Cold Comfort: Haake’s Eco-Fables of the Postworld
Of the eleven stories in Katharine Haake’s new collection, Assumptions We Might Make About the Postworld, nine are narrated primarily in first-person plural. Five deal with ostracism and judgment by a clan of some kind, whether a family, a neighborhood, or a town. Only one is constrained enough in its craft to be called a fable in the Aesopic tradition; the rest are murkier, more interesting. Children reject a boy with a benign, unshakable cough; aliens eat a neighborhood out of clothing, shoes, linens, and even fences; a growth in a man’s side is cured, and he feels great loss instead of relief. These examples put specifics to a collection that feels difficult to describe. It’s beautiful, in its details and its sentences and its overall impact, but what it is remains elusive.
Haake herself uses the term “eco-fable” to classify these stories. This term packs a lot of meaning and context into two hyphenated words. For much of her career, Haake has written about natural environments and the paradoxes that occur when humans inhabit them. At a time when ecology is, or should be, of more importance to the human race than ever before, we need more eco-literature, as much as we can fit on the shelf.
The “fable” part of the term refers, for Haake, to the fabulist tradition of the great Latin American writers. Not American fabulists, who prioritize whimsy over politics, nor the fables meant to hammer in a moral lesson via talking animals. Latin American fabulists use supernatural elements to draw attention to the political and cultural landscape, and are a crucial site for literary protest.
Although Haake is American, Assumptions We Might Make About the Postworld more closely resembles the fabulist work of Ricardo Piglia or César Aira than the stories of Karen Russell or Ben Loory. Nothing about this book is fanciful, or free of political context. Yet the stories are curiously intimate. Haake’s fables refer obliquely to disaster on a global scale, but depict plainly the struggles of individuals or families, often incorporating supernatural elements. They do not describe a specific apocalypse, but instead the pain of wrestling with life as life fades to black. In the bleakest of these stories, “Television News,” children vanish, one by one, into an abyss that appears between safety and their perches in the trees, while the adults focus on the TV, on the unspecified crises endlessly appearing there.
Someone turned the television news on to drown out the noise of their complaining, but no calamity on earth now could compare to ours at home — our missing ground, our stranded children, the subtle glistening between them and us.
Postapocalyptic fiction, in the mainstream, tends toward the predictable and the dramatic. It’s ripe for screenplay, and it fetishizes a time when we’ll be forced to extreme behavior. That is, if we must consider what we’d do when faced with mutated sewer-creatures, or gangs of murderous punk-rockers, or brain-eating zombies, we move out of our lives a little — away from our emotional struggles with our parents and children, beyond petty frustrations at work and home. In this dichotomy, our usual worries take a backseat to the immediately deadly: scarier but simpler, studded with predictable tropes and story beats. There’s safety in such high drama. Assumptions We Might Make refuses to let us off the hook so easily.
Haake’s book references to disasters engulfing the human race, but dives deeper into the little conflicts that pepper our lives, the unglamorous troubles that consume us. It zeroes in on communities, families, neighborhoods, school classes. It prioritizes language in a highly uncinematic way, allowing foggy uncertainty — or perhaps just nothing — to hover beyond the borders of town.
You want someone. I want someone. We are human, after all.
First-person plural is an unusual way to narrate, and the “we” of most of these stories feels as claustrophobic and judgmental as Shirley Jackson’s small town in “The Lottery.” However, it implicates the reader, too. We who survive the postworld will have to live in these strange little tribes, full of petty jockeying and cruelty. Will we be the one left out of playing kickball? Or will we be the one chosen to take home the beloved school pets twice instead of not even once?
Later, we’d remember everything differently. One of us averred that it started with a color, another, a sound, and so forth.
And so forth, we said, our words trailing off into a kind of quiet dolor.
After that, no one had any words for what had happened to us.
“Delight” is the wrong word for the experience of reading these stories, so stuffed are they with sorrow or loss or injustice, but Haake’s control of her craft is profound. The emotional grip of these tales is firm and fast. Her sentences unroll with enormous facility and grace, and there is great comfort embedded in the telling, as if they are oral history, not fabulist prose.
The stories themselves are hardly comforting, of course. The reader believes they’re enjoying words like yummy and braised and inky and xeriscaping, but will read the final page with grief.
The world is lost. The stories are over. This is the postworld.