T.C. Boyle’s Fictions of Catastrophe

The ecological stories in The Relive Box are tiny, satirical tragicomedies about individual people.

The sun rises on a "ghost forest" near the Savannah River in Port Wentworth, Georgia
Stephen B. Morton / AP

“All he could think about was bailing, one bucket after the other, as if the house he’d lived in all his life was a boat out on the open sea.” This is the opening line of “Surtsey,” a new short story by T.C. Boyle that takes place at the end of the world—more specifically, on a remote island off the coast of Alaska, one of those places where the concrete effects of rising sea levels and melting ice caps are felt first. The narrator, A.J., is a teenage boy who struggles to hold on to teenage things. He keeps his basketball trophy and his videogames in the go-bag, knowing he’ll soon have to evacuate, but never knowing for sure if he’ll have the opportunity to return. He and all the rest of the people on the island are prepared: The house is on four-foot stilts; his father has rigged an elaborate system of pulleys to keep everyone’s beds floating a couple of feet off the floor. But the storm is larger, unholier, than they anticipated. It rages relentlessly, surging past the depleted ring of ice that used to protect the island—and surging into the house until, as A.J. realizes, it’s hardly a house anymore.

Like a large and increasing percentage of Boyle’s recent fiction, “Surtsey” is a story about climate change, showing people struggling to keep their lives afloat (literally and figuratively) as the inhuman force of a human-caused phenomenon takes its toll. But the weird and interesting thing about the story—which appears in an acerbic new collection of Boyle’s called The Relive Box and Other Stories—is that it never expands to meet the size of its subject; it remains isolated, in terms of both geography and perspective. It stays locked inside the limited point of view of a teenager who knows little beyond what his science teacher taught him at school. It never depicts the sea except as water to bail from an imperiled domestic interior; it never depicts the wind except as a screeching presence outside the walls. A.J. thinks a little bit about the world outside, but he stays mostly fixated on hooking up with his crush in the bathroom of an overcrowded public shelter. Crammed together like animals on Noah’s ark, the people dream and bicker listlessly while the waters rise and rise.

Boyle’s first major attempt to tackle climate change was A Friend of the Earth, a 2000 novel that seems prophetic in hindsight: Published six years before An Inconvenient Truth, the novel seesaws between a flood-ravaged, famine-stricken near future (2025) and the naïve world of the late 1980s, when its environmentalist protagonists struggle to make a dent in the machine of Big Deforestation. Since then, for almost two decades, Boyle’s fiction has returned repeatedly to environmental problems and (more interesting to him) their controversial solutions, including the National Park Service’s attempts to eradicate invasive species on the Channel Islands of California (When the Killings Done, 2011), and the Arizona “Biosphere,” an early-’90s experiment designed to see what it would take to make a new environment, lest humans find themselves needing to escape this one (The Terranauts, 2016).

The Relive Box continues the trend, featuring two stories “meditating on global warming,” as Boyle pointed out in a recent blog post expressing sympathy for the victims of Hurricane Harvey—only one of several recent eco-catastrophes that have left lives displaced and homes destroyed. But it’s the nature of these meditations, not their frequency, that’s interesting: the way they aren’t sweeping, Planet Earth–style panoramas—melting ice, forlorn polar bears, inexhaustible tempests—but rather, tiny, satirical tragicomedies about individual people. Before climate change, the great subject of Boyle’s fiction was narcissism, explored in novel-length portraits of megalomaniacs (Frank Lloyd Wright; John Harvey Kellogg; Alfred Kinsey) as well as smaller tales of ego and insecurity. That focus hasn’t changed with his eco-fictions; if anything, focusing on navel-gazers is what makes them interesting to read.

Climate change is not just a chemical or biological problem; it’s also a problem of imagination. As the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty points out in his influential essay “Climate and Capital,” it requires thinking at “very different and incompatible scales of time”—bouncing conceptually between human history and environmental history, and acknowledging how one can affect the other. It also requires envisioning ourselves from the top down, as a species in the aggregate, exerting geological force and ensuring our eventual self-destruction. This point of view might be possible, even easy, to adopt in moments of idle speculation, but it’s utterly detached from the perspective of daily life. As the philosopher Dale Jamieson points out in Reason in a Dark Time, “A paradigm of a morally suspect act is Jack stealing Jill’s bicycle. Jack intentionally harms another individual, both the perpetrator and victim are clearly identifiable, and they are closely related in time and space.” The difficulty of climate change—the reason it’s so easy to dismiss or deprioritize—stems from the way it stretches so amorphously and expansively beyond our familiar concept of a moral wrong.

In theory, this is where fiction can come in, since fiction is capable of engaging the moral imagination at multiple scales beyond the human: It can let the reader leap into the mind of an elephant or an insect or a nematode; or take a bird’s eye view of the world itself as an organism in chronic disarray. And sure enough, a lot of speculative fiction in the last two decades has tackled climate change by doing just that—books like Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent New York 2140, which imagines a flooded Manhattan and thinks about the systemic problems (e.g. deregulated finance) that led to its predicament.

