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Around this time of year a tweet goes around that says something like “it’s so hot today that it’s like the opening of a serious literary novel” (this tweet has proved impossible to search for but if you know what I’m talking about, please send me a link so I can credit its writer, I know the tweet itself is phrased much better than this crap half-remembered version). Very hot summer days are a hallmark of those doortstop-heavy Very Important American Novels that have always been the only thing I’ve really aspired to write if I’m disgustingly honest, the ones written by the obliviously privileged Marks and Jonathans, the ones whose heft is meant to make you feel at once belittled and important, the ones that are trying to tell you that they contain the whole world.
Part of the reason for talking about heat waves in literary novels is that novels are trying to shape and arrange our lives into a narrative coherence; they make the promise that what seems random and pointless is in fact proceeding in a meaningful order, that each event relates to each other event and that their arrangement is larger and more gilded than the mere smashing of one accident into another. The weather is an organizing principle much like a narrative frame, much like a division of a jumbled and largely wasteful life into chapters and dialogues, conflicts and resolutions.
People — both in reality and in the narration of these same books— love to talk about how good the weather was right before disasters. This year I keep thinking about how the summer of 2016 was beautiful. It is the last summer that I remember truly felt like a summer. Thomas and I went down to Chattanooga to visit his family and stayed above a coffee shop; our room’s miniscule balcony scooted out directly over the river and right below it was where the shop roasted their beans. The smell would drift up to us through the early humidity’s haze in the first hours of sunlight. It was always too hot, and miserable, but the heat seemed consistent with something about to crack open, with something about to happen. It made me feel permitted, to wait, to do nothing, as though the whole point of history were to stand and watch it go by, parade-like, sweltering in the anticipatory weather that I believed might never break. We drove further down to Savannah, where it was too hot to go outside at all. We retreated to our hotel room as though it were a cave, sprawled on the bed in the air-conditioning and watched the DNC on the hotel television. Something was about to happen, surely, but like the weather in books it felt as though it could only be a metaphor, a hook on which to hang analysis. The kind of history that was real was something that happened elsewhere, before we were born or after we died, always at a remove.
A heat wave is masochistically appealing, its awfulness stuns and staggers us into presence. If you’re in pain, if you hate something, then at least you’re really here, you’re fully in the room. Often masochistic desire is about the desire to have something happen to us, to be more than a bystander, more than a spectator, more than someone going through life halfway back in the crowd, idly checking their phone. This is a morally tenuous stance at best, and more often a morally reprehensible one; most people who have things happen to them would give a great deal to be only spectators, to be offered the option for detachment and unimportance. Masochism, the kind that takes pleasure in the worst, hottest days, can too often be a desire to be blameless, to be innocent even of one’s own desires. Oh, something happened to me.
The sense of living through a moral crisis right now is almost unbearable, so loud that I feel stupid and culpable talking about anything else. When I talk about the weather, this is what I mean, I mean the present crisis, I mean what we have done to the climate and its living consequences, I mean people dying without water in cages in camps in the sight of our government’s full knowledge, I mean all of our passive or active collaboration. What none of us are good at is grappling with the idea that we are in something, rather than about to be there.
In those doorstop novels (including the unpublished, unfinished manuscript sitting on my desktop glowering at me and wanting attention behind this text application as I write this), the thing of summer, of heatwaves and hot weather and big weather, is always about waiting for something. Humidity in particular, with its heavy-to-bursting threats, is about anticipation. Part of what is masochistically pleasurable about heatwaves and about the awfulness of high humidity is the sense of standing on the edge of a precipice, not daring to look over, knowing something is coming for us, but not quite knowing what it is. Something is going to happen to me.
Since as early as I can remember, I learned to feel comfortable positioning myself on the edge of history, at its cusp. Surely, something is coming, something large as the things in books, but the something will happen to other people. The characters will be someone else, because the characters have always been someone else. We think everything is survivable simply because we have survived things before, because we have survived everything up until now.
One of the many things that is so sickening about the present moment is that it is the present moment. It is no longer acceptable to think of the weather as something not quite real, ephemeral and therefore lushly enjoyable in its awfulness. The heatwave is not trying to tell us about the future that will happen to someone else; the heatwave is the crisis, and so is everything else happening, not in the future, but right now, as I sit in an air-conditioned room and type this. Privilege is the ability to live only in the past or the future, waiting for the moment when something happens right up until the moment when something has already happened.
Much like with the weather, we adjust our expectations as things get worse, so that each new increase can still be not it, not yet. So that the bad weather and the general sense of the world ending around us can still feel like living in the opening chapter of a big doorstop-novel, teetering forever on the edge of the action. But the weather is not a novel, not a framing or scene-setting device, not even the weird enjoyment of feeling sweaty and disgusting on a long walk down a blue avenue coming home in the last hour of the day’s light. Robert Haas says in one of my favorite poems: You hear pain singing in the nerves of things; it is not a song. The weather is an immediate and present crisis like everything else is. We are already living in it. The nightmares continue whether we look at them or not. We are already doing whatever it is that we do in the story. Summer is supposed to feel like nothing counts, but everything counts, and sometimes not even the weather is a metaphor.