dead fairy penguin float up on Fairhaven Beach, upsetting “the illusion that at some point in the future everything will be okay again.”
Often, each small essay does big work in connecting the global with the local. In “Junk” Carlin examines the history of whaling: how the sperm whale’s melon, capable of highly sophisticated communication, was considered junk by whalers. However, the whale’s waste product, ambergisis, has been highly sought after for centuries. The essay brings our own modern junk into the mix by telling us about a whale who died from ingesting 8o plastic bags. In “Catastrophe” Walker connects Drumpf’s election with the task of getting the family cat and dogs to get along (as well as the family over Thanksgiving). The essay ends with a kind of refrain: “The world is on fire, but we can eat Milk Bones. The world is on fire, but Tennessee painted its trees with flame retardant.”
And while each essay is full of weight, the authors find the humor and irony in the world. In “Elephant,” Walker uses Kevin Costner’s gills in Waterworld to explore elephants born without tusks and practical evolution. The authors stay away from both doomsday and overly sunny optimism. The book expresses the complicated feelings of living on this changing planet, of being acutely aware of the changes while still trying to live their daily lives. The book doesn’t preach or prove because, as Walker writes, “…fiction is actually the genre that requires certainty. The essay is the one with all the questions.”
The many constraints in this book seem to have done their job. They’ve helped the co-writers generate and find a structure for the book. However, I was left wondering if the alphabet portion was needed after all was written and edited. Sometimes it felt like the writers were stretching, molding the title just to fit with the prompt. And while the press material claims that the alphabet helps the book feel like a subversion of an encyclopedia or a field guide, neither description fits the spirit of the project. However, the form doesn’t distract from the experience of the book, and I’m sure many readers will enjoy seeing what title comes next, whether it’s “Frog,” “Grass,” “Hell” or “Idiot.”
I think what makes me so angry about the man with the “Stop Burning Fossil Fuels” sign is that he feels like the stereotypical “crazy” man holding up “The End is Near.” And maybe I get angry because he might be right.
Christy Crutchfield is the author of the novel How to Catch a Coyote. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, Massachusetts Review, Salt Hill Journal, jubilat, and other journals. She recently received a fellowship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and serves on the editorial staff of Juked. A native of Atlanta, she writes and teaches in Western Massachusetts.