Thursday, June 29, 2023

Review: The Book of Rain by Thomas Wharton

A symphony made of successive voices, some as elegy, some as warning

A little Canadian town surrounded by forest, some distance off from the beaten path, sits on the world's biggest deposit of the world's most potent hydrocarbon fuel. A volcanic island in the Atlantic Ocean matches Plato's description of Atlantis, and might sink for real any day now. A thirsty world builds nanobot clouds to bring rain back, but the clouds reject human control and fly away to make rain where they please. A wounded biosphere shouts its pain in a language no one remembers. A rip in the stitches that keep reality in one piece leaves wrinkles in people's memories, and each time the anomaly seems to calm down, they can't be sure that they're still in the same world. A random family that was just passing by is pulled into the center of the anomalies by one too many bad rolls of fate's dice. All over the world, species are disappearing. Life is still so plentiful in its beauty that it takes deliberate attention to notice how quickly it's fading. There are no heroes, but that doesn't mean ordinary people have no effect. Rescuing even one endangered egg may not only ensure there will be a future, but earn enough goodwill to make a place in it for us.

What I'm describing is one of those precious instances when literary and speculative fiction hold hands and trace a passionate tango on the page. Such embrace between narrative forms that needn't be rivals is not a novelty in Thomas Wharton's writing career, but in the larger publishing ecosystem it's still infrequent enough to merit celebrating each occurrence of it. The Book of Rain not only draws from both traditions, but integrates their respective techniques to create an outstanding consonance of theme and form.

Like many of its animal characters, who make repeated attempts to communicate with humans and can only be understood in tragic hindsight, the fragmented, nonlinear text of The Book of Rain abounds in scattered clues that may not click together the first time, but neatly cohere once the full story is apprehended. This novel is a generous rewarder of rereading. Fittingly for a work of climate fiction, the experience of reading it and failing to catch all the little interconnected facts brings to mind the accumulated negligence of a civilization that chose to ignore the little signs of coming disaster until they piled up into an undeniable colossus. Fittingly for a novel so concerned with what birds think of human actions, its meaning can't be perceived in the details, only from a bird's-eye view. This is a book that asks you to trust it with your continued curiosity. It won't impart the answers to you; you have to reconstruct them from the multiple accounts contained in it.

There's the perpetual wild child who feels more at home in a paranormal disaster zone with a propensity for reality-warping accidents than among the mundane motions of small-town life; there's the globe-trotting secret agent who smuggles rare animals out of ruined habitats while pretending to write tourist guidebooks and is one day visited by a miracle; there's the exhausted game designer who dreams of impossible worlds where he wishes he could hide from the terror of living; there's the doomsday cult that waits for a divine sign about the end times while guarding their sacred place with hunting rifles; there's the underground geothermal laboratory that looks for a way to replace the universe with a marginally less unfavorable one; there's the assembly of birds unexpectedly burdened with deciding whether there's anything worth preserving of humankind; there are the nameless scholars who patiently compile the ancient tale of how the world was saved from final silence. There are the places where lifepaths briefly meet before diverging in irreversible directions. There are the unsuspected consequences that cascade from those chance encounters and are dragged downstream to a realm that from here looks like eternity. There are myriad novels within this novel, their stories incomplete memories that emerge and vanish in endless iterations, their characters a mass of lonely souls facing the blurry, foggy outline of posterity and stumbling confusedly toward it.

Maybe I'm not making much sense. One is supposed to provide an appetizer, a truncated plot summary, in a book review. Trying to do so for The Book of Rain would be beside the point. Each of the main narrators is introduced to the reader in the middle of a search for something crucially valuable, but this is not the story of how they find it. Although the conventions of the novel as a mode of writing were developed in tandem with the cultural shifts that led to the rise of the individual as a psychological and moral fact, here the form of the novel is stretched to encompass the long course of time, a torrent that can be diverted but not stopped, one where the pressing worries of individual lives don't amount to a drop. The Book of Rain is a story about the place that ordinary people occupy amid events that overpower and exceed them. It's a lament for the world we're killing, but its fatalist prediction of inevitable catastrophe doesn't lead to nihilism. This world will end, but another can be built after we pay for our mistakes. That opportunity is not a given: we won't deserve the grace to try again without accepting a position of equality with our fellow creatures. Their voices carry no less weight than ours; their needs are no less urgent. After this world is forgotten, those of our descendants who remain will still have a chance, if they learn the required humility, to share with the rest of nature a common memory. And if they attain such fortune, maybe one of them will read The Book of Rain to the birds.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Wharton, Thomas. The Book of Rain [Penguin Random House, 2023].