A novel at the edge of the world
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to write a novel “about” climate change. Much like dealing with its ramifications in the day-to-day life of one individual, futility starts to set in when confronting such an enormous problem woven so tightly with modern society. It sometimes seems like the more climate change becomes an existential threat, the more difficult it is to talk about. Even as novels are increasingly written in a broad scope, incorporating multiple voices and experimental techniques, the form of the novel at its core still relies on the subjectivity of individuals who are, generally speaking, not the very few executives and government officials responsible for the stasis of society in responding to climate change. It’s possible, though, that novelists are responding to the effects of climate change in ways other than direct representation. The kind of numbing anxiety that necessarily has to coexist with mundanity has been poking its head into numerous recent works of fiction, possibly because it has seemed to increasingly saturate daily life.
Julia Phillips’s brilliant debut novel “Disappearing Earth” is what Jane Allison calls a “radial” narrative — one where some inciting incident creates ripples that move outward and often compound in complexity rather than resolving. Novels structured like this frequently resemble a loose amalgamation of short stories, but Phillips succeeds in her deft, transparent prose and her ability to play narratives off each other in a prismatic way. It coheres in its creation of a community of people, in this case in an incredibly isolated city in Russia. The plot orbits around the mysterious disappearance of two young girls, Sophia and Alyona Golosovsky, in the coastal town of Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka peninsula. Everyone in the town hears about it, is haunted by it. Suddenly, other young girls aren’t allowed to cross town to see friends, adults are newly nervous about the other residents of the small seaside town. Predictably enough, some people in town use the disappearance as an opportunity to stoke racial and ethnic tension. An elementary school administrator, Valentina Nikolaevna, blames the disappearance first on a Central Asian and then on the father of the girls, who lives in Moscow.
The theme of the book, broadly stated, is the parochialism, blame and anxiety that ripples through a community in the wake of grief. The feelings the girls’ disappearance evokes in the town are rarely straightforward, but they get into everything, their presence is felt everywhere. They are dismissed, relegated, compartmentalized only to hover over the scenes of the novel in a blanket of worry. The girls’ disappearance is used as a justification for a boyfriend’s anxious surveillance, and it comes up as two young professionals go on a camping trip in the “empty wilderness” north of the town.
This connection between an increasingly vague anxiety and the xenophobia that emerges is fairly straightforward, but it also feels important that the Kamchatka peninsula is almost unnavigable, where communities are incredibly isolated from each other geographically and culturally. The isolation amplifies this sense of echo. Petropavlovsk is more or less inaccessible by land, and the city has the feeling of being hemmed in, surrounded by nature that appears in many different guises. Nature is almost a character in the book, commenting on the goings-on. This is especially true of the stunning opening, which takes place in the hours before Sophia and Alyona are abducted. Alyona tells Sophia a story of a city at the edge of the Pacific ocean that was obliterated after a tsunami: “Even in Zavoyko, they didn’t notice how the sky had gotten darker; they were busy sweeping up, checking in on their next-door neighbors, making repairs. But later, when the electricity came back on, somebody realized there were no lights coming from the edge of the cliff.”