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DENIAL by Jon Raymond, reviewed by T.O.Munro


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The phrase climate fiction and its abbreviation cli-fi was coined by journalist Dan Bloom[i] in a 2011 Press release for a novel Polar City Red (2012). Since then, the appellation has expanded to encompass a genre-transcending sprawl of works addressing the theme of anthropogenic climate change.

7101320Both authors and activists may still hope for that single silver bullet of a novel which will focus and energise public attention in the way that Nevil Shute’s On The Beach (1957) did to stimulate a drive for nuclear disarmament, or 6011735Anne Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877) moved people to address the cruel working conditions of horses in Victorian times. However, the wicked complexity of climate change and its geopolitical context means its totality lies beyond the power of any single work to address. Instead, cli-fi continues to advance on several fronts and in different forms of literature. Like comedy, cli-fi also draws heavily on its context. As the effects of climate change become more obvious and the climate change deniers pivot to climate inactivism, there is a shift in focus within cli-fi from the consequences of climate change to the causes of climate change, or more specifically the causers of climate change.

The Australian academic Stewart King (2021) [ii] Coined a new term of crimate fiction to capture that subset of works within cli-fi which use crime fiction’s approaches to address the global criminality behind climate change. As King puts it,

“crimate fictions frame the causes of human-induced climate change as a criminal act of which there is a victim and for which those responsible should be held accountable[iii]

16045039King applied this concept to an analysis of Antti Tuomainen’s Finnish noir novel The Healer (2013) in which the poet protagonist is searching for his wife who has been kidnapped by a serial killer – the eponymous Healer. Tuomainen’s future Helsinki is gripped by crises of flooding, refugees and social disorder as society succumbs to the now unavoidable outrun of climate change. The Healer is on a mission of vigilante justice, setting out to murder corporate executives (and their families) who, through their actions and inactions, he holds responsible for climate change.

Both Ross Clark’s The Denial (2020) (which I reviewed in my previous post) and Jon Raymond’s Denial (2022) – reviewed below – address this notion of climate change as a criminal act requiring an enforcement of accountability. Both books depict a near future world where climate activism has control of the levers of political power. Fossil fuel executives have been criminalised and, if not imprisoned, have fled to take refuge under aliases in South or Central American.

For Ross Clark in The Denial, the Nazi parallels are implicit and – given the rest of the text – somewhat uncomfortable. Clark’s inferences appear to be that the executives stand unjustly accused where the fascist sobriquet would be more properly levelled at Clark’s imagined future environmental activists with their thuggish wing of Greenshirts – a none too subtle parallel with Hitler’s Brownshirts and Moseley’s Blackshirts. However, the flight of the executives is only one quickly forgotten strand as The Denial tracks back and forth across Clark’s favourite climate journalism themes espousing climate change inactivism in a rather messy and exposition laden polemic.

59366235. sy475 For Jon Raymond in Denial, the parallels with the pursuit of Nazi war criminal are absolutely front and centre explicit as Raymond’s protagonist – the journalist Jack Henry – tracks down fugitive climate criminal Robert Cave to his hideaway in Guadalajara in Mexico. The Toronto climate trials of 2032 are widely recognised within the text as being modelled on the post-war Nuremberg trials. The prosecutor’s legal arguments embracing a concept of “crimes against life” are set up to rival Nuremberg’s “crimes against humanity”[iv]; the rejection of the defence of ”ignorance” or “the never-acted-upon conscience” mirrors Nuremberg’s rejection of the defence of “only obeying orders.”[v] Cave was an “empty chair” at the Toronto trials, one of eight who evaded capture and were tried and convicted in absentia.

 

The extent to which Raymond draws inspiration from the pursuit of fugitive Nazis is clear in the text’s detailed reference to the 1994 exposure of Erich Priebke who was found hiding in plain view in Argentina by American reporter Sam Donaldson. Raymond’s protagonist and his boss even make frequent references to “the Donaldson” for the planned big reveal moment – referencing Donaldson’s candid camera interview of Priebke caught by surprise as he was just about to get into his car (seen here). Furthermore, Raymond’s Cave echoes Priebke in working in a school, wearing a fedora and – in what feels anachronistic in a climate changed future Mexico – a camel coat.

