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The Deluge

February 19, 2023

I was excited when I spotted Stephen Markley’s new novel about climate change, The Deluge, at a Columbus-area bookstore, with a three-word blurb from his writing partner for Only Murders in the Building, Ben Philippe, because Stephen is the son of a friend of mine; he’s a local writer who has achieved some measure of fame.

But I found The Deluge a ponderous book in every sense of the word: it will make you think, it will exhaust you with its lumbering progress towards a far-distant ending, and it will make your hands hurt as you try to hold it up.

You probably should try to hold it up. In the wake of the real-life toxic plume (like the one in DeLillo’s novel White Noise) in eastern Ohio, my neighbors are looking at things like watershed maps, some for the first time.

There are so many characters in this novel–each an attempt to humanize one approach to saving the planet–that you may lose track. The main ones are Tony Pietrus, a scientist, Kate Morris, an activist, Ashir-al-Hasan, an analyst, The Pastor, an actor turned religious figure, Jacqueline, an advertiser who eventually goes to work with Kate Morris, Keeper, a down-on-his-luck former drug addict, and Shane, the leader of an eco-terrorist organization.

The narrative techniques are cumulative and journalistic in effect, mixing news articles, interview transcripts, and journal entries with first, second, and third person point of view.

Often the point of view on people is how awful they are. A description of Shane eating breakfast at a Bob Evans restaurant includes the information that “the other patrons were geriatric with flesh the texture of the snow slurry outside. They ate tediously, automatically, knives struggling through country fried steak, forks impaling scrambled eggs or scooping home fries. She counted four oxygen tanks in the main dining room, one of them hooked to a man so obese that the sides of his butt drooped over the edge of the chair.”

A similar description of Tony eating lunch at a restaurant reveals “mostly wealthy retirees adorned in every manner of sparkling mineral washed of the toxic slurry its extraction had left behind in some far-flung sacrifice zone. All of them albatrossed by credit cards, boat upkeep, and the perturbations of the stock market.”

Recommendations about what we should do are voiced by characters who tend to be rude and overly blunt, like when, early in this fictional future, Tony Pietrus lays out what he believes needs to be done:
“we need a two hundred dollar per metric ton tax rising twenty dollars a year, every year, at minimum. We need to phase out coal in the next two years. That means beginning to shut down plants by fiat and have the government nationalize all coal stocks. Preferably we’d buy fifty-one percent stakes in every major carbon producer and unwind them as rapidly as possible. We need to be commissioning five new nuclear reactors a year for the next twenty. Then we need to hammer the shit out of India and China until they’re on board.”

Kate Morris is even more blunt, telling a crowd that
“There are a handful of corporations and governments happily burning as much carbon as they can so that a handful of people can get obscenely rich. And mostly, the problem lies right here.”
And she pointed behind her to the bulging Capitol Dome.
“That building is ours. The whole idea is that whatever happens in there is our will. Our decision. But instead, it’s a defensive fortress for a tiny elite, who are profiting from the genocide of our planet.”
Kate might be a character readers could admire, but the novelist includes continual descriptions of how down-to-earth she is, including her sexual preferences and elimination habits. Here’s a typical example: “Kate hocked up the snot in her throat and thwapped a loogie in the sand.”

I was reminded of the picture of what extreme heat can do to people in Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry for the Future when I read what Stephen Markley’s more abstract picture of it looks like:
“In cities across the country, power grids and substations began to buckle. In Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Knoxville, Louisville, Memphis, Atlanta, the blackouts and brownouts crippled infrastructure. Cooling stations lost power, AC units were worthless, mobile phone networks stopped working, and people were stranded in their homes. No VR, TV, lights, or refrigerators. Crack open the elevator doors of a high-rise and fine two parents and three children cooked to death inside after only a few hours. Sky-high ozone and humidity. A heat index across the South of 133 degrees. A human body can only take two days of uninterrupted exposure to such temperatures. Electrolytes go haywire, exhaustion, respiratory issues, and renal failure follow. Hospital beds were overrun like nothing since Covid-19. Ambulances were booked solid, emergency response times up to four hours. Many hospitals had to close their doors to new admissions, all the beds taken.”

