Our nation is hurtling towards the federal election as I consider Vincent Silk’s debut novel, Sisters of No Mercy. I am alert to public commentary, the kind I pay attention to anyway, which suggests that climate change has finally made itself sufficiently known to us so as to influence votes—perhaps for the first time—in terms that are both decisive and wide-spread. To me, more daunting than the looming question of who might triumph to take charge of the nation, is the spectre of climate change itself, which to my mind is something that exists, like a sweat-soaked nightmare, like God, on the periphery of imagination, at the limits of my talent as a writer to meaningfully articulate. I imagine the catastrophe as a dust-storm, something bonding land to sky with darkness and debris, rolling over the earth like a shroud. I imagine it as thirst; water clotted with the phlegm of plastic particles. Climate change is the experience of being buried alive. An unending scream – until the scream does end, cut off mid-note, because there is no world left to populate with sound.
As if pre-empting a fate in which we have failed to put into office a leader with the will to fight for the planet that sustains us, Silk conjures an imagined Australian city decomposing under the impacts of Mega-storm Martha. The storm, he writes, had “thrust the spectre of Nature inside the common living room, and the effect was undeniable…the panic that This Could Happen Here cascaded through the city’s consciousness more violently than the freak waves that had rolled in along the coast”. It could happen here – but in day-to-day discourse, that message still feels at once too opaque and too slippery to convey. My attempts to pin climate change down are just images – linguistic struggles to reach toward a conceptual framework for total annihilation (or something much more horrific and plausible, which is having to live on indefinitely, as Silk’s band of plucky young characters must, in a collapsing world). Almond, one of the resourceful survivors who populate Silk’s prescient novel, notes that, “When you can see the pattern, you can see where the pattern breaks. You might not be able to avoid it, but if you can see it coming you can at least prepare”. But how to articulate the pattern so that we are forearmed? Time and again, I attempt to conjure climate change beyond the alliteration of its nomenclature – bandied about so loosely and frequently these days, thankfully and unfortunately, that it is almost meaningless. Even as drought and fire and flooding occurs with preternatural severity and duration in Australia and globally, the term climate change fails to relay any meaningful electrocution to its audience: it has become that ubiquitous.
That said, there has been a call to arms, popularly personified recently by adolescent activist Greta Thunberg, to shift the discourse away from change and toward breakdown and/or emergency. Whatever we call it, bald-faced fear of the catastrophe manifesting should make us howl until our throats are raw, drive us wailing into the night, into the sea – anywhere so long as we shift completely outside of our minds and our bodies, just so we won’t have to endure with any cognisance, or bear witness to, what the science says is coming. Of course, we could take action to avoid complete disaster. That is an option, impossible to achieve or dangerously necessary, depending on your view – and, perhaps, the generation to which you belong.
Thunberg has had the most success in bridging the chasm between the abstract and our reality. Her discourse—heartfelt, impassioned, critical in both senses of the word—and her age, conspire to bypass the lethargy that has attached itself to climate change. In this, she is a real-world avatar for Silk’s activists and troublemakers: Pinky, Del, Neeah-Nancy, Jameson and Almond. “When social infrastructure, all of it, the buildings, the very shape of public spaces, the ways the city allows or prevents people from moving, flowing, from existing in public, when all of that is against you, you’re at a huge disadvantage. Aren’t you?”
You are, but young people hold one advantage conceptually if not practically at the coalface of disaster, because generally speaking they have nothing to lose (unlike, for example, Baby Boomers) by advocating for massive social upheaval in the name of the common good. Silk’s characters are more transient and disadvantaged than most, given that they are living in the natural outcome of neo-liberalist structures destabilised by environmental collapse. The nation’s contemporary fixation on real estate and inflated housing costs have given rise, in Sisters of No Mercy, to ruin and perpetual homelessness for ordinary folks. “Thousands of buildings had sat empty for years, until Martha had decimated a portion of the city, tipping the scales of property value in the favour of banks and developers…The worst affected buildings still just sat there, ruined, abandoned, squalid and huge”. Some, like the villain of the story Dirk Trench, whose disproportionate and horrifying wealth draws the force of the band’s intelligence as they try to rip him off, signal that whatever systemic inequities exist today will only be exacerbated under pressure of the weather. The fact that Trench is slated to have grown his own jungle is a heartrending signpost for his incredible privilege, and this small but powerful detail haunted me, even beyond other more expansive descriptions of characters and lands in crisis.
