We name hurricanes in part because of this 80-year-old novel about a storm that hits California – San Bernardino Sun

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Californians unfortunately know all too well the unstoppable force of nature these days. But in an era of seemingly incessant wildfires, the reissue of George R. Stewart’s novel “Storm” is something new.

Stewart has written on a wide variety of subjects, including a highly respected non-fiction book on the Donner Party and a blockbuster post-apocalyptic novel “Earth Abides”.

“Storm,” now hailed as one of the first ecological novels, debuted in 1941 and looked like nothing else. The book follows a storm that crosses the sea and then crashes into California, but what makes the novel so unusual is that the human characters are minors and purposely underdeveloped, while the author devotes his energy and attention to the storm, Maria. (In fact, the success of this book has helped name the storms that are so common today.)

Stewart, who lived and worked most of his life in California, based his novel on an actual storm, but it’s no surprise that he took this book with another ecological review that brought another catastrophe to life in its own right: “The fire”.

“I’m not sure if he would find much today that would surprise him,” says author Nathaniel Rich, who wrote the New York Review of Books’ introduction to the reissue of “Storm”.

Rich recently spoke on the phone about Stewart’s “cosmic view” in his writing and why his work is isolated.

Q. Is it difficult to write a novel where the protagonist is a storm?

It violates the most basic principles of storytelling. You can see the tensions to some extent. The characters become as inhuman as they can get, and the storm becomes as human as they can get. The plot needs to be fragmented – if you were to support a character’s narrative, you would destroy the premise. So there can’t be a lot of character development, and he has to push the personification of the storm as far as he can. And it has to be action packed to move the story forward.

It’s not seamless, but there’s a level of engagement that you rarely encounter – I can imagine it working in a 10 page story, but it’s a novel.

It’s like an Andy Kaufman skit or Norm MacDonald’s anti-comedy Bob Saget roast, the idea of ​​keeping the character way past the point where it becomes uncomfortable.

Part of the thrill of the novel watching this tightrope walker play to see if he can get to the other side without falling into the abyss. Whether this is entirely successful is a question, but you can’t help but be impressed as a reader.

Q. The book has a strong sense of belonging to California, but it looks beyond borders.

For all of Stewart’s wonderfully precise details about California, institutions, and the way of life, he really takes a big-picture perspective, that’s the whole premise. It is a cosmic view of this meteorological event. There is an actual event that led him to write the book but he could have put it in New Orleans and written the same book. The power of the book stems from the global perspective, how it takes a step back to understand the storm’s place in the world and America’s place in the world. If you think of this as an ecological novel, it is because of this, the feeling that events on Earth are all linked to each other.

Author Nathaniel Rich wrote the introduction to the New York Review of Books reissue of George R. Stewart’s novel “Storm”. (Photo credit: Pableaux Johnson / Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Q. A book about a storm would seem terribly relevant today – I was reading it right after Hurricane Ida. How was it received in 1941?

It was a huge bestseller. But I feel like it was marketed more as a disaster novel, some sort of luscious adventure. And I don’t think literary strangeness or vanity was what was set by critics or readers of the time.

He was way ahead of his time in the literary tradition, but even in the scientific world – not that people did not understand these issues, but his overall vision was still a few decades ahead of the wider community that was embracing. this approach to weather and climate. problems.

Q. What kind of influence has “Storm” (and “Fire”) had on ecologically oriented literature?

I don’t think there was a direct influence on his generation or the next generation. It was so daring and different; it was difficult to imitate. And the cultural awareness of ecological ideas was there, but it was not as widespread and had not entered the public consciousness and most literary novelists did not think in those terms.

I think writers today struggle with the fundamental incompatibility of the Romanesque form with the ecological shorthand of individuals as part of a global network of beings that extends beyond humanity to every organism. alive and to the great network of life. The novel is rooted in an individualized understanding of the world, mixing the great public dramas of the time with personal and private experience.

There are ways to write an ecological novel, but it’s not that easy. Stewart is an extreme and it’s not for everyone. It’s no surprise to me that no one has tried again for a long time and when writers started writing novels on these themes a long time ago, it’s no surprise that they took different directions.

Stewart’s most recent analogue is Richard Powers’ “The Overstory,” in which he writes from the perspective of trees. But I don’t think he engages as strongly as Stewart and the story is actually about a group of individuals who all end up taking the exact same worldview and predictable, that we have to stick with it. trees and nature. Thus, he confirms or flatters the sensitivity of the readers, bending to popular political sentiment.

“Storm” is much more artistically daring and subversive; it challenges dominant views on the role of humanity in natural systems and it threatens our sense of dominance over nature and it does not offer easy homilies and in fact suggests that we are completely powerless.

So there is no real lineage. His novels are alone.


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