Scan today’s headlines and climate change in the Anthropocene might appear horrifyingly novel: Manmade monstrosities like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and “dead zones” seem like problems unique to the contemporary era. The human response that such devastation demands, however, may sound familiar to students of history.
The British author Paul Kingsnorth, for one, knows that humans have experienced the end of the world, or at least, of their world, before. As he writes in an appendix to his 2014 novel The Wake: “The Norman invasion and occupation of England was probably the most catastrophic single event in this nation’s history. It brought slaughter, famine, scorched-earth warfare, slavery, and widespread land confiscation.” The unprecedented ferocity of the invasion, he explains, brought about an almost complete break with the pre-Norman past. In short order, an entire world vanished. The Wake, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and is the first volume of a planned trilogy, is set against this tumultuous historical backdrop—it tells an audacious story of how humans have always found ways to survive an apocalypse.
Now, Kingsnorth, a former climate-science journalist turned novelist who has long explored the interplay between society and environmental collapse, has a new installment, Beast, that follows a similar theme: It’s the present-day tale of a man searching for alternatives to the superficial consumer culture responsible for ecological degradation. Leaving his family and job behind, the protagonist Edward Buckmaster instead spends his time tracking a mysterious black beast, emitting a kind of optimistic fatalism along the way. In both works, tremendous loss is balanced by a belief that humans are at least as tenacious as catastrophe is relentless. And in both works, Kingsnorth makes clear, ruin, as well as hope, are perpetually present and perpetually incomplete.
When it was first published, The Wake garnered attention for its use of a fabricated language, a charmingly creative hybrid between Old English and contemporary conversational British English. Its plot is somewhat more straightforward than a glance at the text might suggest: A tenacious, wealthy, Anglo-Saxon landowner named Buccmaster of Holland has everything taken from him by the invading Normans: children killed amid fighting, wife murdered and burned along with his home, lands despoiled. With his old life destroyed, he takes to the woods, becoming something of a dark, irascible, half-insane Robin Hood. As he travels through what was once England, the scope of the devastation and loss becomes almost more than he can bear.
What this thumbnail sketch of action fails to convey is the beauty and force of the novel’s invented language. In one passage, Buccmaster pauses near a village called Bacstune and looks at an oak tree, rubbing his hands along its trunk:
i was locan at an ac treow and i put my hand on its great stocc … it had seemed to me that this treow was anglisc as the ground it is frown from anglisc as we who is grown also from that ground. but if the frenc cums and tacs this land and gifs these treows sum frenc name they will not be the same treows no more.
If it seems strange at first, after reading a few pages, Kingsnorth’s language coalesces into meaningful narrative. Buccmaster realizes that the tree will come to be renamed something else by the French invaders, and the new name will fundamentally change what the tree is. He draws a parallel between English trees and English people, insinuating that both would be irreparably changed by the invasion. Changed, and yet, as Kingsnorth’s operative logic would have it, still surviving in altered form.
Kingsnorth invented this hybrid “shadow tongue” (his term) for the novel; in an appendix, he explains that he did so not only because he doesn’t personally care for historical fiction written in contemporary idiom, but also because “The early English did not see the world as we do, and their language reflects this … I wanted to be able to convey … the sheer alienness of Old England.” As a reader, you’ll feel the shock of the uncanny, but likely also a sense of recognition, of a dead language remixed with something like Twitter grammar. In striking this delicate balance, Kingsnorth shakes you out of complacency. It’s Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt in reverse, with the unfamiliar being made just approachable enough to keep you interested. The effect is jarring and strange, like a half-remembered dream with lingering emotional residue.
Beast, Kingsnorth’s new novel, isn’t written in a shadow tongue. But the voice that the author gives his protagonist Edward Buckmaster is nonetheless possessed by a frenetic, searching energy:
From the east I came, to this high place, to be broken, to be torn apart, beaten, cut into pieces. I came here to measure myself against the great emptiness. I came here to touch the void, to leap naked into it with the shards of what I was falling around me, to have the void clean me of the smallness that I swam in.
Again, much of the power and significance of the story is bound up in the language itself. And, though separated by a thousand years of history and tumult, the potentially related Buckmaster and Buccmaster appear to be echoing the same story—one of loss, degradation, and a burning hunger for things to be other than as they are.
Making his way through Earth’s environmental and cultural decline (the “smallness” that he “swam in”), Buckmaster, it’s clear, longs for a wild transformation. He isn’t so much abandoning the world to hide out in the moors, as reclaiming (some might say melodramatically) a depth and dignity that are being destroyed by the inane demands of a throwaway culture. Buckmaster wants to trade in online shopping for crop cultivation, mall walking for hunting. Like Buccmaster, he wants back what was taken from him, the full scope of his identity as a human being: “Everything led up to me and everything I was would lead beyond me there was this great chain and I was a link in it. The past and the future they were nothing they came together and parted again.” Over the course of the novel, Buckmaster’s almost mystical connection to the way that his ancestors lived seems to be simultaneously a source of strength and a precious resource that he must actively tend to.
The prose in Beast is taut, bare. There is no specific mention of names of individuals or places, only general terms like “the city” and “people.” The vagueness is a stylistic choice, but it also serves Kingsnorth’s philosophical purposes. By keeping the specifics of our dying world at arm’s length, his prose winnows down textual reality to approximate essentials. He doesn’t just show us a man surviving, he uses language to illustrate how humans might define survival in the first place.
Kingsnorth has spent a lot of his life thinking about how to keep people interested in climate change, a subject so vast and so intimate that it defies comprehension even as it shapes our lives. And in 2008 he had a revelation: The environmental apocalypse was inescapable. As he explains in a Boston Review interview: “When I worked at The Independent in 1995, I was obsessed with climate change, but nobody on that newspaper was interested and nothing on it ever got published. I remember thinking, ‘If only we could get climate change on to the front page, things would really change.’ Well, now it is on the front pages very often, and everybody knows about it, and the politicians and business leaders all know about it, and yet nothing’s changed.”
If half of Kingsnorth’s perspective is shaped by the inevitability of chaos, then the other half is formed by his faith in humans being able to live through that same chaos. What keeps his perspective from being completely dystopian is his belief in people being able to, at least individually, alter their lives to adjust to even the most dramatic changes. Kingsnorth, for one, went “back to the land,” trying his hand at subsistence farming with his family on a plot of ground in Ireland. He also founded the Dark Mountain Project, a collective of artists and thinkers who share Kingsnorth’s assumptions about pending environmental (and, thus, political and economic) collapse. And he began writing novels.
Ultimately, it’s Kingsnorth’s faith in the ingenuity of the human spirit that make his ideas—spelled out compellingly in his work—as inspiring as they are realistic. Worlds have ended, in a sense, before. The plague decimated cities in 17th-century England. Academics still debate whether the staggering number of indigenous American deaths post-European colonization should be called a “genocide” or a “holocaust.” Entire generations were lost in world wars and to the Spanish flu. With these colossal changes in mind, Kingsnorth’s writing can be taken as a hopeful message from collective human history about persisting amid a semi-permanent state of catastrophe.
It’s significant that Beast begins with the sensation of a cool river and ends in media res with Buckmaster reporting that he sees “a scrap of tarpaulin an upturned tub a c.” The novel, its unique prose raw with austere energy, demands close observation. It opens the reader’s eyes to impending destruction while simultaneously promising that survival is possible. Inevitable, even. Perhaps the specifics of that survival await a more nuanced articulation, but, for now, what Beast proffers is access to the minds and emotional lives of characters who endure.