The Grim Reality

Downtown Scranton by arianravan

Downtown Scranton by arianravan

It’s grim, a friend said to me the other day. She didn’t mean it in a bad way. She’s a person who isn’t afraid of darkness in her fiction but, even still, I cringed a little bit.

That’s nothing new. Since Swarm has been out I’ve found myself feeling a tad insecure about the austerity of the book (even though, as I constantly tell people, it’s ultimately hopeful).

I’ve found myself wondering if I couldn’t have made Marvin crack a few jokes or Sandy giggle a bit more at the ludicrousness of her situation.  But the picture of a collapsing economy and a stuttering life of subsistance is not one that inspires a lot of laughs. And while comedy, of course, wasn’t at all what I was going for neither was outright pessimism. Rather I was aiming to be true.

Yesterday afternoon I was reminded of this when I stumbled across a 2012 article by Chris Hedges, a cultural critic and thinker who I originally discovered somewhere in the midst of my work on the novel and immediately loved for his laser analysis of American ethics and blindness. There’s this fantastic video where he rips his mic off during a CBC interview after Kevin O’Leary calls him a nutbar and sneers at him during a discussion of the Occupy movement… But I digress…

In A Metaphor for America, published in The Walrus, he and photographer Alan Chin pay a visit to Scranton, Pennsylvania, the city made famous by the long-running television show The Office. From the sounds of things, Dunder Mifflin has likely long been shuttered and even Michael Scott, manager extraordinaire, is probably looking impossibly for work, his famous goofy humour flattened by stress.

Abandoned factories, rampant unemployment, city workers (including the mayor) who reduced their salaries to minimum wage in order to address a $700,000 shortfall in the municipal coffers, are all features of the city. Meanwhile, a salvage company called Olde Good Things picks through the mahogany fireplace mantels and decorative iron from heritage buildings facing demolition, built in wealthier days by factory owners and coal barons.

It’s familiar to me; these features are reminiscent of the world I worked to create in Swarm, believeing, as Hedges writes, that “there is no way to mask this harsh reality with happy talk and illusions.” I picked through newspaper stories to find features of collapse: funeral homes filling with bodies their families couldn’t afford to bury, houses full of furniture abandoned by people defaulting on their mortgages. Things that happened to be happening. Depressing, yes, but also true.

Some people might not want to look at this reality (an issue Hedges writes about in his other works) either in the news or a work of fiction but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If Scranton is anything to go by, we’re watching America, as Hedges puts it, “circle the drain.”

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5 Responses to The Grim Reality

  1. Hallyhook December 11, 2013 at 10:13 pm #

    Can’t resist throwing in my recommendation for The art of Racing in the Rain. My circle is a pretty eclectic bunch of readers but not one of them hasn’t loved this book.

    Haven’t read The Long Emergency by Kunstler but did read A World made by Hand. Did you? If so, I’d sure love to know your take on that “hive” that cropped up two thirds of the way through. Much preferred your handling of the topic.

    I still think the best antidote to the grimness du jour is growing food, or at least spending this time of life learning how. An amazing amount can even be grown in urban areas. Nothing more uplifting than pouring over the seed catalogues in the dark of winter.

  2. hallyhook December 8, 2013 at 11:08 am #

    I follow Chis Hedges assiduously and even made the long trek to hear him speak in winnipeg in September. He is calling for nothing short of the R word, for all of us. You know his message so I won’t articulate it here. But I just do want to say that your characters were just right as they were, as was the tone. You know how written characters take on a life quite of their own and to be true to them you have to let them be themselves. They felt authentic and were telling their story, and it’s one that needs telling. My only quibble was that circumstances were precipitated by peak oil rather than the burning of too much of the stuff. These ARE grim times and really, Hedges frustration is with so so many of us failing to recognize this and to take action on our own behalf. He certainly never puts on a happy face for his readers!

    • Lauren
      Lauren December 8, 2013 at 11:13 am #

      Very true, Hallyhook! Have you read The Long Emergency by James Howard Kuntsler? His argument brings together the disasters of climate change and peak oil, the effects of which we’re most certainly starting to see. I didn’t realize C.H. was in Winnipeg in September! Would have loved to have seen him. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Jayne December 8, 2013 at 10:54 am #


    Grim, is indeed the word to describe much of out present day realities. You must have seen it in Orillia, Babies raising babies while they hung at Tim Hortons, boarded up buildings. The decline of kindness.(not absence). The constant barrage of cynicism, the cheapening of character in advertising… It is painful to behold and difficult to fight.
    I think you writers have to be true to your message; so no jokes, especially from Marvin. I’ve got to admit that I feel actual fear and real anger when I read books like Swarm, Oryx and Crake and others of the same (wow, I’m going to use the word dystopian) genre. I’m not sure I understand the word in all it’s glory, but it is a better fit than ‘ilk’! 😉 It takes me a long time to climb out of the ‘slough of despond’, ya know?? So I DO avoid the grimness, the ignorance, the CRIMES of our leaders, our media, until I feel strong enough to remind myself that I’m not alone in thinking that we had better wake up, and wake up fast lest we find ourselves waiting for the supply boat on the island.
    Austere? Hopeful? Still a far,far better thing than so much that is blinding John Q. Public.
    I look at that photo and feel such sadness. Then think about Nelson Mandela and the loss that encompasses for our world. Is it any wonder I run for my book of wizards and High Fantasy?

    As a total aside, have you read ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’, by Garth Stein?
    I think you and J. would appreciate it.


    • Lauren
      Lauren December 8, 2013 at 11:18 am #

      Thanks, Jayne. It truly is depressing, and I don’t know what the answers are! My own has simply been to write about it and hopefully that makes some sort of difference! My new book is set in 1986, bringing together youthful hope, narcissism, and those early days of fear over what we might be doing to the planet (remember the thinning ozone layer? that almost seems innocent now…;) I think your work with children IS making a difference, so keep guiltlessly reading those (wonderful, because it’s not like you aren’t discerning) fantasy books… (& throw a few titles J.’s way, especially steampunk)… That Stein book have been recommended by others – we’ll have to check it out!

I would love to hear what you think!

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