What will happen to us when the oil runs out? If we read in the news about “the collapse of an oil rig off the Falklands, the violent demonstrations against the tar sands, groundwater contaminated by fracking,” how will we react? If your world began to unravel, would you turn into an animal, “snarling over what’s yours,” or would you organize a soup kitchen for the recently unemployed? And would that soup kitchen be helping the powerless, or would it just be “unsticking and re-adhering the bandage while beneath it the wound grew septic”? Perhaps, if the whole damn society is tipping, the best thing to do is push it over, to break everything down so it can be built again.
In Lauren Carter’s Swarm we consider this prospect, pondering a world that feels all too familiar. Sandy, our narrator, is trying to explain the trajectory of her life to a child she’s never met, alternating chapters between a city in the heat of the collapse and an island two decades later, when mere survival is the only attainable goal. Both the city and the island are populated with strong characters who pull Sandy towards one ideology or another, tinting and shading her view of the world.
Swarm follows Carter’s first published collection of poetry, Lichen Bright (2005), and the novel has the loose membrane of a long poem. Instead of relying entirely on plot to hold the pages together, Swarm gathers around themes and ideology: bees and the politics of the hive; the beauty, utility, and fragility of glass; the proper response to a collapsing society. Which is not to say that the novel is unstructured or disorganized —like someone writing a long poem, Carter restricts herself to a mere handful of images and then works them from every angle for shuddering effect. Mites in a bee hive pop up seventy pages later as a metaphor for scattered bits of shot in a wound, and petroleum, the source of all her civilization’s problems, cuts into a different disaster scene when a shard is removed from an artery “then, black like oil, the widest tide of blood.”
Also poetically, Carter drops nugget-sized references to vast libraries of background information – when a bomb is discovered inside a book titled Manufactured Landscapes, even a brief foray by the reader into the real-world photographs of Edward Burtynsky thickens Carter’s message: that our world is dying, that it’s the fault of our industry and consumerism, and that there is beauty in the dying, a possibility for re-birth. In many glorious passages not a single word is wasted and the prose is rich and clear.
Sometimes though, Carter loses her way, bogged down in describing every detail and failing to trust her reader to imagine the tone of dialogue without adverbs:
I was peeling carrots, three bags of them, their caps a tangle of pale yellow roots. She came in and out of the room and finally I saw her fill a kettle with water and place it on the free burner. As I worked at the counter, she walked up to me and said, bluntly, “I think it’s time to wash.”
It is clear that Carter has spent a great deal of time studying the likes of Discovery Channel’s Life After People, and she has great talent for imagining how the bricks and mortar of our society might crumble. It is frightening how quickly our slick world decays once the oil runs out, and Carter pulls forth telling details which make the collapse that much more real. I relished her precision in lines like: “all over the city, animals that people couldn’t afford were running loose,” and also the reverence of her depictions, giving beauty to the decay in compact phrases like: “frozen tufts of pink insulation skidded past…”
Some of her vision I disagreed with (in her future there are broken pay phones covered in grubby stickers, in mine, pay phones would have long-since ceased to exist), and other glimpses halted my breath, showing me just how much of our current world I take for granted. For example, when the protagonist leaves her high-rise apartment for the slums she remarks, “I remember looking out, south to the shimmering plate of the silver lake, not yet realizing I would never again see from such a height.”
Carter’s characters are distinct, emerging from the page fully formed, acting points of plot in ways that feel appropriate to their traits, but not predictable. Once in a while Carter doesn’t trust the reader enough, spelling out for us how she wants us to feel, but mostly she steps back, allowing her characters to express themselves through action. Marvin is a leader, emotional and passionate, living a tangent of the Occupy Movement; Thomson is an elder, slower, more forgiving, but also stubborn; Phoenix is a strong woman, sexy in her confidence and unstoppable in her work ethic for survival; Margo is a manipulator who knows what she wants; and Sandy is the irresolute protagonist, flinging herself at one person and then the next, trying on lifestyles until she finds the life true to herself.
Sandy’s indecision is agonizing to read – particularly when she turns into an emotional wreck after a one-night-stand – but I admire Carter’s nimble hand, deftly pulling the core of this character from a twenty-one-year-old in the crumbling city to an island survivalist in her late thirties, slightly more sure of her choices and skills. I’m fascinated with how personalities grow and stay the same throughout the course of human lives, and Carter seems to know this change well. Her protagonist reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s lead in Surfacing, another passionate woman who trips towards insanity in the wild.
There were times when this book felt slow, when the characters annoyed me, or scenes lacked tension. But perhaps it’s just that it feels so familiar, and the familiarity makes me uncomfortable. Though it is future scenarios that have pushed these characters to act, the questions of this novel are the questions of our time. I don’t expect Swarm to be the quintessential book club choice, bubbling up in living rooms across the country, but perhaps it should be. Maybe it’s time to change the conversation – or at least complicate it – before it’s too late. Or maybe it’s never too late. As Thomson says about his beloved bees, “It takes a mass of thousands to build the hive society and one or two humans to destroy it… but then they begin again.”
Brindle & Glass | 288 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN #978-1927366202