With its focus on three main characters (Henry, Cave and Sobie – Henry’s romantic interest) and utilising the greater intimacy of its first-person point of view, Raymond’s Denial is a deeper and richer novel than Clark’s The Denial. Raymond’s writing is fluid, his imagery powerful and the elegant lines of prose are full of thought-provoking moments. I had many marginal notes of “nice line” and, aside from any cli-fi agenda, this was a very enjoyable read. For example

When Henry, undercover as ‘Jake’, meets Cave, under his alias of ‘Bob’, they find a shared affection for the writing of Mark Twain which unlocks the companionship of conversation.

We shook hands, two readers far from home, two liars who’d found a magnet of truth. (p. 67)

When Henry, experiencing a health scare about a debilitating brain disease tries to conduct a self-assessment of his condition by rifling through memories

“I roamed every year, every season, picking up impressions and checking them for damage.” (p. 124)

Despite the inner and outer conflicts faced by his characters, Raymond was determined to avoid the dystopian visions of the future that characterised much – even the majority – of early cli-fi.[vi]  Dystopias have been a fertile vista for speculative fiction in general and sci-fi in particular from the early days of John Wyndham with The Day of the Triffids (1951) and The Kraken Wakes (1953)  or J.D.Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962). Climate change gave authors a new perspective – one rooted more in contemporary scientific reality – from which to explore the defamiliarizing effect of an end of civilisation era.

However, Raymond deliberately sets out to portray a familiar setting to show that a world as we know it has not ended with the outrun of the climate crisis. As Raymond said in a recent (22/7/2022) interview with Conner Reed for Portland Monthly

“The goal was to avoid the dystopic and the apocalyptic, which are narrative modes that maybe at one time served a purpose, but at this point, have come to seem just like a wish fulfilment fantasy to me, or some sort of death trip. It doesn’t really take that much imagination. It seemed like a much more difficult project was to imagine a future that maintains human and animal life in some way. 

I’m so tired with that eschatological way of thinking where there will be some Year Zero that occurs, some absolute break. I was much more concerned with the continuities that would probably occur.” (Raymond, 2022)

Consequently, Raymond gives us much that is recognisable, people still shop, attend optometrists, fly away on holidays – cultural activities like Basketball leagues and bull fighting continue. Denial is, in many ways, a more encouraging vision of the future than we see in Ross Clark’s the Denial with its cold, poor and hungry UK population suffering under the incompetence of a dysfunctional government (which sounds a bit too contemporaneously familiar tbh).

However, just because climate criminals have been identified and prosecuted in the wake of a popular 2030s movement called “the upheavals,” that doesn’t mean Jack Henry is living in some utopia where all the climate problems have been resolved. The revolutionary zeal has not carried forward into uniform action. Raymond differs from Clark in how he attributes blame for global society’s failure to properly capture and “capitalise” (forgive the unfortunate term!) on this moment in history. Rather than accuse poor science, extravagant activism, or government cowardice and incompetence, Raymond references the inexorable power of the status quo. The news that Henry scans is full of extreme weather events and rogue government actions that continue to undermine action and taint the potential fruits of the awakening that came with the upheavals.

“Toronto had been one of the many fronts in the war of re-imagining the future. Twenty years later we still didn’t know if we’d won that war or not.” (p. 25)

Through my first cup of coffee I checked the news, tracking the horrors unfolding around the globe. Megafires in South America, cyclones in Oklahoma, refugee riots in India. (p. 17)

“I’d read that morning about a junta in Africa secretly fracking its mountain ranges. The global coalition’s satellites had discovered the sites, and there was nothing anyone could do.” (p. 154)

Detail abounds with how the world has turned and yet, not just culturally but politically, all remains the same.

“So many new villains to keep track of, so many compromises to swallow.” (p. 25)

The portrayal of the settings of Portland and Mexico are exquisitely detailed, but there is a strong sense of scenes and settings that Raymond wanted to work into a novel, be it the bullfight at end or the José Orozco murals, or indeed the whole Cave-Priebke analogy. It as though an artist had found some different but characterful pieces of wood that they wanted to combine into a single sculpture. To that extent it does at times feel as though the story has been led by the need to incorporate those scenes and settings, rather than letting the narrative finds its own path.

As a piece of cli-fi, there are couple of elements which might raise an eyebrow or a hackle or two. The first is the strangely incomplete projection into the future – part old, part new.

