Do you remember that photograph: the boy in the boat in the holiday waters? Do you remember #Mallacootafires ?
I had already forgotten. When I mentioned this, others too had forgotten. How?! The funeral pyre of a wilderness, the utter condemnation of a society that allowed climate change, the bravery of children in the face of adult cupidity and cowardice. Failure of nerve. The PM on holiday while country, towns, animals burned. I published my first Medium article on December 23rd. The next week, Mallacoota: Red Cross; Australian Navy rescues. We cried as we watched the news.
Then we forgot. Because 2020. Sick planet syndrome: the pandemic that won’t go away. The spider plagues of 2021 are even occluded.
Richard Flanagan’s 2020 novel ‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’ has the summer of 2019 as it’s undated setting. The disasters, the absent rulers and utter lack of leadership.
The failure of nerve. The pointless tech and the ignoring of specialists’ advice … these are also the core of his story: damaged adult children and their dying mother. Symbolism? Sure, symbolism pervades the book like bushfire smoke in a shopping centre. And there’s a reality we can’t dodge: the main character, Anna, hyperventilates through twitter newsfeeds: black sky at noon, burnt creature trapped on barbed wire, children in the waves … and shares a post about luxury shoes. Shoes; for fuck’s sake. Beautifully shown, her — our — fear and inability to face loss; and the distractions, eager to take our money and save us from thinking about what lays dying.
A different approach is taken by Lydia Millet in A Children’s’ Bible (2020) for her protagonist is not an adult with power, but a teenager filled with anger at the behaviour of middle-class parents, a disowned mass of drunkards, druggies, fornicators. The parents are awful. The children are disgusted.
Let me repeat that: middle-class parents are awful. They will die and they will disappear, and they deserve to. It’s a difficult book; the best review on Goodreads was by Marchpane: ‘I highly recommend going in cold — don’t even read the blurb!’. It’s an important book; anyone over 14 or 15 seems a valid audience.
Millet’s symbolism is clear: the protagonist Eve, the sinning parents, wandering lost in the wilderness, a Christ figure and sacrificial goats; and finally, a form of salvation built by innocents. The carrying mood, the thing that should embed this story in everyone’s consciousness, is the righteous anger of the dispossessed.
Flanagan uses allegory as hammer. It’s unavoidable to associate the dying mother with late-stage-Capitalist society; her dreadful tech/money/solution-obsessed interventionist children keeping her alive at literally all costs while the planet decays around them. People lose body parts. Not through injury or intervention: fingers, eyes, knees, just disappear. People function somehow without, and the losses become invisible, ignored. So with the insects, fish, mammals, birds and plant genera: they vanish, yet we carry on as if civilisation can do without. It cannot.
A Children’s Bible washes civilisation away: not in the cleansing flood of Noah’s redemption but the deluge of St John’s Apocalypse.
Neither A Children’s Bible nor The Living Sea of Waking Dreams find salvation in technology, or money, or the building of bunkers. Both are important novels if only for this very fact. The challenge we face as writers, readers, voters, is to acknowledge the morbidity of world-wide ecosystem collapse, irreversible species loss, and the inability of current economics to contain itself within the planet’s means.
Be angry when you write, when you read, when you vote. Be very angry.