“She had grown up, she realised too late, in the autumn of things, an extraordinary world – its ancient rainforests, its wild rivers, its beaches and oceans, its birds and animals and fish, all were to her a path to freedom and transcendence, and none – she only now saw – were but a transitory wonder so soon to vanish until all that remained for a short time longer were human beings. But just for a short time. They could not survive alone, outside of the wonder – what could? – and so that time too would end.”
Richard Flanagan’s extinction novel, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, digs deeply into the history of his own writing, reaching back through the briefly retold story of the abducted Tasmanian Aboriginal girl Mathinna in Wanting (2008) to his first novel from 1994, Death of a River Guide. Whilst that first novel revolves around one death and a multitude of life, for this most recent piece of incendiary storytelling Flanagan has flipped the coin to focus our attention on the story of one life, Francie’s, and a multitude of death: vanishing, extinction, the depletion, exhaustion and destruction of life on planet Earth. The long, sad, final story of Francie’s life is that of her children’s refusal to let her die, their lives and stories told only in relation to their weakness and selfishness as they refuse to respect her wishes or autonomy in preference for their own.
“The more she thought about it the more she wondered if maybe that’s what humans can’t do. Live with beauty. That it’s beauty they can’t bear. That what was really vanishing wasn’t all the birds and fish and animals and plants, but love. Perhaps that’s what she was trying to stop vanishing before it was too late. Sometimes she felt love had dried up like a riverbed in drought.”
Meanwhile the threat of catastrophic species depletion is all around them and everyone they interact with but invisible in terms of their engagement or concern, despite the massive blanket of bushfire smoke from the burning continent that is suffocating every state and capital city on the east coast of Australia. And in their torpor human beings begin to disappear themselves, not yet burning, starving, drowning, swept away as a species but piece by piece, digit by digit, limb by limb, sense by sense, as they exchange their consciousness and consciences for perpetual immersion in the online world, nature and reality for artifice and delusion. Bleak is the vision. Profound the loss. Uncomprehending the anger.
“She had learnt that people were remarkably unobservant, thinking they were seeing the same person when that person was vanishing before them. Bit by bit they dissolved and yet no one seemed to notice. The more things changed the harder people stared into their screens, living elsewhere, the real world now no more than the simulacrum of the screen world, their real lives the shadow of their online lives. The more people vanished the more they asserted themselves online as if in some grotesque equation or transfer. Meme artist, influencer, blogger, online memoirist. She wondered if the more they were there the less they were here? Did she know?”
Flanagan takes the modernist-post-modernist tropes of the inadequacy and impossibility of language, strips them of their theoretical baggage and redeploys them to question why it is that we have failed utterly to communicate with each other about that which is most obvious, most pressing and most important: our relationship with the planet, our unsustainable depletion of the resources we consume to maintain the unrewarding lifestyles to which we aspire and the climatic and environmental catastrophe in which we are apparently now inextricably embedded. Again, stripped of its literary conceits, the failure of language is writ small at the quotidian human scale in the refusal of Francie’s children to let her go, to let her escape the hideous death-in-life to which they have condemned her. And. Alongside this, of course, are the major failures, our inability and unwillingness to see, to speak, to demand or initiate the changes in priorities, policy and behaviour that we know are essential to secure the viability of humanity and the planet.
“Were words? As Francie pointed.
“Well: were they what?
“As if they too were already then falling apart, so much ash and soot soon to fall, so much smoke to suck down. As if all that can be said is we say you or if that then. Them us were we you?”