Amy Brady, reviewing Denial in Scientific American noted that “storytelling plays such a crucial role in the fight to find a way out of the climate crisis,” but felt that Denial “does not go far enough.”[vii]  The reviewer found anachronisms and perceived a failure not simply to show the cultural transformation that would have occurred but to project contemporary technology forward “the fact that Raymond missed this opportunity to imagine a future with realistic details is one … glaring distraction.” Raymond, in interview, responded that the reviewer, ”seemed all pissy because the book was so not interested in the futurism of technologies.” (my emboldening) (Raymond, 2022)

That approach may originate in Raymond’s desire to focus on the study of characters, setting and set piece interaction rather than world building, and world building is an aspect of the book where one should not look too deeply for scientific fidelity. Not only do people continue to fly to Mexico on holiday but, apart from the smoke of wildfires, there is little indication that Mexico’s climate has become any more uncomfortably hot. There were a couple of apparent scientific faux-pas around ozone layers and eclipses which threw me out of the narrative in the same way that Piggy’s glasses in Lord of the Flies (among other science glitches) did. It’s probably more of a niche annoyance from my Physics teacher background so I will save it for a footnote.[1]

However, one should definitely not scratch too deeply on how Robert Cave eluded detection for so long. Here the homage to the Priebke-Donaldson case does Denial a disservice. In a pre-internet era, Priebke escaped discovery until someone by chance stumbled across an Argentinian local history in a second hand-book shop that alluded to Priebke’s past Nazi connection. However, for Cave – a well-known face, sheltering only under a change of name – to have escaped notice for 20 years until a friend of Henry’s holidaying in Mexico just happens to be the very first person in two decades to notice and recognise him does stretch credulity, especially as Henry’s entire work as a journalist involves sifting through the tide of freely available internet style information to draw connections and compose stories.

The second issue that one might take with the book is the sympathetic treatment of the fugitive climate criminal Cave. The Scientific American review again notes a dissatisfaction in the way that Henry “grapples in the abstract with the ethics of sentencing a kind old man to die in prison while acknowledging that the man deserves to be punished.” (Brady, 2022). Raymond, however, has not shied away from Cave’s criminality – particularly around his past activities in misinformation and bogus statistics as he made ‘“the moral case for fossil fuels” at colleges and pseudo-academic symposia.’ (p. 26)

Furthermore, in a fascinating interaction between Henry and Cave that precedes the intended “Donaldson” moment, Raymond has Cave reflect on the Toronto accused and their crimes, without revealing his own identity, or realising Henry’s.

“That’s the lesson of Toronto isn’t it. Wilful ignorance is no defense. Denial is an act of will. The Toronto gang was engaged in a systematic assault on life on earth. They were profiteering from it, sowing disinformation. It was a death cult” (p. 153)

Cave also talks about the transformation in energy use as he admires his electric car with its two thousand mile range.

“They said we couldn’t break the fossil fuel habit,” he said… “but they were wrong. The car is a wonder. It’s remarkable how humanity can adapt. Thank god for the Upheavals, I say.” (p. 151)

And looking back

“I look back and it’s incredible to think how we used to function. We once blocked rivers and burned gas and coal to run our grids…That seems so crude now, so stupid, when you can just harvest energy anywhere in little packets.” (p. 153)

In portraying Cave’s damascene conversion, a realisation of the iniquity of the fossil fuelled past and the reality of better alternatives, Raymond is perhaps acknowledging that the most powerful voices are of those who have changed their minds rather than those who always believed. (In a similar vein a UK Leave voter who now appreciates the mis-sold con-trick nature of Brexit may have more hope of being listened to than anyone from the “always Remainer” contingent.)

Another epiphany on the process of pursuing Cave comes in a conversation between Henry and his romantic interest Sobie.

“He isn’t hurting anyone right now. He doesn’t have any power. Why do it?”

“It’s about setting an example.”

