Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

From the Grotesque to Nuclear-Age Precedents: The Modes and Meanings of Cli-Fi Humor

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

From the Grotesque to Nuclear-Age Precedents: The Modes and Meanings of Cli-Fi Humor

Article excerpt

In a New York Times book review of MaddAddam, the final instalment in Margaret Atwood's ecocatastrophic trilogy, Andrew Sean Greer notes "[w]hat a joy it is to see... Atwood taking such delicious pleasure in the end of the world" (n.p.). He pinpoints a sense of general cultural fatigue towards the pathos, gloom, and doom so prevalent in contemporary fiction about environmental risks. If critics including Timothy Morton and Michael Branch have lamented the ubiquity of elegiac, melancholy rhetoric in ecological writing and pleaded for more humor in both literary theory and practice, this article turns attention to darkly funny climate fiction from Atwood and Ian McEwan. It asks what sorts of rhetorical, aesthetic, and ethical effects or questions humor might produce in Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy (2003-2013) (1) and McEwan's Solar (2010). What role/s might comical and satirical narrative play in fictionally representing, and ethically engaging readers in, ecological risks such as climate change or species extinction?

Following recent efforts from scholars including Adam Trexler, Richard Kerridge, Stephanie LeMenager, and others to better define and taxonomize climate or "Anthropocene fiction" and its subgenres, all the while underlining the "genre trouble" that so often characterizes such narratives, this article pinpoints some of the comedic and satirical strategies of "funny cli-fi." (2) It draws on contemporary theories of humor and incongruity as well as Mikhail Bakhtin's discussions of the grotesque body to discern a variety of comic modes in the fiction of Atwood and McEwan--from slapstick and the grotesque to socio-political satire and gallows humor--that draw particular sorts of attention to the ethical and epistemological quandaries raised by climate change and other environmental risks. Perhaps refreshingly, these texts largely forgo pathetic rhetorical styles such as the jeremiad and the sublime, ones closely associated with ecocatastrophic narratives. (3) If that sort of pathos tends to inspire a sense of paralysis at the immensity of the environmental crises that confront us, Atwood's and McEwan's satirical novels hedge against such paralytic responses by doing something unexpected: they make us laugh. (4)

While the laughter elicited by humorous cli-fi may not provide much comic relief--satire does, after all, tend instead to elicit unease at the discrepancy between the topic's seriousness and the manner of its representation--the discomfort of this incongruity encourages a reflexive mode of textual engagement with environmental problems and risks. (5) Silliness and absurdity in MAT and Solar highlight and interrogate the climate crisis in distinctive ways--ones that prove more critical and interrogative than the pathetic strategies of sentimental or elegiac environmental writing tend to be.

These lighter approaches to representing harrowing contemporary risks might seem welcome amid grimly apocalyptic novels/Hollywood blockbusters/video games that have become so pervasive as to feel entirely predictable. Atwood's success in attracting and retaining the interest of a large mass-market readership for her MAT suggests a healthy public appetite for a different fictional approach to the climate crisis. The critical and commercial impact of the trilogy--as of early 2017, it has sold more than one million copies--seems remarkable when you consider that science and speculative fiction titles generally attract a more niche audience. (6) Might the trilogy's comic appeal account partly for its wider impact, in tandem with Atwood's global renown?

Framing this question from aesthetic and ethical standpoints makes it pertinent in the context of ecocritical literary studies, particularly as part of efforts to more clearly delineate "cli-fi" as a genre or series of genres with profound ties to existing fictional and rhetorical traditions. It also builds from the work of scholars such as Nicole Seymour, who in calling for "irreverent ecocriticism" has flagged problems of "doomsday fatigue" and advocated for a more nuanced range of affective explorations in ecocriticism to "embrace our sense of our own absurdity, our uncertainty, our humor, even our perversity" (57). …

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