Reflections on the novel, Anthem, by Noah Hawley
The Ultimate Cli-Fi Book Club for Sustainability in Higher Education
Suicide is a sticky kind of grief. It’s like climate grief in this way: suicide and climate collapse are both things that are incomprehensible until they happen, but then once it happens close to you, you can’t un-think about it. You can’t undo it. They are both awful and awkward types of grief and anxiety that nobody wants to think about.
Which is why, since September is Suicide Awareness Month, I chose a sticky, awful, and awkward novel that nobody wanted to read: Anthem, by Noah Hawley.
Anthem is a novel in which 160,000 young people around the planet kill themselves in just two months — a terrifying mental virus associated with a mysterious tag, A11. Later in the book, mass suicides of tens of thousands of lives, all ages, occur every day. The novel begins with this sentence:
“The summer our children began to kill themselves was the hottest in history.”
And while you might not find this book on the usual cli-fi book lists, it’s the insidious presence of climate change in the background that makes it a climate fiction novel. It’s a weird book that tries to capture the full anxiety of the present moment in America: politics, guns, opiods, sexual predators, alternative truths, climate collapse. And suicide.
At this session of the Ultimate Cli Fi Book Club, sponsored by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, I invited a special guest, youth psychiatrist Dr. Jacob Lee. Dr. Lee is Chief Fellow at the University of Hawai’i Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship training program and part of the newly-formed Committee on Climate Change and Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association.
I definitely wanted an expert on mental health to support this conversation. I asked participants to reach out to their campus counselors to join this session and talk with us about how we can better understand and support eco-anxious college students. Because what better place than a college classroom exists to talk about existential threats from climate change?
Or, as I said to my colleagues at the end of the book club session: if not us, then who? There is a mantra in climate communication: “consistent message, delivered frequently by a trusted messenger”…and we are, like it or not, the messengers.
Dr. Lee presented an overview of climate impacts — billion dollar disasters, heatwaves, pandemics, forced relocation — but from a mental health perspective. Heatwaves alone, for example, lead to increases in aggressive impulses and actions. During pandemics, depression increases. The North Star for addressing climate change from a mental health standpoint, he says, is to “increase an individual’s personal capacity to withstand trauma.”
His message was simple:
“Climate change endangers human health. Solutions exist, and we need to act decisively to change this trajectory.”
Dr. Lee is also an aspiring climate novelist and avid reader. He pointed at the two young protagonists in the novel: Simon, who has climate-anxious thoughts and carries a paper bag in his pocket to breathe into when anxiety strikes, and Louise, who has OCD and scars from cutting herself. Dr. Lee sees youth like Simon and Louise every day: young people who have thought about suicide, or survived a suicide attempt. He used terms and phrases like these:
Proportional climate optimism.
Age-appropriate climate information.
Emphasize the actions we can still take to reduce the impact.
Getting away from rugged individualism and developing community connections.
In this post-Covid time, faculty are feeling the disconnection of students who have come to prefer online classes at the same time they’ve developed social anxieties and suffered from loss of connection and ways to engage in meaningful action.
Simon, whose sister, Claire was the first statistic in the suicide pandemic, has been on anxiety medications for years. Simon and Louise are both coming of age as patients in an expensive psychiatric facility where their days are structured around safe activities and group therapy. Simon meets another patient, called The Prophet, who engineers their escape. As he comes off his meds, he finds himself in the middle of an absurdist reality, complete with gun-wielding clowns, abductions, survivalists, a witch, a bombing at a supreme court hearing.
To me, this is what climate denial or climate resistance is like. Here we are, teaching past participles or Trigonometry in our air-conditioned college classrooms, for the most part not equipped to talk about existential threats from climate change — keeping the kids drugged into believing in a future of degrees and careers and getting married, having kids. All of these assumptions about the future (along with the assumptions of food, water, and breatheable air) are no longer assumed by many young people. They are questioning the future, but in most areas of higher education we are still following the safe agenda of the institution. I think it’s this juxtaposition of future realities — the medicated one, and the impossible-to-contemplate one — that causes climate anxiety.
I lost my beloved to suicide eight years ago, on Labor Day weekend.
After suffering with a traumatic brain injury for a decade, this amazing person, an artist and forester and believer in Bigfoot, had a bad day where he took a shotgun to his chin. I did a Post-Doom Conversation with researcher and eco-theologian Michael Dowd about my grief experience and that’s when I realized the metaphor: that we are committing a collective eco-suicide and it’s because we have a collective brain trauma that is impeding our executive function: the part of the brain that we need to be using is paralyzed.
Our brains disallow the penetration of what is happening with the planet into our synapses. This is where a novel like Anthem comes in. Climate fiction can break through our resistance and help us to feel the information that we need to be sharing and teaching across all academic disciplines.
My interest in climate anxiety has focused mainly on college students, but Anthem is also about suicide by ten and twelve year olds, who should be trying to catch toads and building tree forts out of sticks.
