A Children's Bible (Lydia Millet, 2020)
This was an interesting, if convoluted, novel. A quick plot summary: some waspy upper-middle-class families get together for the summer at a large resort mansion somewhere in the upper Chesapeake bay, and it soon becomes evident that there is a good deal of intergenerational antagonism within the group. The parents seem only interested in getting drunk or high, which disgusts the younger generation, who collectively distance themselves from the influence of their parents. About a third of the way through the book, a major hurricane rips through, causing widespread damage to the social fabric of the area; first responders are unable to clear the roads, and armed gangs begin marauding. The kids realize that if they are going to survive, they will have to sever whatever ties they have to their elders, and strike out on their own. In the end, they reunite with their parents at one of the families’ palatial home in Westchester county, but the parents become absorbed by ennui and despair. The ending is ambiguous; we aren’t really sure if the situation is anywhere near stabilizing, or if things are going to work out for our heroes, the kids.
There is a lot of Deus ex Machina in this book—when the kids are cut off from any hope of shelter or safety, they are befriended by a man who appears homeless, but turns out to be the caretaker of an estate that just happens to have emergency supplies and food; when they are menaced by armed thugs, the estate’s owner shows up (in a helicopter and with a SWAT team, no less!) and rectifies the situation. In fact, a lot of this book’s story rests on devices which stretch credulity. But it does raise some interesting points about what it means to be prepared for a disaster, not only physically but also psychologically.
Imagine another Hurricane Sandy-style event in the northeast, but even stronger and more destructive—perhaps occurring simultaneously with other disasters in the rest of the country, to the point that emergency response services are strained past the breaking point, and are unable to give aid. With enough trees and wreckage over roadways, large areas are effectively cut off from the rest of the world for a few months. the damage is so bad that the region’s social infrastructure is completely broken down, and law enforcement becomes inoperative. How would people act? Would they rise to the challenge, organize into some sort of provisional microcosm of society, and start to rebuild on their own, without trained responders giving support? Or would they freak out and become unable to function?
It seems that Lydia Millet shares a prevalent pessimism about the ability of people to rise above adversity and do what is necessary. Everyone from William Golding to Randall Munroe assumes that if conventional societal structures disappear, things will get bloody. (In at least one instance in real life, however, things turned out just fine.) This is part of a greater malaise, a widely held suspicion that the benefits and comforts of modern civilization have cut us off from the ability to actually take care of ourselves in extreme situations. Our culture’s refined division of labor is in stark contrast to the pioneer of old, who knew dozens of skills and could survive almost anywhere. The pioneers have become almost deified in the American psyche because they represent something that Americans claim to value—independence, self-reliance, the ability to take bold, dangerous risks and come out on top—but that we have effectively renounced as a culture. What we really value are safety and community, best practices and the opinion of experts. We tell our kids to finish school and go to college, not to strike for the horizon and see what happens.
That might be all just fine—do we need pioneers anymore, now that the whole country is settled? —but sometimes our civilization seems so . . . precarious. Rising ocean levels threaten the entire eastern seaboard; if New York, Boston, and Washington had to be abandoned, could our nation survive? What if wildfires and drought caused so much devastation that California had to be abandoned? Could we survive that? What if both happened simultaneously?
Granted, the wasps and karens that Lydia Millet mocks in A Children’s Bible are a rather despised demographic. But can any of us really look deep into ourselves and honestly say, “I have the mental fortitude to survive any kind of extreme situation; I won’t sink into depression at the loss of civilization’s comforts”?
So why do the kids in A Children’s Bible manage to come through adversity with minimal scarring? I think it is because had not yet decided what was valuable to them. The American success trajectory, as embodied in their boozing, incompetent parents, was repulsive to them. They had been trying, fruitlessly, to fashion their own values for the entire first third of the novel; when disaster struck, they were given the perfect opportunity to succeed in that endeavor. They were at the age when everyone would have been telling them that the future was wide open and they could be anything they wanted to be (within the limits of what upper-class people would consider “a good career” undoubtedly). After the hurricane, that limitless promise finally became real.