Sunday, July 13, 2014

Heather Houser's "Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction"

Heather Houser is an assistant professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin. She teaches and publishes on contemporary literature; the environmental humanities; and science, technology, and culture.

Houser applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect, and reported the following:
On page 99, the reader is in the midst of a close reading, a reminder that this is a work of literary criticism. Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect gives an account of an emergent narrative mode that brings readers to environmental awareness through the sick body. Medicalizing space and the body, novels and memoirs by the likes of David Foster Wallace, Leslie Marmon Silko, and David Wojnarowicz engage a range of emotions—discord, disgust, wonder, and anxiety—that express the complex entanglements of environmental and human bodily injury today. Contemporary fiction shows the astonishing variety of affects that attach to these related phenomena and establishes how those affects shape environmental ethics and politics.

Page 99 falls toward the end of a chapter on the surprising outcomes of wonder in Richard Powers's 2006 novel The Echo Maker. Powers expertly entwines two narratives: one about a rare neurological disorder called Capgras syndrome and the other about the migratory habits of sandhill cranes in the U.S. Central Plains. Wonder has long inspired scientific inquiry and appreciation of nature. Path-breaking scientists like Isaac Newton and René Descartes, and, more recently, Rachel Carson and Richard Dawkins extoll what the latter calls our insatiable "appetite for wonder." The Echo Maker whets this appetite and follows a line of environmental thinkers who champion wonder for its ability to cultivate an environmental ethic. But, steeped in cutting-edge neuroscience, this novel pursues another trajectory wonder can take—away from ethical involvement. Wonder is all about making connections, but excessive connection making can tip over into wonder's ugly obverses of projection and paranoia and jam care for the outside world.

This page doesn't display all that Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction argues and accomplishes, but it gets at one of its main claims: that recent writers are revising environmental tropes in light of technoscientific interventions into the body and the earth. Here I analyze a description of the novel's setting, Kearney, Nebraska, that laments the demise of the family farm and economic stagnation in the region. The description comes through the eyes of a central character, Karin, and concludes, "geography had decided Mark's [her brother's] fate long before his birth. Only the doomed stayed on to collect" (The Echo Maker 28). His fate is the brain injury that motivates the plot, but this passage wants to show more broadly how, as I write on 99, Mark is "like other Generation X Nebraskans, . . . a farmer manqué without a land inheritance. His mental disintegration expresses the decay of the earth signaled by the growth of agribusiness . . . and tourism." The novel does not respond to these transformations by idealizing human attachment to place, as is a tendency among many environmental writers, especially those focused on food and farming. Rather it imagines the pervasive technologization and endangerment of bodies and ecosystems today.

The reading on this page and the chapter in which it appears demonstrate Ecosickness's ambition to show how contemporary U.S. novels and memoirs are rethinking the concepts that have driven environmentalism. These concepts include, among things, wonder, sense of place, nature as a source of beauty and escape, and anxiety as a spur to activism. Writers like Powers update these concepts while experimenting with new narrative and aesthetic techniques. As the introduction to the book states, "ecosickness narratives establish that environmental and biomedical dilemmas produce representational dilemmas." The conventions of scientific discourse, pastoral, nature writing, postmodernism, and realism don't seem to be enough; none of them alone can get at the affective complexities of what Wallace has called "today's diseased now" (Girl with Curious Hair). To learn about the formal strategies recent writers have developed to depict these complexities, check out the book.
Learn more about Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction at the Columbia University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue