Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills is like a puzzle laid for the wily reader, a challenge and a eulogy both. It’s drenched with nostalgia for the present. Wound together out of multiple points of view and various stages in the life of main character Sam, Dyschronia has no respect. Not for corporations and multinationals, not for science and medicine, not for policies that disadvantage a working class rural Australia, not for parents in general, and not for your paltry concept of linear time. Is this why you should read it? No. You should read it because it’s radiant and ambitious; an imposing project that Mills has executed with barely an off note. But if you do read this book you may experience a post-Dyschronia haze, in which your life is peopled with giant squid and characters who, frankly, could do with a bit of a hand, but whom Mills leaves ultimately unaided.
This is Mills’ fourth book. Her other books, Gone, The Rest is Weight, and The Diamond Anchor, reflect a common concern with the everyday lives of working people. With this book, this theme becomes the driver of the plot. Who will protect the ordinary people in the face of the environmental changes that are inevitably coming? And who is really to blame?
Dyschronia is the best (and perhaps most terrifying) kind of dystopian fiction. It outlines a very possible near future, in which the effects brought on by climate change have accelerated. This is a future of petrol shortages, a lack of resources, forced relocations and the dissolution of communities. Desertification is widespread, and whole states are at risk of becoming ‘unviable’ due to problems with the water table, sinkholes, and gases. Oh, and the sea disappears: “How can we see what we can’t imagine? […] We stare at the mess […] and again at the sprawl of what-the-fuck. […] Down on the beach, there are bodies.” Actually the sea recedes suddenly; we are not sure quite how far. But then, we are not sure of anything in this novel, even of what kind of novel it is, and this might be the point.
Mills is a prize-winning author. In 2012 she was named a Best Young Australian Novelist by the Sydney Morning Herald. Cate Kennedy says she’s a writer of “extraordinary range and imagination”. Meaghan Dew in Kill Your Darlings calls this book “clear, well-crafted, and unique”. But not everyone loves it entirely. A reviewer in the Saturday Paper admits to pondering what the point of all this hopelessness is. In the Australian reviewer Diane Stubbings questions the sturdiness of the plot. To which I say: Hope and sturdiness be damned! Perhaps the markers of this book – a nostalgia for a now which is slipping through our grasp, an anxiety about future resources, a collective lack of power and agency, and even the lack of clear antagonists – are the markers of our age, and of our generation. Which generation? Let’s say post-letters. I mean us, the generation whose inheritance is a planet on the verge of environmental change, and where the actors in the drama of climate change are as vague and unreachable as the powers that be in Mills’ book.
In a recent article in the Pantograph Punch, writer Jo Randerson says “There is a strong bass chord of fear underscoring contemporary life, and for many people I know it has paralysing effects.” She goes on: “A teenager I work with says that she feels as if her generation has been born into ‘the badlands’ of time.” Mills’ novel is an anatomy of these ‘badlands’: a searingly lucid look at what might be just around the corner, and a dissection of the lack of the characters’ power to change any of it. This is not a hopeful read. Mills does not dampen any of the horror; nor does she offer some heroic parable in which the protagonist saves us. For a generation that has cataclysmic change to look forward to, the notion of plot sturdiness is inapplicable. For a generation for whom the protagonists of our environmental story are distant and removed, and the people making decisions affecting climate change are the likes of the current US President, Mills’ novel is appropriately hopeless. It’s arguable whether it is literature’s job to offer hope, anyway. What Mills’ work does offer is a chance to unveil valid anxieties which we have most likely repressed in order to go about our lives.
Some reviewers have fit this book neatly into a thing called ‘cli-fi’ or climate change fiction. But this elides the slipperiness of Sam, the main character. A migraine sufferer from seven years old, Sam suffers a continual stream of headache-induced visions. She begins as the classic prophet/seer figure, her migraine wanderings not evidence of illness but pictures of actual future events. When Margaret Atwood published Oryx and Crake, which appears to be an apocalyptic sci-fi novel set in a post-disaster future, she was at pains to correct interviewers who assumed the novel was sci-fi. She described the book as fiction, albeit speculative. All of the creations in Atwood’s novel, from the massive, bred-to-grow-human-tissue pigoons, to the rakunks, or raccons/skunks, have already been made, by humans, via genetic engineering. Atwood wanted to point out that her novel, while not realism, was closer to realism than we might think. One reviewer wrote that her vision was “sickeningly possible”. This is a description that could easily be applied to Mills’ Dyschronia. But let’s focus on the word ‘sick’.
Stylistically this is a realist novel. Thematically it’s dystopian fiction. But in Sam’s struggles with her prophetic visions there are traces of magic realism. Sam is ‘sick’, but a truth-seer. In a sick world, you could argue that Sam is, indeed, the only well one – the person who is suitably affected by the way the world is about to go. She is subjected to tests, examinations, scans and medications. She doesn’t know, until her present comes around to reflect the things that she has foreseen, if she is right about the future or not. As we continue, she comes to question whether she has control over what will come to pass.