Various writers, myself included, have come at the problem of portraying climate change with bleak earnestness, trying to find the right tenor, the right language, the right metaphors to bring the issue home. Vincent Silk takes a different tact – and his efforts are admirable. Critic James Wood infamously coined the genre ‘Hysterical Realism’ to describe the mode of modernist fiction to which Silk’s novel has also been assigned (as per the novel’s blurb). Wood originally wrote of the genre, “One is reminded of Kierkegaard’s remark that travel is the way to avoid despair…these books share a bonhomous, punning, lively serenity of spirit. Their mode of narration seems to be almost incompatible with tragedy or anguish”. Such novels, which include those written by David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo and Zadie Smith—and now Silk—among others, share a relentless energy, many plotlines, and as Wood points out, a marked (perhaps irresponsible, perhaps necessary) absence of despair.
In the wake of the September 11 attacks, such rambunctious approaches to storytelling suddenly seemed implausible, redundant, when considered in the context of such pervasive evil and disaster, provoking Wood to write, “It ought to be harder, now, either to bounce around in the false zaniness of hysterical realism or to trudge along in the easy fidelity of social realism. Both genres look a little busted”. Perhaps this is even more true with something as globally and irrevocably devastating as climate change, but Sisters of No Mercy seems to hover above the crumbling foundations of the genre to which it has been assigned – to find a way to articulate the unsayable in ways that can be both stomached and heard. Ultimately, Sisters of No Mercy poses a vision for what the outcome of our failings may not only look like, but how it might be expressed. The tone is mocking, ironic, clever and cynical, something like how the future might be told if narrated by characters from The West Wing. “Just because you’re a slave to your neo-liberal lifestyle, and you’re sucked into a toxic, state-sanctioned treadmill of profit doesn’t mean I’ve got to do what you say!” crows an unpopular member of the ensemble, Clancy. The novel is funny and energetic, and also poignantly impactful. At times, I found the writing almost transcendently tender. When Pinky’s parents disappear overnight without telling him where they are going, Pinky joins the ranks of many young dystopian protagonists before him who are left to fend for themselves with their peers. Silk writes, heartbreakingly, that Pinky, “accepted, gently, silently, that he was now in a period that could be labelled ‘After Parents’”.
But perhaps an era categorised by being After Parents—after the generations who royally fucked the environment and those, like mine, who failed to rise up sufficiently to repair it—is what we should all be fleeing toward without a backward glance, painful as the progression might be. For a fighting chance of, first, being able to express to ourselves the scope and severity of the disaster looming, and second, to survive its unfolding, we will be relying on folks like the ones Silk has created, and a mode of narration, a way of getting at the issue, that is at once incisive and imbued with humour.
Although Silk’s characters are resourceful because their hands are tied by circumstance, they are not only surviving the instability of their time but, impressively, fighting back. Meanwhile, in the present, we don’t even know how to scare ourselves into action, to make this looming terminal diagnosis relevant, current or undeniable. I came away from reading Sisters of No Mercy thinking, Aha! This is how we must tell our story to ourselves.
Alice Robinson earned a Bachelor of Creative Arts from The University of Melbourne and a PhD in Creative Writing from Victoria University, where she was awarded the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Research. Alice’s debut novel, Anchor Point (Affirm Press, 2015), was longlisted for The Stella Prize and the Indie Book Awards (debut fiction) in 2016. Her second novel, The Glad Shout (Affirm Press, 2019), was published in March.