“I suppose,” she said. “You don’t think it’s just a way to make everyone else in the world feel innocent?” (p. 184)

This notion of making others feel innocent touches on a theme addressed by Sarah Dimick[viii] in her essay ‘From Species to Suspect: Climate Crime in Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer.’  Dimick notes that there is a continuum of guilt in the climate crisis. For example, Toumainen’s poet protagonist is less guilty than the executives that the Healer targets, but more guilty than the refugee Hamid who taxis him around Helsinki. At the same time Hamid is complicit in the climate crisis in continuing to use diesel. As Dimick notes

“if human agency in an altered climate is inherently collective, what happens to the idea of crime—a concept that gains much of its ethical force through the dichotomy between the guilty and the innocent?” (Dimick, p. 22)

This idea of acknowledging a place along the continuum of guilt, rather than imposing responsibility in its entirety on a few individuals, underpins Cave and Henry’s interactions. It also, inevitably has its parallels in the Nuremberg trials that Raymond references so explicitly. The trials in compressing guilt onto the shoulders of a few individuals excused, elided, acquitted even, the complicity of wider social and economic leaders. It wasn’t until 1970 with Willy Brandt’s genuflection at the Warsaw Memorial that a discussion and acceptance within Germany of wider national guilt for the atrocities of the second world war became possible.[ix]

Much as Sobie sees the pursuit of Cave as a way “to make everyone else in the world feel innocent” so too Cave sees the Toronto accused as placeholders for wider humanity’s guilt.

“That’s how justice works. We choose someone and we make an example so we know the limits. Those people stood for many. Someone had to be the representative.” (p. 152)

And when asked about the ones that got away

“What about them.. the people on trial represented organisations. The names were arbitrary…You can’t indict everyone. And anyway, they’ll all be judged someday. Even the consumers.” (p. 154)

The last phrase there – “Even the consumers” – is a sharp observation on those of us at the bottom of the Ponzi scheme that is late-stage capitalism. It takes a shot at the growth delusion, the notion that we must endlessly buy more products to sustain the economy even as the built-in obsolescence accelerates the turnover in iPhones and other trappings of western luxury. It reminded me of Russell T. Davies’s excellent series Years and Years[x] and another such poignant moment – Anne Reid as the matriarchal grandmother delivering a monologue to her family where she asserts that the dire state of the world is “all our fault.” We have been seduced by the allure of the £1 T-shirt and the depersonalised convenience of supermarket self-checkouts, (here is a link to the speech on facebook.)  It also made me think of Buffy Sainte Marie’s anti-war ballad, the Universal Soldier[xi] which asserts individual responsibility with its line “He’s the universal soldier and he really is to blame.” Perhaps the lyrics could be rewritten to indict “The universal consumer.”?!

As Raymond observed in interview, One of the interesting things about the climate problem is that it’s hard to draw lines of guilt and innocence or virtue and non-virtue, (Raymond, 2022)

This is not to say that all are equally guilty. Cave, in discussing the conquistadors depicted in Orozco’s murals, wonders whether any other nation would have been any less cruel a coloniser if an accident of technology had given them the opportunity. Innocence, in this argument, is more a matter of never having had the opportunity to be guilty.

“No one is not guilty on earth. No one is not implicated in the crime of living… Granted,” he said, gazing on the vile Cortes, “some are more guilty than others.” (p. 85)

While its portrayal of the future may not ring entirely true, Denial is a characterful interrogation of the entangled themes of collective guilt and climate change. Raymond deliberately avoids both the simplicity of a villain who is just some evil guy with a lap cat who had performed horrible deeds. (Raymond, 2022) and also the suggestion that the battle to address climate change can be won in a single moment of social and political upheaval.

However, as misinformation swirls around the climate crisis – and Cave’s fictional advocacy of “the moral case for fossil fuels” echoes Alex Epstein’s book of the same title[xii] – it is interesting to reflect on this quote attributed to Mark Twain (for whom Cave and Henry share an affection which sparks their unlikely companionship).

“It’s easier to fool people than it is to convince them that they have been fooled.”

The writers of cli-fi will doubtless continue striving to illuminate the foolery of fossil fuel addiction and try to convince the fooled to keep the fossil fuels in the ground.

 

[1] Ozone In a relatively rare acknowledgement of an impact of climate change, Raymond has Henry’s informant Jeff appear very sunburnt after a holiday in Guadalajara, which Jeff attributes to having lost his hat and “I think the ozone layer is closer in Mexico or something.” (p. 22) Possibly this is intended to reflect Jeff’s ignorance, but the hole in the ozone layer as an environmental issue that is both entirely distinct from Global warming and which also has been resolved by international co-operation. This is a point I found myself making in too many classrooms to be able to gloss over this line. Eclipse Later in the book when Henry and Sobie are witnessing a total eclipse, Raymond describes them watching “the pale moon emerge over the horizon, climbing towards the sun’s trajectory.” (p186) However, eclipses occur when the moon is “infront” of the Earth with its dark, unlit side facing us. The moon would be simply invisible at that point, totally unseen until it impinged on the sun’s disc which heightened the terror of eclipses for ancient peoples.  Piggy’s glasses – suffering from short sightedness, Piggy’s spectacles would have diverging/concave lenses which would spread the sunlight out rather than focus it in. This would make them useless for focussing sunlight to start fires. If Piggy’s lenses had been convex focussing lenses, then that would mean he was longsighted and would easily have seen the rock coming – spoiling another plot point.