That the characters are only very thinly-fleshed-out ideas is nowhere more clear than in the chapter on Ashir’s experiment on his own baby. This is the part that made me have to stop reading for a while; I was so horrified by the idea that even in fiction, a parent would starve his own baby on purpose. Ashir says he “allotted twelve hundred calories each day” for the baby and on the first day “he began crying around one o’clock and did not stop until I gave him a half cup of macaroni with chopped broccoli at 5 pm.” On subsequent days Ashir relates that “I sometimes turned on the news to drown out his sobbing.” Like a child who asks to mail the food remaining on his plate to starving people in another country, Ashir thinks that starving his baby will show him what it’s like to live where people can’t get enough food, even though “after nine days, he stopped crying. He was, it seemed, too tired….His hair thinned, and I found the kinky strands in his bath and scattered in the crib. His skin, usually quite puffy and soft, now had a parched, dried consistency. He never smiled and his usual cooing and babbling ceased as well.” After the experiment, Ashir says, like a complete asshole, “I’m convinced mine was an experiment every parent should force themselves to contemplate, for this is the future of our world.” I could never take seriously anything this character said or did after this point in the novel.

The advertiser Jacqueline’s point of view is how the novelist works in most of his criticism of the ultra-rich. She makes fun of her sister’s “Real Housewives of St. Louis life,” describing it as one that few people I know could afford. At one point, her partner Fred tells a joke about how rich people always pretend they don’t have an obscene amount of money: “growing up, our summer house was such a dump, it didn’t even have a dock!” On her way home to her $5.6 million home in a building on NYC’s Upper West Side, she passes a gas station “where five kids stood in the way of a car, holding signs….One sign read WHAT YOU DO HERE STARVES THE WORLD; another WE ARE OUT OF TIME with a picture of a clock; another, WE ARE THE DELUGE.” Later she joins the gas station protestors. There’s a funny description of a charity dinner that Jacqueline and Fred go to, one that costs $20,000 a plate, but to get the humor you have to know something about how the rich live, like what kind of expensive dress a “Lela Rose” is. (I looked it up; I could order a Lela Rose dress from Neiman-Marcus for $2,490, which is about 25 times what anyone I know spends on a single item of clothing.)

Shane’s point of view is that people who don’t do what she thinks they should do must be killed, to clear them out of the way for her right-thinking tribe. Her outlook on people in general is ultra-cynical; she doesn’t believe in what she calls “the fables of the people protesting in the streets with their pink pussy hats right before they met for brunch and went home to binge Netflix.”

Meanwhile Keeper has been in prison, where the work release program is search and rescue and cleanup after disasters:
“they shipped you to Los Angeles for the aftermath of the El Demonio fire. For three months, you and the crew sifted through rubble to pull charred corpses and burned bone fragments from collapsed houses. Then it was on to Sioux Falls, St. Louis, and Nashville, as the Great Eastern Flood opened wide and swallowed the Midwest. Then it was Hurricane Rose devastating the coast of Georgia and northern Florida….You saw men, women, and children who’d been burned alive in their cars trying to escape the flames on a charred California freeway.”

At the end of the novel, Tony works with some of the other characters to propose a plan, one that presumably the author endorses:
“Through the Coastal Resilience and Defense Authority (CORDA), the federal government will offer pre-crisis fair market value to homeowners living within the ‘hazard line’ of the US coast, established as those areas within nine feet of sea level. For property within three feet, owners will, after two years, lose the opportunity for a buyout or federal flood insurance, and eminent domain may be invoked depending on the property’s viability, the goal being to restore as much of this area from paved-over development to wetlands as quickly as possible while also embarking on a federal works project to plant mangrove forests on the Southeast and Gulf coasts to protect against storm surge and sequester significant amounts of carbon. There will, however, be a hard cap of $5 million for single-family homes, $3 million for second homes and investment properties, and $25 million for businesses, forcing the wealthy to eat the cost of the retreat. For instance, Facebook’s campus in Menlo Park, California, built for over $1 billion and only 1.6 feet above sea level, will face a staggering loss with this program. A reformation of the National Flood Insurance Program will create the National Fire and Flood Insurance Program (NFFIP) using updated FEMA maps to calculate climate risk. Nonprofit disaster insurance backed by public dollars is still an absolute necessity, but it must not incentivize risky building behavior as the NFIP did for so long. Households will be zoned according to risk and certain properties that flood or burn will only get money to move, not rebuild.”
There’s more, of course, but like the congressmen Tony accuses of not reading the bills they vote on, many readers will get the gist and move on, even if they agree, which I think many non-millionaire readers already do.

If The Deluge seizes the imagination of a few readers who aren’t already convinced about the dangers of climate change that will be a good thing, but it seems to me the odds are low, especially since the prevailing attitude is one often exhibited by environmental writers, that other people are the biggest problem with the Earth.

