Poignancy and Optimism in “The Past is Red” – Chicago Review of Books


“My name is Tetley Abednego, and I am the most hated girl in Garbagetown.”

From this very first sentence of The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente, Valente ensures her readers know where Tetley stands. Tetley knows too, but it doesn’t bother her.

“Everyone says they only hate me because I annihilated hope and butchered our future, but I know better, and anyway, it’s a lie,” Tetley cheerily explains.

The future in question is fragile and uncertain in this post-apocalyptic work of climate fiction. The climate crisis has already caused the total flooding of the earth, and dry land is nothing but a memory. The Fuckwits (as they are universally referred to by the residents of Garbagetown) are the ones who lived a century ago and allowed this all to happen—they’re long dead, but they remain ever-present. Garbagetown, a gigantic floating garbage patch on the endless ocean, is a constant reminder of the choices made by Fuckwits that led the last humans on Earth to this fate.

Although Garbagetown hates Tetley (for reasons Tetley cleverly dances around as she narrates her story to the reader), Tetley loves Garbagetown. “I’m awfully lucky when you think about it,” she says, as a social pariah at the end of the world. “Garbagetown is the most wonderful place anybody has ever lived in the history of the world, even if you count the Pyramids and New York City and Camelot.”

As a child of the apocalypse, Garbagetown is all Tetley knows. It’s all normal to her, and as a result, Tetley can see the humanity in the world around her more easily than those who came before her. To Tetley, things are the way they are, and it’s only natural to expect beauty and hope in this way of life. As Valente notes in her afterword to the novel, “If you are born into the worst-case scenario, it just feels like home.”

Garbagetown is all that remains of a drowned earth, and Valente crafts those remains into an expansive world with a culture all its own, that is at once devastating and playful. From Candle Hole, made entirely out of wax from almost-finished candles, to Pill Hill, constructed of orange canyons built out of discarded medication bottles, to Electric City, full to the brim of old batteries of every type, each neighborhood of Garbagetown has its own culture. And it’s all looked down upon by St. Oscar, “a fuzzy green Fuckwit man who lived in a garbage can just like me.”

Tetley loves humanity’s inherent ability to lead meaningful lives, no matter the circumstances. She lives aspiring to the idea that there isn’t necessarily anything to mourn, because Earth isn’t over—it’s just different.

The Past is Red is the furthest thing from a portrait of humanity’s bright future—in many ways, it shows the worst of us. Valente works within the framework that there is no real hope for escaping the climate apocalypse in any real or equitable way, but there is hope for humanity in whatever world will come after.

In Valente’s apocalypse, it’s absolutely clear where the blame should be placed. It is rooted in ideas of excess—when characters abstractly blame the Fuckwits for the end of the world, they are working with minimal knowledge of the history of the apocalypse because so much was lost, so they’re really blaming certain Fuckwit values that are more than apparent in all the garbage that surrounds them.

Valente shows her readers that the opposite of excess is not minimalism, but neglect. Excess and blame are tied to the rich Fuckwits who didn’t care about the consequences of their actions because they believed it wouldn’t affect them.

Garbagetowners, like the garbage itself, have been tossed aside and abandoned. This doesn’t say anything about their value, but it says everything about the people who threw them away.

Tetley knows that loss is permanent: “nothing you love ever comes back,” she says, and she makes her peace with this. Every ounce of her world is rooted in grief, and Tetley sees over and over how longing for what is gone makes people miserable.

Excess may be a known evil, but it’s still tantalizing in the right context. When Tetley and her twin Maruchan find a book called 1000 More Places to See Before You Die, full of photos of old hiking trails now entirely underwater, “we looked at those pictures for hours and hours until Maruchan finally started crying and I had to hold him and rock him to happy again,” Tetley says. “It took a long time.”

Even Tetley finds herself drawn to an old piece of talking Fuckwit technology and hangs onto it, opening herself up to learn more about the past and, by extension, the human experience. Some of what she learns becomes more painful and life-altering than she ever could have expected.

Still, Tetley stays firm and determined in her focus on the life she’s living now. She knows there’s no point in pining after something impossible, so she takes it upon herself to ensure the other residents of Garbagetown appreciate what they have. It’s the only way to be happy, or to even come close. At every turn, Tetley represents hope after doom, a perfectly human contradiction, “because nothing matters. Because everything matters.”

Between the red past and the blue future, Tetley insists upon a present that is beautiful to her. She says over and over again to anyone who will listen that Garbagetown is the most beautiful place in the world. That might only be true because there is nothing and no one else left, but it’s still true.

Valente has written a novel for readers who see how bleak the world is but want to feel hope anyway. The Past is Red is a book to tether us to the inherent hope within ourselves, at the core of humanity’s endurance. Humans still exist, and for however long that may be true, there is more life to live.

The Past is Red
by Catherynne M. Valente
Published July 20th, 2021

Megan Otto

Megan Otto is a freelance arts and environmental writer specializing in content related to ethical storytelling, underrepresented voices, climate justice, and the arts. Based in Portland, Oregon, she loves visiting both the mountains and the ocean in her free time. Learn more about her writing at megotto.com or find her @megsotto on Twitter.


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