Harrow by Joy Williams, review: toothless terrorists take on the USA

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Joy Williams’s Harrow, her first novel in 21 years, has something basic in common with much recent fiction: it’s set in an America of the near future or altered present that has undergone some combination of political crisis and environmental catastrophe. There have been several good books like this (Sam Lipsyte’s Hark; Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible; Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun) and as many or more lousy ones (Richard Powers’s Bewilderment). Harrow is the strangest and most beautiful I’ve read, and the one that parts most radically with realism and conventional psychology. Its concerns are spiritual, existential and metaphysical. It more often resembles a prose poem or a litany of fairy tales than a contemporary novel. Hardly any of it is plausible, and that hardly matters. It’s all pleasure, if pleasure of a bleak and violent sort. It’s also often pretty funny, in a deadpan way.

America itself seems to have become a dead pan, a continental shelf of contaminated soil where hardly any trees still stand, the vegetables are shrunken and misshapen, the fauna absent or in peril. The how and why of the ruin are never explained. Harrow doesn’t partake of the quasi-journalistic or faux encyclopedic modes typical of dystopian fictions. There was a before, and now we are in the after, “post-catastrophic”. Yet it is an America with a few recognisable totems of the old days: there are corporations, chain stores, even Disney World. One character quotes an Al Pacino line from Heat. The novel is also stuffed with allusions to Greek myth, Nietzsche, Kafka, etc, and America’s recent history, especially the Cold War, the Bomb, the development of biological weapons, and the experience of domestic and Islamist terrorism.

Many of the characters in Harrow are themselves terrorists. They are also elderly. Their teeth falling out and their memories fading, these residents of an abandoned resort venture into the corporate hellscape to commit mayhem. It makes a certain sense that the very aged would make ideal suicide bombers. There is a significant generation gap in this novel. There are a few young people and several very old people. In between there are people like this: “She had endured the brief and starving banality of one of those last childhoods before including the great attrition and corresponding resolve of the survivors, before being cosseted by brooding over-the-hill eco-nuts whose concern for the tusked and shelled, the finned and the winged, made them the shame of their species and more outcast than any Azazel goat of the Hebrews.” If you like the arc and sound of that sentence, you’ll like this novel.

Harrow doesn’t have a plot, but there is a three-part progression. It begins in a seaside town, where Khristen, the narrator of some of its passages, is born and as an infant momentarily ceases breathing, an episode her mother equates with death and knowledge of the realm beyond the living. Her near-death experience is hinted to be an allegory for the catastrophe that’s befallen society at large. She’s sent off to a boarding school, with a Nietzsche-quoting Great Books, lots-of-rules ethos. That institution experiences its own collapse, and Khristen is sent away on a train. It brings her to the Institute, the former resort full of elderly eco-terrorists. The last phase of the book mostly takes place in a courtroom where a 10-year-old boy Khristen encountered at the Institute is passing judgment on offenders against nature and its creatures.

If that summary doesn’t make sense, keep in mind this is a novel about a world that no longer makes sense. It is elemental and at once very specifically American. Much of its energy is drawn from the memory of a coherent past, a childhood shared by the aged US citizens now bent on avenging the betrayal of their youth, and the awareness of a disintegrating present and degrading future. There are many reasons to believe that the future might be as bad or worse as that portrayed in Harrow. The novel’s title comes from the word for the implement used to tear up soil on farms, which at one point seems to be used to murder one of the book’s characters. It is the only image said to be depicted in this awful future’s public art. Tearing things up for future fertilisation seems to be Williams’s point.


Harrow by Joy Williams is published by Hurst at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99, visit Telegraph Books

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