[i] (Bloom, 2018)

[ii] (King, 2021)

[iii] (King, 2021, p. 1237)

[iv] (Goda, 2021)

[v] (Holocaust and Human Behavior, Obeying Orders, n.d.)

[vi] As Adeline Johns-Putra put it “overwhelmingly, climate change appears in novels as part of a futuristic dystopian and/or postapocalyptic setting. In such novels, climate change is depicted … often as part of an overall collapse including technological over-reliance, economic instability, and increased social division.” (2016, p. 269)

[vii] (Brady, 2022)

[viii] (Dimick, 2018)

[ix] (Hille, Romaniec, & Bosen, 2020)

[x] (Davies, 2019)

[xi] (Sainte-Marie, 1964)

[xii] (Epstein, 2014)

References

Ballard, J. (1962). The Drowned World. New York: Berkley Books.

Bloom, D. (2018, November 2016). The future for cli-fi: interview with Dan Bloom. (B. McBride, Interviewer) Liverpool: Literature and Science Hub, University of Liverpool. Retrieved from https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/literature-and-science/archive/blog/ecologyandenvironment/danbloom/

Brady, A. (2022, June 16). Climate Destroyers Go to Jail, Martian Travel Guide, Bee Interiority, and More. Retrieved August 1, 2022, from Scientific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/climate-destroyers-go-to-jail-martian-travel-guide-bee-interiority-and-more/

Clark, R. (2020). The Denial. London: Lume Books.

Davies, R. T. (2019, June 18). Years and Years. (A. Reid, Performer) BBC, United Kingdom.

Dimick, S. (2018). ‘From Species to Suspect: Climate Crime in Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer’. Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, 51(3), 19-35.

Epstein, A. (2014). The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. New York: Portfolio/Penguin.

Goda, N. (2021, September 15). Crimes Against Humanity and the Development of International Law. Retrieved from nationalww2museum.org: https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/crimes-against-humanity-international-law

Hille, P., Romaniec, R., & Bosen, R. (2020, December 6). Poland and Germany: 50 years since Willy Brandt’s historic gesture. Retrieved from dw.com: https://www.dw.com/en/germany-poland-reconciliation-willy-brandt/a-55828523

Holocaust and Human Behavior, Obeying Orders. (n.d.). Retrieved from Facing History and Ourselves: https://www.facinghistory.org/holocaust-and-human-behavior/chapter-10/obeying-orders

Johns-Putra, A. (2016, March/April). Climate change in literature and literary studies: From cli-fi, climate change theatre and eco-poetry to ecocriticism and climate change criticism. (M. Hulme, Ed.) WIREs Climate Change,, 7, 266-282. doi: 10.1002/wcc.385

King, S. (2021). Crimate Fiction and the Environmental imagination of place. The Journal of Popular Culture, 54(6), 1235-1253.

Laughter, J. (2012). Polar City Red. Deadly Niche Press.

Raymond, J. (2022). Denial. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Raymond, J. (2022, July 22). Denial Presents a Compellingly Low-Key Vision of Post-Revolution Portland. (C. Reed, Interviewer) Portland: Portland Monthly. Retrieved August 1, 2022, from https://www.pdxmonthly.com/arts-and-culture/2022/07/denial-jon-raymond-portland-author-interview

Sainte-Marie, B. (1964). Universal Soldier [Recorded by B. Sainte-Marie].

Sewell, A. (1877). Black Beauty. Norwich: Jarrold & Sons.

Shute, N. (1957). On The Beach. London: Heinemann.

Tuomainen, A. (2013). The Healer. (L. Rogers, Trans.) New York: Henry Holt & Company.

Wyndham, J. (1951). The Day of the Triffids. London: Penguin.

Wyndham, J. (1953). The Kraken Wakes. London: Penguin.

 

The post DENIAL by Jon Raymond, reviewed by T.O.Munro appeared first on The Fantasy Hive.

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