Sunday Morning! “Not Dark Yet”
A young man, whose name we are only told once in the first sentence of the story, comes to occupy a cabin at the base of a fir-shaded hill on a moor. Once inside, he feels a sense of belonging there. “The cabin, the heath, the world shone inside him, in an intimate, shared existence.” He is the first person to occupy this cabin for some time. He decides to stay.
Some of his neighbors come, seeking to rent out the heath, as climate change has now rendered it suitable for growing crops. They hope to thereby help fight a coming famine. They are surprised to find he readily agrees, and so are we. His actions are cryptic, his motivations obscure. He has apparently left behind his boyfriend and his family in a city on the coast in order to take possession of this cabin and we don’t really know why. At the same time, he is trying to get accepted to his “continent’s space organization” and be trained as an astronaut for a mission to Mars. But we get the feeling that our character is already on the alien planet and looking to escape it.
Berit Ellingsen’s enigmatic novel Not Dark Yet certainly feels like a science fiction story, although I can’t place anything in it that doesn’t take place in our world. All of the places are nameless, but the problems seem familiar enough in their outlines: war, famine, hurricanes, disconnection, loss, love. Maybe the point is that this world has become inconceivable. The story deals with how we keep connected to one another and how we relate to a natural world from which we are hopelessly estranged and alien. A recurring theme is climate change, something most of us still find somewhat incomprehensible. Oh, the specifics are basic enough, and the evidence is inescapable at this point, but a global ecosystem is something too huge to fully grasp I think. And the notion that our species is not only out-of-place on this earth, but toxic to its continued survival? It’s unthinkable and I suspect we cannot really wrap our heads around it at all.
It was interesting to read this novel in conjunction with The Hermit in the Garden as well because Ellingsen’s main character is a bit of hermit himself. We know that he previously served in a special military unit as a sniper, at one point, having to shoot children planting roadside bombs. We know this experience scarred him somehow, and that when he returned, he took a job photographing owls in a laboratory for a research professor, and that he began an affair with this professor. One of the owls finally attacked the professor and our protagonist killed it, thus ending his time with the program. Strangely, it seems as if everywhere he has gone, his existence has necessitated violence.
So, perhaps this is why he has fled from himself in this isolated hermitage and now seeks to escape from our troubled planet. At one point, he recalls a visit to a shine when he was younger, built around the mummified body of a renunciate who slowly gave up all sustenance until he was a stack of bones ready to pass into the light of oblivion. In a sense, our protagonist is also giving up worldly society and conditioning his body to pass into the “beyond”.
At least, that’s what seems to be going on with him. The writing in this novel reminded me of Haruki Murakami’s in that there are many spare and elliptical descriptions of the character’s everyday behavior; we follow him around and observe him, but we don’t really know what’s going on inside of him. Maybe he doesn’t either. The prose is gnomic and beautiful, and in a way also renunciatory. The character is even shut off from us. But his isolation and the sense that he is experiencing a life crisis also reminded me of Murakami. There’s a strangeness to his predicament and a quiet sadness. He hides from the world, but the world, in all its natural power and its inhuman violence, finally comes to him. It literally floods his hermitage.
It’s an interesting approach to narrative. Usually, novels take place in the characters’ inner landscape as well as their outer surroundings. But there’s something innately compelling about a character whose actions drive the story, but whose inner life is mostly a mystery. I recall Stephen King once saying he doesn’t like writing plots; instead, he writes characters and places them in difficult situations and sees how they extricate themselves from those situations. Our hero tries to avoid all entanglements, and the story questions if such a thing is even possible.
In real life, of course, we tend to place ourselves in difficult situations, and we most often fail to extricate ourselves from them. Climate change- or possibly just ecological collapse at this point- is the most difficult situation we have put ourselves into and all of the characters in this story struggle to decide how to act in response. None of their responses seem adequate, and in one case, the response is horrific. So, perhaps the best and final answer really is to renounce all actions and allow nature to reclaim us.
So, what are YOU reading, watching, pondering, playing, or renouncing this weekend?