Book Review: Great American Desert by Terese Svoboda
A Guggenheim fellow, Terese Svoboda is the author of 18 books. She has won the Bobst Prize in fiction, the Iowa Prize for poetry, an NEH grant for translation, the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, a Jerome Foundation prize for video, the O. Henry award for the short story, a Bobst prize for the novel, and a Pushcart Prize for the essay. She is a three time winner of the New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, and has been awarded Headlands, James Merrill, Hawthornden, Yaddo, McDowell, and Bellagio residencies. Her opera WET premiered at L.A.'s Disney Hall in 2005.
A Review of Terese Svoboda's Great American Desert
What the Water Said
“Climate is cruel, that is the lesson.”
from “Major Long Talks to His Horse” in Great American Desert
First articulated in 1788 by Scottish geologist, James Hutton, the concept of “deep time” has been foundational for theories of the Anthropocene, an epoch defined explicitly by human activity and its effects on everything from the carbon cycle to biodiversity. “Deep time” imagines a much longer arc of Earth’s history—a sublime enormity of geological change over 4.54 billion years of planetary history. Within this “deep time,” humans have occupied a mere sliver of it yet have managed to become the primary geological force on this planet to devastating environmental effect since the Great Acceleration. While scholars continue to debate the value of the Anthropocene as a critical framework given the infinitesimal presence of human life in relation to the much longer trajectory of “deep time,” the concept of human intervention into geological processes, both at the micro and macro levels, has been the object of inquiry for not only social and environmental science but also speculative fiction or what has recently been termed “cli-fi” or climate fiction.
How does living in the Anthropocene feel? This seems to be a particularly literary question in that the affective experience of living within the conditions of the Anthropocene so often escapes quantification and measurement. The short stories that compose Terese Svoboda’s Great American Desert attempt to inhabit the affective lifeworlds of people like “Dutch Joe,” a well digger who unexpectedly prophecies a bleak future dismal like the name of the river that supplies the settlers with water. As David Farrier has aptly described, “there is also something disturbingly banal about the Anthropocene. Arguably, it’s in the encounter with everyday objects, surfaces and textures that we get the best sense of its scope and scale.” Svoboda’s text excavates these quotidian encounters—of a woman attempting to care for her sister struggling with mental illness or a man attempting to dispose of leaking bombs at an army depot—as the unexpected places where the Anthropocene might be registered through inchoate feelings of anxiety, dis-ease, and struggle. Great American Desert is an essay in its truest sense: an attempt, a try at describing the feeling of living within late capitalism and its environmental discontents.
In structure and in method, Great American Desert works through what Kathleen Stewart has called “ordinary affects” or the idiosyncratic, public feelings that coalesce into an “animate circuit” among bodies and things coexisting within this uncertain new epoch of human-mediated climate change. Like Stewart’s book, Svoboda’s collection is itself “an assemblage of disparate scenes that pull the course of the book into a tangle of trajectories, connections, and disjunctures,” which better represent how a “reeling present is composed out of heterogeneous and noncoherent singularities.” By traversing the expanse of “deep time” across multiple stories, Svoboda unexpectedly links together the actions of the prehistoric Clovis people and the discontents of an American family witnessing the dumping of toxic waste onto their land. These seemingly disparate points in “deep time” form a web of human complicity and causality that does not disentangle by the end of the collection. Svoboda embraces the limitedness of her characters’ perspectives as representative of just how difficult it is to witness the Anthropocene while being within it. There is only the unbearable sense of contingency, of incoherence.
One of the collection’s primary characters is not human but liquid. Water flows through these stories as that which is both coveted and abused by the very human agents that try to claim it for their own. Svoboda does not mince words in her indictment of settler colonialism and the damages of American ideologies like manifest destiny:
We settlers have pushed all the way into the pockets of Lady America, hoping to take her wealth for ours, her endless waving grain and her cattle in abundant herds. Through our boot soles, thin as they are, we perceive the urgency of the land’s fecundity to be ours, it is so empty and waiting.
