Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The environment in contemporary literature

Having recently read Don De Lillo's Underworld and Bill Duncan's The Smiling School for Calvinists I've been thinking about how the environment features in contemporary fiction. Neither of these books really focuses on the environment as such but both make powerful environmental statements nonetheless. Underworld is a big novel that disects the 20th Century USA using two defining elements - baseball and waste disposal. Characters are seen sorting out their trash into the different materials that can be recycled, ships saile around the world looking for a harbour where they can dump their illegal cargoes of waste and an architect builds beautiful buildings from waste materials.

The Smiling School for Calvinists is an entertaining look at life in the poorer parts of Dundee in Scotland, made up of short stories and snippets, mostly written in a form of Scots (for more about the language used in the book, see this post on my other blog Over Forty Shades). It's mostly a very urban book, but from time to time a character will take time out to go for a walk or to sit on the roof of the multi-storey block of flats to watch the geese fly by.

Both these books show writers who are in touch with the environment and environmental issues, but who are not willing to focus entirely on the environment. I wonder though do people who are not engaged with environmental issues notice these aspects to the books they read? What do you think of the way nature and environmental issues are portrayed in the novels and short stories you read?

7 comments:

Melissa B. said...

Have you read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? It's a wonderful first-person account of one family's attempt to live off the land. The experiment was pretty much a success, too!

Despairing said...

Tis funny, I was going to mention this very thing next week!

I've just finished Douglas Coupland's 'Generation A', set in the near future when bees are extinct. In passing, the author mentions that cars and planes are a luxury and our food systems have had to adapt, but they are not main elements of the novel. (I'm a Coupland fan, but I have to admit that this is not one of his best).

Immediately prior to that I read Stuart B MacBride's 'Halfhead', a science fiction novel set in a climatically-changed future Glasgow. Again, the climate change elements were subtly in the background rather than being front-and-centre.

If you want a novel with climate change in your face on every page, then 'World Made By Hand' by James Howard Kunstler is for you.

Crafty Green Poet said...

HI Melissa, I'm a Kingslover fan but not read this one, I'll look out for it....

Despairing - I'm a Coupland fan too and Generation A sounds interesting, even if not his best.... Halfhead sounds good too, how does it compare to But and Ben a Go Go, which is the other Scottish climate change novel I know of (and have read)? Not sure i do want it all 'in my face', but I'll look out for World mde by hand anyway...

Titus said...

Interesting post. I'll pay more attention to those aspects as I'm reading.

Michael said...

I suppose the first encounter with a book about animals or nature that wasn't about having tea and crumpets with Moley etc was Watership Down. Today I mostly encounter environmental themes in sci-fi books like Charles Pellegrino's Dust. One of my favourite sci-fi writers is ecofeminist Sheri S. Tepper.

Julie said...

Hi, Juliet. This is a topic that is very interesting to me. In my culture, people are part of the land. We are formed by the land. It is in the flow of our blood and the beat of our hearts. That love of the environment tends to show in much of our contemporary fiction, but it's not necessarily intentional. Often, there are themes of loss of landscape and the sorrow because of that loss. I tend to do that in my own writing, but it has been an issue for many years. Thanks for the conversation and information about the books.

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