At seven, Sam is just beginning to grasp the way her words may make or unmake reality. She mixes her tenses in relating her experiences. Has it happened, or is it about to? Here we encounter Mills’ preoccupation with language and with the power of words to make and unmake meaning. This preoccupation will culminate in a remarkable climax: remarkable because it’s a false climax, and because, way past the point where narrative tension usually eases, Mills spins us on, till the tension is unbearable. We have a passage where Sam accelerates backwards, forwards, sideways through time, to the point where she escapes it, or it escapes her. The whole book gathers itself up to this moment like a great inhalation. Want to see a writer write transcending tenses? Mills is here to demonstrate this acrobatic feat, and it’s worth all the back and forth between time zones that you’re required to perform.
But there is a definite, linear plotline running through this book. And it’s not all that un-sturdy. We find our way to the plot through a narrator wracked with foreboding, never sure of the reality of what she can perceive. The device of Sam allows Mills to offer deft, poignant critiques on subjects other than bureaucratic corruption and environmental precarity. Is Sam medically and or mentally ill, or is she someone who would be lauded in another age as a saint, a channel of information from the ether? How do we deal with mental illness and the breakdown of family? What obligations do we have to those we love, in sickness? Mills references also the great tide of unwilling migrants and refugees currently displaced. Her characters, requiring rezoning, are shown a prospectus that depicts a camp reminiscent of a detention centre. In Mills’ future, displacement and homelessness is the new norm. In the communities’ struggles to deal with an unwieldy bureaucracy, one whose aim is to remove them from their home, there are echoes of the struggle of those indigenous communities who were recently threatened with complete displacement, and the eradication of their rights and heritage.
The dirge-like, dreamlike tone of this novel, an intricately constructed linguistic music, imparts a kind of mournful solemnity. There are Biblical echoes here. The flood that Sam predicts evokes the story of Noah’s ark, with Sam and her dodgy developer-almost-stepfather Ed, as the collectors of the animals. This is neatly turned on its head with the sea’s disappearance, a reverse-flood of epic proportions. At one point in the text Sam is a teenager, but she is more concerned with endings and threatening futures rather than with beginnings. Her own emotionality is held at a distance from herself, as if she, the dreamer of the novel, is in fact the most practical one. Her only sexual experience that we are granted access to occurs in the space of an asterisk; pointedly, the one such marker in a book with frequent gaps and time shifts marked by other means. Her positioning as Delphic oracle/savior/scapegoat at the hands of the townsfolk and her importance in the unfolding drama of the town’s financial salvation serve to make her a figure who is acted upon. We want her to have more agency. We want her to have more power over her own life, but again, if Sam’s story is a cipher for our own collective one, then perhaps this is the point.
If we set aside the timeliness of this work, we find at its bones, a well-written story. Mills writes with consistent impact, turning out solid, clipped scenes that end with a thud, like effective short stories. The connective tissue between the dialogue is succinct, but revelatory. We traverse a dreamlike present on Mills’ small islands of time, like jumping from rock to rock in a strong current. Throughout it all, Mills paints a picture of physical pain so vivid that it is alarming. One of Sam’s potential diagnoses, the reason for her migraines, is dyschronia, a condition typified by an inability to manage concepts of time. Dys, not dis: a prefix not just modifying a word to make it the negative of itself, as in ‘dishearten’ or ‘dislike’, but dys: the destruction of the good sense of a word, meaning bad, evil, unlucky. Sam is cursed by her unfortunate access to the wheel of time, or chronos, which in this novel turns inevitably in upon itself.
Likewise, Mills depicts a character strapped to the wheel of chronic pain so harshly that it would surprise me to learn that she has not had migraines herself. We may posit Mills’ book in the tradition of work that explores chronic pain, like that of Alphonse Daudet, and more recently, memoirist Stephanie de Montalk. But unlike the work by these writers, Mills’ novel functions simultaneously as a sort of apocalyptic whodunit. Did Sam’s headaches originate from the industrial activities near her home? Can they be linked to the high incidences of tumours and terminal illnesses that affect the children of the town? Are they a symptom of general, widespread pollution, the same thing that presumably causes the sea to vanish? Are they caused by childhood trauma? Who, ultimately, is to blame for all this mess?
Mills put the dys in dyschronia, so don’t go looking to her for answers. But you might want to look to her for a provocative, uneasy read.
Michalia Arathimos has published work in many places including Westerly, Overland, Landfall, Headland, JAAM, Sport, and Turbine. She won the Sunday Star Times Short Story Prize in 2016. Her novel, Aukati, was launched at Melbourne Writer’s Festival in 2017. She is the fiction reviewer for Overland.