Emergency is a complex novel, not merely in its subject matter, but in its structure (or lack thereof) and atmospheric effect. For me, the novel has its merits and its detractions; however, its detractions often overwhelm its merits. But let’s praise it first for what it does accomplish.
The good: Emergency delivers on its promise of conveying a sense of interconnectivity between what are typically viewed as a discrete domains: nature and human behavior. Through a stream-of-consciousness deluge of the young unnamed narrator’s observations, the reader is treated to a fast-paced snapshot of what the world looks like from a youthful, innocent perspective. That is, the tragedy of our climate change and its impact on our world is accepted as natural, normal. The implication is that the tragedy of climate change is now somewhat unavoidable. There is a fatalistic quality to Emergency that is equal parts sad, calm, exciting, and banal. It is like feeling elation at the presence of anxiety, if only because it is a feeling that reminds us of our humanity. Don’t blame me, the novel is the barer of this bad news. Ha. I did mean “barer” and not “bearer.” A pun if I ever wrote one.
Now, the not so good: It is clear Emergency is written for a mature literary reader. Its plotless structure and its subtle connection between environment and human behavior demands a lot of work from its reader. These two criticisms are related; the novel has no discernible plot. Nothing happens. Except, that is, a lot of thinking. There is very minimal exterior eventfulness in the novel; it takes place almost wholly in the narrator’s interior. For readers of literary fiction this is a familiar characteristic; however, the narrator remains an elusive character. I had significant difficulty imagining the narrator from Hildyard’s description (which is sparse), though the unfolding of their mind was delivered in abundance.
What is problematic about the absent narrator is how this alienates the reader. This may be purposeful on Hildyard’s part, a performative palpability intended to convey the awful insularity in our future. Dwindling resources and a ruthless competition to survive have historically had the effect of solidifying boundaries, separating and causing the demise of many millions.
Perhaps this is Hildyard’s method of conveying a sense of our collective mortality. If so, bravo. But nonetheless, as a literary work, this gloomy sense of quarantine and the inability to connect with the narrator causes the novel to drag a little. It is hard to maintain interest in a narrator we do fully feel in our presence.
Perhaps, on another level, the absent narrator is an unconscious authorial decision. Emergency, in its chilly narration, reminds me of the terrible isolation and reflectivity the Covid-19 pandemic forced on the world. Hildyard wrote this in lockdown and so we must assume that some element of their experience has seeped into the novel; but, simply put, I have had enough of feeling this way. At a future point in our history, Hildyard’s novel may brilliantly (whether it is its author’s intention or not) convey the mood of our moment; but, it is too soon, too soon for me to appreciate this.
In sum, Emergency is a novel to be undertaken with seriousness. If you have the mental energy to meet Hildyard — and the narrator — more than halfway, I think you will be rewarded well.