But as the novelist Amitav Ghosh argued in his nonfiction book The Great Derangement, a recent polemic about our imaginative failure in the face of climate change, realist novels that ask politely (or haughtily) to be placed in the category of literary fiction—and Boyle himself has said that he enjoys “what is quaintly called literature,” not “genre writing of any kind”—have found it more difficult to take on climate change in any meaningful way. Ghosh sees novels in the realist tradition as hopelessly limited in perspective. They’re indebted, he says, to the drawing rooms of Jane Austen and the provincial cottages of George Eliot; they relegate nature to the background while human characters—with rich, round psyches and money problems—take center stage. They maintain a scrupulous distinction between nature and the self, whereas climate change requires us to think of self and nature as mutually interpenetrating entities (hence the image of a house perforated by water). Like any sweeping, totalizing argument, Ghosh’s claim isn’t hard to refute with counterexamples; for one thing, a lot of speculative fiction is literary fiction, and even Jonathan Franzen’s neo-Victorian novels absorb weirdness (as well as an eye toward the environment) from other genres.

Still, Boyle’s fictions demonstrate that there’s some truth to Ghosh’s argument, not because he resists the paradigm Ghosh criticizes but because he leans into it. His eco-fictions often take place in confined, domestic settings; they are resolutely interpersonal; they tend to center on characters that fit the mold of his Wright and Kellogg: male, heterosexual, self-absorbed. In the past, his stories would sometimes shade into indulging the egos they purported to satirize. But in more ecological contexts they become bitter portraits of human folly: He uses male self-centeredness to explore species self-centeredness, showing how one almost always entails the other.

If Boyle’s characters have trouble with people, they have even more trouble with animals, which they regard with disgust, distrust, alienation, sometimes even hate. In “Descent of Man,” the titular story in Boyle’s first collection (1979), the main character comes face-to-face with the fragility of his human exceptionalism when his wife leaves him for a superintelligent chimp named Konrad. Even in A Friend of the Earth, the narrator—an aging environmentalist with the Dickensian name Tyrone O’Shaughnessy Tierwater—is ostensibly a friend of the earth, but mostly in it for sex. He envisions the cleavage of his wife much more vividly than the pain of the trees, and has trouble imagining why he should bother saving endangered animals when the human world has been reduced to a battered archipelago. “I try to avoid perspective as much as possible,” he admits. “Perspective hurts.”

Similarly, The Relive Box is a cornucopia of self-involvement. The titular story is reminiscent of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, if that film were about self-absorption rather than self-escape: It’s a VR fable about a game-console-like box that allows you to relive your memories, over and over, leading the male narrator into a predictable marathon of sexual reminiscence. The story can feel, at times, like a standard anti-technology morality tale taking aim at services designed around reencountering the familiar rather than confronting something strange. But the story is still biting in its portrayal of how tempting it would be to burrow into the past forever, rather than dealing with the imperfect, insistent present. Another story focuses on a woman who escapes from the present—and the future—a different way: by calling in a bomb threat to her own college graduation.

Yet among the most effective stories are those in which this kind of self-centeredness comes in direct, frictional contact with climate change and its demands. In “You Don’t Miss Your Water (‘Til the Well Runs Dry),” a record-setting drought (based on Santa Barbara’s real-life drought of the last seven years) steadily disrupts the rhythms of daily life. The drought causes a war between suburban micro-fiefdoms running hoses into each other’s backyards. It also causes a deterioration of social relations more generally: The community goes first, then the neighborhood, until finally the narrator reaches “a universal resentment of anyone who used water for any purpose” besides his immediate family (and even then, he starts to resent those within the family who use it too much.) The consequence of climate change is the same as its root cause: a contraction of the moral imagination until the individual—not even the family—is all that matters.

The best story in the collection is “Are We Not Men?,” which doesn’t figure eco-disaster at all but instead depicts a highly plausible near-future in which nature has been conquered: Thanks to CRISPR, the miraculous gene-editing technology, animals have achieved their final transformation into customizable commodities. You can buy a bright-red dog with no bite and genetic immunity to every known ailment; you can also purchase “rainbow-colored aquarium fish,” a “micropig,” and a “beefed-up supercow.” Human supremacy is absolute, leaving even ordinary citizens of suburbia with a god complex, a feeling of dominion over the creaturely world (the title nods explicitly to H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau). In a quintessentially Boyle-esque touch, however, birds perch on trees endlessly shouting “fuck you!” to passersby.

In Boyle’s satires, anthropocentrism is tenacious: Like a virus, it consumes the host; like a species, it adapts to change; like the voice of the devil, it feeds on doubt. Somehow it becomes stronger, not weaker, when climate change beats on the thin walls of human self-conception—or when a force of nature shows up at the door and says we are more responsible than we think we are; we are less different, less exceptional, less human after all. It is a universal, baseline prejudice, one that, in Boyle’s fictions, shapes the feelings of selfish consumers and selfless activists alike. But being able to recognize it, he suggests—to see human self-involvement with brutal clarity—might be the only way to get beyond it.