Suicide by children is a real epidemic. In the April 2022 New Yorker, Andrew Solomon wrote an essay called, “The Mystifying Rise of Child Suicide” that will break your heart in new places — like Anthem, if you can bear to read it. Look up suicide statistics in your state. Where I live, in Hawaii, someone dies from suicide every two days, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10–34. Ten years old.
If we talk about suicide, will it infect us? If we read a novel about it, will a suicidal urge arise? Or, on the other hand, is it possible to take a deep and invisible fear, to be held out for examination and discussion? I think that a novel like Anthem can help us contemplate suicide in a new way.
What do I do when a student like Simon or Claire shows up at my office hours? Will his or her “climate anxiety” be visible or evident? Even after teaching climate change for more than a decade, I still don’t feel equipped to hold these conversations, and the suicide helplines and hotlines taped to my office door just don’t feel like enough.
Having read the book twice, the plight of a minor character, Remy, stays with me. Remy is a black conservative pundit married to a white Supreme Court nominee — a real power couple. Remy is diagnosed with a degenerative illness early in the novel, but he keeps his diagnosis, and symptoms, to himself. His personal existential condition of accelerating climate dissolution can be seen, I think, as another metaphor for the diagnosis of our planet. Sliding into decline hoping nobody will notice…
It’s true that the ending of the novel, Anthem, falls apart in a chaos of unresolved possibilities, but how could any of this end in any other way? In the middle of the ending, I was moved by one of the Prophet’s speeches:
In Utah, says the Prophet, there is a forest of quaking aspen that functions as a single organism. Natives call it the Pando or Trembling Giant. Fifty thousand trees sharing a single root system. It’s thought to be more than eight thousand years old.
I don’t understand, says Simon.
“When a tree gets sick, that sickness can spread to everything around it. The body dies. The mind rots. I’m saying when one of us is spoiled, they infest everyone around them.
The myth of our species is that we are individuals first, but that’s a lie.”
I’ll close with the message that I try to deliver to young people, and an invitation for readers of this blog — who are also teachers and researchers and parents living this issue of climate anxiety and youth suicide in real time — to think about how you, as a trusted messenger, communicate climate change to young people on campus.
Everything you do matters more than it ever has before. Your life has more meaning than any life that has ever been lived, because we are alive at this moment. Climate impacts will affect your future, but everything we do now makes the climate-changed future better for everyone, and we are all connected.
A11… All 1?
Postscript: some Theoretical Discussion questions for Anthem.
I would never actually teach this book in a class (way too triggering!) but it would be an interesting (if challenging) choice for a faculty book club. Should you choose it for your book club, or just want to think about the novel as it relates to climate change education, I offer these discussion questions:
(Theoretical) Discussion Questions for Anthem.
- Is Anthem a “cli fi” novel? Why or why not?
- Consider “climate change” as character, plot, or setting. Which lens feels right to you for this book?
- Choose one of the following characters, and imagine they are in your class, and at your office hours. What have they come to talk about and why? What do you have to offer them? What about them would stand out to you the most? What might you be blind to? a) Simon b) Louise c) Story d) Felix/Samson
- Simon, in particular, has thoughts that indicate “eco-anxiety”, but he never expresses them out loud. We only know of them through the omniscient narrator. What percentage of students have eco-anxiety that is visible/expressed vs. internal/silent. Can eco-anxiety be subconscious? Does everybody have it? What does it look like? What would an omniscient narrator observe in YOUR own thoughts about climate change?
- Generational tensions exist in this novel and in the “real world” (ie: “OK Boomer”) as young people learn about the problems they will inherit. How do young people today inhabit a different future than their parents? You might comment on this dialogue excerpt, from the book:
Simon says to his father (a billionaire): “”I’m not stupid,” he says, “You’re stupid. You think things matter that don’t matter. Money. Power. Owning shit. Don’t you get it? We’re all gonna die, and you’re focused on the wrong things” (260).
6. Have you ever felt anxiety in general, or climate anxiety in particular? Can you relate to either of these quotes from the book? Discuss.
- “There is no time for anxiety, only fear, and fear he can handle.” 380
- The character of the Prophet says: “…as children we’re taught that growing up means being strong. Shaking and trembling are seen as a sign of weakness. So when we freeze in the face of trauma and survive, we bury those toxins deep inside. We act like everything’s normal. But everything’s not normal. A nervous breakdown in your brain — which has been sending you warnings for days or weeks or years — it’s your brain’s way of getting your attention. Ignore this. (304)
7. Comment on the book title, Anthem. You might consider this quote from the book:
“That human anthem, nationless and true, with all its sorry and yearning, all its hope and grief. The music of existence. Everyone you love will die. Everyone you need will pass from this world without warning or reason. Where is their song, the anthem of their lives? Soaring to the rafters, celebrating all their sweet pathetic attempts at permanence. Where is their anthem of fury, their anthem of love?” 337.