- Goodbye Crude WorldThe Aesthetics of Environmental Catastrophe in Michel Faber's The Book of Strange New Things and Edward Burtynsky's Oil Photographs
For Halloween in 2015, The Guardian published a piece on the fears of a range of authors including novelist Michel Faber. Faber recalled the sense of alarm he felt as a child while viewing a Christian inspirational film. It was set in a circus in which a Jesus-like clown takes on another's suffering as a magician saws his female assistant in half. Faber was frightened, he says, because as a nine-year old he was unable to read the film allegorically as a parable of Christ's passion redeeming humanity. He saw only the violence done to the woman fully felt by Christ-as-clown, whose face contorted with agonising pain during the performance. To those familiar with Faber's work, and perhaps especially his recent, and by his own account final, novel The Book of Strange New Things (2014), fear and apprehension are to be expected. Indeed, a sense of impending doom pervades this most recent novel until it becomes the terrifying actuality of complete global breakdown.
As we shall see, in the novel the plight of the stricken Earth is reported via a written communication that spans interstellar space. In this, I claim, Faber is alerting us to the sort of perspective that his narrative can supply for comprehending the current state of the world. This god-like perspective is something that the photographer Edward Burtynsky offers his viewers. Well-known for his large-format and often high-elevation photographs of the spectacular evidence of human industry, including the sweeping effects of oil production and its consumption, Burtynsky's work often reveals an awful splendour in these visible signs of contemporary industrial culture. Some images have been called "misleading" by one critic since they at times make localised phenomena seem to go on forever.1 However, what I maintain makes his work worthy of comparison with Faber's fiction is that—far from presenting mere reportage in the style of National Geographic—Burtynsky's compositional frame stages his vision of something that is literally impossible to see at once. Peeples notes that toxic sites and toxicity itself are often visually unremarkable if not plain invisible.2 Burtynsky's images compellingly register the all-embracing spread of our impact on the planet, while focusing steadily on the here and now.3 Sarah Jaquette Ray has some sympathy for Burtynsky [End Page 78] critics who feel his aesthetic dilutes his work's political impact, admitting that "making environmental destruction visually beautiful runs the risk of desensitizing audiences."4 However, like Peeples, Ray also concedes that the work "makes visible to Western audiences dimensions of environmental injustice that are otherwise kept invisible" (ibid).
I will return to discuss Burtynsky after examining Faber's novel in more detail. Set mostly on Oasis, a planet far from Earth, Faber slowly unveils this alien place from the point of view of Peter Leigh, a newly arrived British pastor employed by a global conglomerate that colonises outer space in the search for fossil or other fuels for a resource-depleted Earth. Faber carefully stages descriptions of catastrophic events on Earth, as reported to Peter by his wife on Earth, whose reports sit side by side with a narrative of the equably contented lives lived on Oasis, a planet too remote to know or care much for humanity's plight. Faber's childhood memory of the film is reprised in the novel, as the agony undergone by those still on Earth is displaced by the pain-free experience of survivors, but utterly without hope of spiritual redemption, or even the saving grace of the circus. As Earth deteriorates beyond all hope of a recovery, the novel's depiction of planet-wide agony viewed dispassionately from a place of total comfort and safety is itself a parable for our own place and time. It refers to the present catastrophic plight of the world's most exposed citizens as war, climate change and political breakdown displace millions, while the rest of the world still living in relative comfort looks on...