It will take me a while to finish pondering the ideas presented in The Deluge, but the taste it has left in my mind reminds me of what Codi’s father says to her about not wanting to be a doctor, at the end of Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Animal Dreams: “You’re entitled to that opinion,” he said. “That the human body is a temple of nastiness.”

If people are nasty, why try to save anyone but yourself? That’s one of the questions this novel leaves us to ponder.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2023 3:09 pm

    OMG, this book sounds horrible. Plus the writing style in the quoted paragraphs is just too convoluted. Staying away from this very far…

    • February 21, 2023 12:40 pm

      To be fair, it’s the subject matter that’s horrible and the novelist is holding a mirror up to nature.

      • February 21, 2023 1:31 pm

        I don‘t know, the cast of characters just sounds silly to me: „a stunning cast of characters—a broken drug addict, a star advertising strategist, a neurodivergent mathematician, a cunning eco-terrorist, an actor turned religious zealot, and a brazen young activist named Kate Morris“. I don‘t mind the subject matter.

  2. February 20, 2023 4:11 pm

    The answer to your final question, from me, would be: because I have children, and had them back when things seemed much more stable – 1986 to 1991 – and I had just become ill.

    To normal people, their kids are everything. I did not rear the self-centered self-indulgent entitled type of kid – at my best they still knew I was always sick, and doing the best that we could. They turned out better than I could hope for.

    They’re NOT alone in the world; and it has always been so, the good and the bad, the rich and the poor. I hope we make it.

    • February 21, 2023 12:40 pm

      Oh yes, this is a major theme in the book, that the parents are afraid of what will happen to the world during their children’s lifetimes. Tony has to rescue his youngest daughter from a fire that destroys most of LA.

      • February 21, 2023 1:15 pm

        Children have been the driver of everything from greed to love: enough of a percentage of people have them for it to be a major force, and it compensates a little bit for our knowing we won’t be around forever. Gives some of us a reason to moderate our behavior, trying not to leave a total mess. Etc.

  3. February 20, 2023 9:24 pm

    I think I would have a really hard time with how negative this book is. Once I lose hope, it doesn’t come back easily. I was wondering if, because you know the writer, you were going to ask him questions about his book. I guess the one that really stood out to me is the fact that people often go right for a fat person to point out how sad or immoral a group of people in one place are, as if to say that this man is so fat that you should feel negatively about a place like Bob Evan’s, or whatever, because it’s just a sign of capitalism and gluttony. Of course, I could be reading into this too hard and overly sensitive about it.

    • February 21, 2023 12:38 pm

      I know the writer’s mother, but don’t actually know him, so I don’t know, but my guess is that he’s using fat as a sign of unthinking capitalism and gluttony. As so many writers do, especially the young ones who have never had to struggle with health and weight.

  4. February 21, 2023 11:40 am

    I’m not sure what to think about this. It sounds like novel as blunt force instrument. I think we need more stories about climate change and how we manage it, but this sounds so mean in a lot of ways, like it attacks people instead of the system. Not that individuals don’t have responsibility, especially the rich, but we have a government that insists on the status quo and continually lies to us about climate change and what we need to do, and a whole set of interlocking systems that have created a culture that makes it really hard for the average people to resist and make change. A novel needs individual characters, but if the author (really cool that you know him!) is trying to nudge people towards change, leaving the reader feeling like people are nasty and not worth saving isn’t exactly helpful.

    • February 21, 2023 12:34 pm

      I think the novel is meant to be a blunt force instrument, as its characters think that the existing systems and governments won’t respond to anything else (and don’t respond even at the last second–there’s a horribly amusing exchange about how many feet of sea level rise the politicians are willing to consider). So the bluntness of the characters is cutting through all that denial, a frustration I know you share. Maybe you’ll find the characters less repellent than I do.
      I know the author’s mother, although I don’t recall ever meeting him in person. He grew up in the same town I’ve lived in for the last 30 years. I have no idea if he’s fat phobic or thinks the physical details I find repellent make his characters seem more real. Certainly his description of the Bob Evans includes unkind caricatures of the people who frequent our local restaurant. I shudder to think of how he’d describe me if I came under his gimlet eye while sitting in a local restaurant.

      • February 23, 2023 7:37 am

        Interesting. While it won’t be top on my list, I will keep it in mind for curiosity’s sake and if I’m in the mood to be challenged by a pov. Though I chuckled over your sea level parenthetical because I think politicians and corporations do this all the time, not just with climate change. So maybe I might find the book less bothersome than I think I would, which is a kind of worrisome thought!

  5. February 21, 2023 1:11 pm

    This is the second review of this book I’ve seen. Seems like this is a hard read but very thought provoking.

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