TEXT review

Letters and numbers

review by Moya Costello


David Carlin and Nicole Walker
The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet
Rose Metal Press, Brookline MA 02446 2019
ISBN 9781941268171
Pb 224pp, AUD24.65

Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart
The Hundreds
Duke University Press, Durham 2019
ISBN 9781478002888
Pb 184pp, AUD34.85


If you work with a template, such as that provided by a manual or a number set, you already have a structure for your writing: you don’t have to construct one. For David Carlin and Nicole Walker, in The After Normal, the template was a survival guide for entering ‘these unprecedented times of swift climate change’; so, they co-opted, not without irony, ‘the form of an A–Z “how-to”‘ (xi). For Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart, in The Hundreds, it was a word count for a writing exercise. Their exercises ‘in following out the impact of things’ are in ‘hundred-word units or units of hundred multiples’ (ix). They brought this number set to the concept they were developing: ‘the new ordinary’ (ix). The phrases ‘after normal’ and ‘new ordinary’ are mirror images of each other.

Carlin and Walker specify the trajectory of their book in their Preface: ‘noticing, witnessing, and responding with care, love and justice’ (x). Berlant and Stewart come to their purpose in the third entry of the actual text in their book: ‘Dilations’. The Hundreds is an experiment in ‘keeping up with what’s going on’ (5) and in this entry, they denote the approach of the book: ‘attention and riffing’ (5). Noticing or paying attention is now a fully standardised requirement for ecological writing (see Harrison 2013). Both books have come about through another survival strategy: that of co-operation/collaboration. This strategy is demonstrable in both nature and culture: forests are sophisticated networks of multispecies cooperation (Carlin 125-126), and public transport is about an ‘unwritten contract of cooperation’ (Carlin 148).

Walker has a reflexive note on the genre of these mini creative nonfictions within The After-Normal: ‘fiction is actually the genre that requires certainty. The essay is the one with all the questions’ (106). Berlant and Stewart say their pieces are poems ‘because they’re about making’ or poiesis (117). Their book is full of Derrida-type aphorisms (see Derrida 1989), short Stein-esque conundrums or astonishing conceptual leaps – for example: ‘Shoes are worn in many senses’ (18), or ‘Achievements produce defences against their own openings’ (91).

Both books are for writing in a dual sense that they advocate for writing as an environmental strategy, and as exercises for a writing workshop. The Hundreds is also about reading or how reading is written, to quote Astrid Lorange’s (2014) book title on Stein.

For those readers anxious about potential lack of reading pleasure in texts that are characterised by the presence of brevity and the absence of narrative arc, here’s Stephen Muecke (2019) in one of the deconstructed indexes to the Berlant and Stewart book:

Who needs a long narrative arc anyway, when fragments have their own
subjective affordances? Long narratives are Wall Street investments in
character. Literary monuments. But here there are hundreds of glimpses,
flashes like in the fire opals from Lightning Ridge. A glimpse, a figure half
seen in the mist, is an emergent concept or feeling that has its value in
its evanescence. (154)

In Berlant and Stewart’s riffs, it’s not surprising that among the notes struck are anger-inducing tension and shuffling anxiety, in a struggle to live an ‘ordinary’, decent life. There’s ‘the wish to bomb unbearable schmucks and the desperate desire for loved ones to die their own way’ (93). In a gym, a man makes a verbal, aggressive move against a woman (23-24), or Texas is noted as a place to work on oil rigs, or in prisons or detention centres (89). The after-normal or the new ordinary include the extinction of the albatross in the Atlantic, their death from ingestion of plastic at their birthplace on Midway Island (Walker 4), the shift of bird populations north to survive (Walker 165), and much more.

I’ve wanted, in these contemporary times, an explanation for the rise of right-wing politics and its persistence with earth-destroying policies. For example, the ‘fossil-fueled Koch brothers’ lobbied against extending public transport in Tennessee (Carlin 167), when public transport is about the reduction of carbon emissions and the spread of a civil society. Carlin says that climate change is seen as a ‘socialist conspiracy’; either that, or the right-wing feel their own coming loss of a license ‘to conquer, subdue, extract, control’ (64).

These books are generated by troubled times. Carlin and Walker wanted to move ‘beyond useless despair’ (x) and toward wonder, where it is found. Berlant and Stewart push off a story, getting a momentary capture that’s ‘the machinery of generation’ (126), to see what can happen. These books disturb and create ‘what’s continuous, anchoring you enough in the scene to pull in other things as you go’; they shift ‘around the qualities of things that have and haven’t yet been encountered’ (Berlant and Stewart 5). ‘This is a time,’ Carlin says, ‘in which the friction caused by the urgency of what we face makes new ideas and new alliances suddenly thinkable and makeable’ (185).


Works cited



Dr Moya Costello is a writer, and an Adjunct Lecturer, Schools of Arts and Social Sciences, Southern Cross University. Her scholarly and creative publications are in a range of journals and anthologies. She has four books published: two of short creative prose (Kites in Jakarta and Small Ecstasies) and two short novels (The Office as a Boat and Harriet Chandler). She has been awarded writer’s grants and fellowships, has been a Writer-in-Residence at Monash University, judged several writing competitions and been a guest at the Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Gold Coast, Yamba, Bryon and Bellingen writers’ festivals.


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Vol 23 No 2 October 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker. Assistant reviews editor: Simon Telford