Meditations on Collective Guilt, Culpability, and the Natural World in “The Impossible Resurrection of Grief” – Chicago Review of Books


The world is dying and it is all humanity’s fault—an on the nose observation, but one that encapsulates Octavia Cade’s novella, The Impossible Resurrection of Grief. We meet marine biologist Ruby in a near-future Australia, immersed in her study of jellyfish while dealing with the fallout of a colleague and friend drowning in the Grief, a debilitating mental illness that ends in the afflicted’s suicide. Ruby soon finds herself flying to New Zealand and further into Tasmania as the fallout of her friend’s Grief continues to shake up her life. No one knows where or when or how the Grief emerged, but it is believed to be linked to the devastating ecological death occurring across the planet.

As a scientist, Ruby can engage with the world yet still find some distance from it, even if ecosystems worldwide seem to be deteriorating at an alarming rate. Jellyfish populations are booming in the warming seas despite the environment becoming inhospitable or lethal for most sea life. Ruby wants to feel a modicum of collective guilt for the sins of humanity, but she can’t. She narrates, “Grief was never something I was comfortable thinking about . . . the undermining upwelling of loss in response to ecosystem devastation, the failure of conservation, was far harder to comprehend. I acknowledged it as little as possible.” Ruby can’t recognize the grief, not because it does not matter to her, but because it is something so far beyond the reach of her normal concept. 

Ruby’s feelings mirror our own cultural conversations around our climate and the breakdown of its ecosystems. It all seems so incredibly unfathomable that we cannot possibly touch it. This is also where the uneasy if not painful feeling of culpability comes in for the bearers of the Grief—and how it drives them to suicide. The lack of control in attempts to help the environment and the passive acceptance of the repercussions become implantable, so those individuals struck by ecological grief must take matters into their own hands—as best they can. 

Ruby’s colleague, Marjorie, adopts a persona when afflicted by the Grief. Marjorie calls herself the Sea Witch and attempts to wake Ruby up to the failures of humanity by proselytizing that the old world can be reclaimed, if only humanity is wiped out, but Ruby cannot follow without risking exposure to the Grief. Ruby instead attempts to bring Marjorie out of the Grief, but knows it is futile. Ruby’s struggle to save her friend haunts the pages of this novella, as surely as the possibility of becoming infected by the Grief does. Ruby reflects on her failure to do more for Marjorie, to be a better friend: “We were friends, once. Still would be, if I had my way, but friendship is a mutual choice and the Sea Witch had forgotten mutuality.” 

This sense of loss—the world morphing into something that we begin to find unrecognizable—is always pulled back and summoned by these figures struck by the Grief. Ruby views them through a stilted lens because the Grief is temperamental; it doesn’t strike everyone equally. It is noted that the phenomenon is more present in Indigenous populations, and cannot be more broadly examined by descendants of colonizers because they are insulated by privilege. Yet, like other news regarding Native populations, the higher probability of the Grief among Indigenous is swept aside. 

Ruby’s own husband, George, is Indigenous and was forced to leave his land in New Zealand as soon as he could because the wildlife was rapidly deteriorating. Ruby reminisces on George’s intentions: “So, he didn’t have to watch, or because he didn’t care to watch?” Ruby observes the world to merely document changes, repressing any feelings she might have towards it. George then presents an interesting foil to his wife because he is an artist who observes the world in order to express his feelings towards it.  He is not easily swept up in the plot that consumes Ruby’s life post-Sea Witch. The ecosystems falling apart are painful to him, as are deaths from the Grief, but his work remains. George continually grounds his wife despite their growing apart over the last few years, trying his best to keep Ruby centered in the here and now.

Their marriage is a microcosm of the socio-political conflicts that have been re-inflamed by these dying species and biomes. Ruby highlights this herself as well. The fact that Ruby is a colonizer and her husband is Indigenous is notable, considering New Zealand as a country was eaten up—the wildlife literally consumed—by colonizers. The scope of this plot reveals the implications of colonization in both social and environmental history and further emphasizes the mistakes that are made again and again, despite history’s record. What occurred in Tasmania with the genocide of the Indigenous is a cruel and bitter reminder of what humans can do to one another. 

There is warning in Cade’s words. A number of lines from Ruby and secondary characters, particularly the Sea Witch, leap off the page to accuse the reader: “We had the capacity for choice, and what we had chosen—what we continued to choose—was death.” When mentioning species that humanity killed outright, another character states, “Their extinction was deliberate. We weren’t so damn indifferent to them that we let the world take them. I suppose that’s something to be grateful for, that we at least cared enough to do it ourselves.” The reader is hammered with these accusations, especially for a book that could be read in a single sitting. The onslaught of pain and sorrow of what could have been, what the world cannot return to, radiates from these passages.

Cade’s background in science communication gives Ruby her distinct (read: empirical) point of view and feelings of disbelief, but also provides a thorough analysis of organisms and biological systems throughout the narrative. The sensibilities of understanding various organisms alive, copied, and extinct are delicious treats for the biologically-minded. Yet, these factors, which could have easily become obstacles in a hard science fiction novel, never get in the way of the poignant story, which is certainly a message for our times. 

Echoing Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation and Rita Indiana’s Tentacle, Cade pushes climate fiction deeper, asking the reader to reflect, consider, and repent. A heavy, but necessary read, The Impossible Resurrection of Grief pushes us to continue to question our motives and our positions in the climate crisis. Are we too insulated from climate change? Do we see these effects now? What steps are we taking to slow or hasten our planet’s death? How compassionate am I towards the other living things that inhabit my neighborhood? These questions and others hint at what the Grief could be asking us. What might strike as hope, but also sorrow, is that there is no clear answer. Cade implores us to both meditate and act, so the world of The Impossible Resurrection of Grief does not become our own.


The Impossible Resurrection of Grief

by Octavia Cade

Stelliform Press

Published May 20, 2021


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