Scholars of the Anthropocene have posited different origin points for the epoch from the advent of human agriculture to the Industrial Revolution. What seems to be at stake, Svoboda reminds us, is the turn to unrelenting resource extraction at the great expense of the natural world. The slow violence of capitalism is taken to an extreme in “Ogallala Aquifer,” which witnesses how a private corporation contaminates an underground water supply through its unchecked dumping practices. The consequences of such repeated dumping are not immediately perceptible but known through the bodies of the local people:
And she knows what she knows from cell level too: she says her joints ache whenever there’s roof-tarring now or a crop-dusting, and her throat closes up if someone’s wearing dry cleaning too close to her, what drove that husband of hers into divorce court he says, pulling into the drive, but not—he seems to think—so the boy can hear.
The truth of “Waste Management” is intuited through sensation, debility. As the daughter of the family attends an infuriatingly useless meeting with the county board, she learns that the problem is systemic: networks of power composed of people she will never meet nor know enabled federal permits for corporate negligence. Thousands of dumping trucks offloading material “ten percent more toxic than the limit” is hastily buried “all with the latest tech,” which is disturbingly revealed to be just “bulldozers.” Svoboda calls out the emptiness and hypocrisy of technocratic solutions to environmental catastrophe caused by corporate greed: there is a literal cover-up with dirt of hazardous material that leaks out in a “pink puddle” and leeches into the aquifer below supposedly purified by the sediment on the way down. Yet this poisoned water now flows through the crops and livestock, as well as within and between the people who consume it—a toxic circuit connecting humans, animals, and objects that will eventually harm if not kill them all slowly.
Yet Svoboda is never a doomsayer in this book. Like the flat frontier colonized by American pioneers, her prose throughout the collection is characterized by its own perverse flatness. This flat affect, as Lauren Berlant has theorized, is not simply expressionlessness but an emotional opacity during conditions of sustained crisis that so characterize our current neoliberal moment. Such flatness in the case of Great American Desert may embody the common response to the ongoing traumas of environmental devastation happening at a speed we cannot process in our data-saturated world. Yet Berlant suggests also that flatness registers a disillusionment with current ways of acting and being or perhaps the reductive discourses surrounding the Anthropocene, ecology, and climate change more broadly. Flatness may be, itself, a unique form of resistance to the affective expectations of the feel-good rhetoric used by tech startups or governments claiming to be able to solve global climate change while profiting on harm that should never have occurred in the first place. Svoboda’s terseness is appropriately haunting, prophetic of an Anthropocene world that is lived through each of us. The responsibility now falls upon us as a collective to reimagine a “Great American Desert” that hardly feels speculative but instead terrifyingly real.
 For introductions to theories of Anthropocene and “deep time,” see Erle Ellis’s Anthropocene: A Verrtry Short Introduction. (Oxford UP, 2018), Jeremy Davies’ The Birth of the Anthropocene (UC Press, 2016), Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “The Climate of History: Four Theses” (Critical Inquiry, 2009), Noah Heringman’s “Deep Time at the Dawn of the Anthropocene” (Representations, 2015), and Will Steffen et al’s “The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives” (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 2011).
 Kathleen Stewart. Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. p.3
 Stewart, p. 4.
 See her “Structures of Unfeeling: Mysterious Skin” (International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, 2015).
Travis Chi Wing Lau received his Ph.D. in English at the University of Pennsylvania and is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. He specializes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature, the history of medicine, medical humanities, and disability studies. Lau has published in Disability Studies Quarterly, Digital Defoe, and English Language Notes, as well as venues for public scholarship like Public Books and Synapsis. His poetry has appeared in Wordgathering, Glass, The New Engagement, Nat. Brut, Matador Review, Impossible Archetype, and Rogue Agent. His chapbook, The Bone Setter, was recently published with Damaged Goods Press. He currently serves as an editor for The Deaf Poets Society, a disability-run literary magazine, and reviews poetry for Up the Staircase Quarterly and Tupelo Quarterly.