Eliza Mood‘s O Man of Clay (2020) is a forceful work of speculative fiction that extrapolates the climate crisis to explore a possible future in which personal, social, and environmental trauma causes reality, memory and fantasy to commingle. It is, at times, hallucinogenic and the first hundred-or-so pages feel like treading turbulent water. The reader is granted moments of lucidity and clarity between brief battles-for-breath as the narrative pulls them in an unexpected direction. Don’t mistake me, this is compelling as much as it is disorienting.
As is fitting in the Anthropocene, the boundaries between previously distinct categories are disturbed. In the character of Volk Volkov, disaster capitalism meets evangelical eschatology. This takes the form of a Noah’s Arc theme park and a belief that the biblical-style flood is a gift from God in that it grants access to previously inaccessible arctic resources.
As the permafrost thaws and the British shoreline is redrawn, the ancient past imposes itself upon the present: churned up skeletons discharged by newly melted ice might be ancient ancestors or – equally possible – ‘Mam or Dad’. This is in conceptual resonance with the novel’s exploration of the relationship between the present, past, and future. When one-character asserts that our latest message to the future is ‘up yours’, it recalls the words of theorist Timothy Clark, for whom ‘a patio heater or a car is not just an object’ bur rather ‘a quiet “go to hell” addressed to the future’. The novel manages to offer this retrospective critique of our behaviour without reading like a moral review or political manifesto.
By setting the novel in the North East, with its history of heavy industry, Mood is able to unite the effect with the cause; the chickens of the industrial revolution come home to roost. The vernacular of the characters, who recall the ‘Wagga moon’ and the rainwater ‘choc-a with black soot’, suspend the possible future in a space that is uncomfortably familiar. The local and the global – as well as the past and the present – are cross-implicated. From Russian prison camps to Newcastle Docks, Mood explores local identity in a world in which everybody is a climate refugee.
Importantly, the novel is about storytelling. The plot follows, for a large part, the emergence of a banned collection of soviet poetry entitled Moth Quartet (a reference to T. S. Eliot, indicative of a rich seam that Elioteers will appreciate). The novel is a celebration of folklore, magic, fairytale, and indigenous history. The muteness of Zoe (our protagonist) conceptually resonates with the death of indigenous language and, therefore, of indigenous knowledge that ‘might hold a key to the earth’s heartbeat’. As Mood writes, ‘when we lose or voice, we lose our foothold’. Stories, it seems, are the roots that tie humans to the Earth: what could be a more fitting defence of cli-fi?