In Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise the protagonist and narrator, Jack Galdney, finds himself struggling to get a straight answer from his precocious teenage son, Heinrich.
“It’s going to rain tonight.”
“It’s raining now,” I said.
“The radio said tonight.”
“Look at the windshield,” I said. “Is that rain or isn’t it?”
“I’m only telling you what they said.”
“Just because it’s on the radio doesn’t mean we have to suspend belief in the evidence of our senses.”
“Our senses? Our senses are wrong a lot more often than they’re right. This has been proved in the laboratory. Don’t you know about all those theorems that say nothing is what it seems? There’s no past, present or future outside our own mind. The so-called laws of motion are a big hoax. Even sound can trick the mind. Just because you don’t hear a sound doesn’t mean it’s not out there. Dogs can hear it. Other animals. And I’m sure there are sounds even dogs can’t hear. But they exist in the air, in waves. Maybe they never stop. High, high, high-pitched. Coming from somewhere.”
“Is it raining,” I said, “or isn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t want to have to say.”
“What if someone held a gun to your head?”
The exchange is as infuriating as it is amusing and you can’t help but wonder where your sympathies should lie. On the one hand Heinrich is deploying tendentious po-mo deconstruction. Yet his father is a professor at the town’s liberal arts college where he founded the academic field of Hitler Studies, created in service of academic advancement, providing a stage for his own po-mo preoccupations.
I couldn’t help but think of White Noise as I recently read Joy Williams’ Harrow. If you put a gun to my head and told me to describe the book I’d say it reads like White Noise meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Describing the actual plot of Harrow makes describing the plot of White Noise seem easy. If there is a central conceit to the novel it is that there has been some kind of global environmental catastrophe — the titular “Harrow” — the details of which are only ever alluded to and described indirectly. The situation is stated most clearly towards the end of the novel.
Bouncing back from such historical earth-caused losses, humankind had become more frightened and ruthless than ever. Nature had been deemed sociopathic and if you found this position debatable you were deemed sociopathic as well and there were novel and increasingly effective ways of dealing with you.
None of this really reflects the nature of what awaits a reader in the book. So I will try again. We follow a teenager Khristen who is sent off to a mysterious school for gifted children, until “the Harrow” causes the school to be swiftly shuttered. Khristen goes in search of her mother and arrives instead at The Institute: a kind of eco-terrorist training camp for geriatrics who have decided to dedicate what remains of their lives to coordinated acts of revenge against the people who inflicted so much cruelty and damage on the natural world. Khristen eventually leaves the institute and in the final portions of the novel arrives in the bizarre courtroom of a twelve-year-old judge. I’ve skipped a great deal, but hopefully you get a sense of how resistant the book is to any kind of conventional narrative arc.
I might as well divulge another central conceit of the novel: Khristen’s mother holds the firm conviction that Khristen had briefly died and returned to life when she was a baby. None of the witnesses to the incident or the doctors who examined the child believe this happened. The baby just appeared to have momentarily stopped breathing. Yet this non-incident is returned and treated like it should hold a great deal of resonance. Later on there is much discussion of Kafka’s short story The Hunter Gracchus, which is obviously great fun if, like me, you’ve never read that particular story. But I am led to believe Gracchus’ own un-dead predicament should resonate with Khristen’s.
I should say that Joy Williams is very highly regarded as a writer and you can find plenty of evidence on the page of her skill as a prose stylist. Even if I spent most of the book waiting for it all to accumulate in some or any way, the scenes are nevertheless wildly inventive and individual lines can haunt you:
The fish was not rose-mole stippled and lovely but gray and gaunt as though it had lived its brief life in a drainpipe.
The poetic beauty of the initial description contrast powerfully with the bleak point at which the sentence ends. It is a knight’s move of a sentence, shifting trajectory somewhere along the way. A quick google search reveals that this “rose-mole stippled” business is lifted from a nature poem Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Which is all to say that there is a lot going on if you look carefully.
But is Harrow actually a good novel? I cannot help myself but channel the spirit of Heinrich Gladney:
“Do you think Harrow was good?”
“In what sense good? Good to all readers in all times and in all circumstances? Good on a first reading or on a rereading? Perhaps you want me to give an Amazon star rating, because to that I must outright object on aesthetic grounds.”
“How about to you, today, when you read it.”
“I feel like any serious art inevitably provokes complicated sets of emotions in me that resist easy reduction.”
“So you did not enjoy it?”
“‘Enjoy’ is too narrow a term to capture whatever virtues the artists was aiming for. I feel like giving a straight answer would serve to do nothing more that to open me up to being accused of exhibiting a lack of literary sophistication.”
“Sounds like you are afraid that the book was good but that you were not able to appreciate it fully. Which would be awkward because lots of other people said it was great. Kirkus named it 2021’s best.”
“I certainly managed to appreciate some of it.”
If you want a more insightful critical rundown of Harrow, and Joy Williams oeuvre more generally, then I suggest Katy Waldman’s piece for the New Yorker.