In the 1930’s, storms could still arrive without warning. The most reliable forecasts were those dictated by the seasons, like the steady drumbeat of precipitation the Japanese know to expect in June and July. But how to react when a rainy season turns catastrophic? In The Makioka Sisters, Junichiro Tanizaki describes such an event when a young boy named Hiroshi arrives home to warn his mother and Taeko, one of the titular sisters, that the insistent rain has caused a flood. “It was coming up behind me, and I had to run as fast as I could to keep from getting caught” Hiroshi tells the women, and when they follow his gaze outside they see that, indeed, a “muddy stream running through the garden promised very soon to be up over the floor.”
Together, the trio barricade the door against the sudden onslaught of water. It leaches through, but remarkably, even once the water has reached their waists, the “three were still rather enjoying themselves, shouting at each other in the best of spirits. They all had a good laugh when Hiroshi, reaching to grab the briefcase in which he had brought home his school books, bumped his head on the bobbing radio. But after perhaps a half hour, there came a moment when the three fell silent.”
Soon, the water is “within three or four feet of the ceiling. Taeko stood the table upright (she found that it was heavy with mud and pulled at her foot) and clutched the curtain rod. Only her head was above water.” When she manages to glance at Hiroshi’s mother, the older woman has been transformed into “one who was looking at death.”
From a 21st Century perch, the idea of initially treating a severe storm with such levity is unimaginable. But in an age before weather satellites, unless you had experienced flooding of such magnitude that it could drown you, you would have had little context (aside from perhaps newspaper and radio reports of the suffering in distant lands) to understand that such a thing was even possible. A flood is just a flood until it is suddenly something much worse, but that suddenly is more predictable now than it has ever been— storms are tracked obsessively, with the finer weather apps now bringing live imaging of swirling clouds to the palm of your hand. Not that our ability to predict storms has done anything to diminish their severity, of course, but it has at least taken away their ability to surprise us.
Over the past month, the slow march of Harvey, Jose, and Maria across the Caribbean and into the Gulf has spread tragically well-warranted dread around the hemisphere. This dread is more familiar than the surprise Tanizaki’s characters experience, and few writers have captured is quite as grippingly as Jesmyn Ward in Salvage the Bones, her chronicle of a Mississippi’s family’s desperate attempt to survive Katrina in 2005. There is no moment of sudden, terrified silence in Ward’s novel, only the knowledge that the silence, once it comes, will be unbearable.
Esch, the book’s narrator, spends the night the storm is due to arrive “terrified and bored” in the living room along with her father and two brothers, Randall and Skeetah. The tension is so great, there’s even a twinge of relief in how she describes the feeling of the first lick of the rising water on her ankles, “cold as a first summer swim.” Such relief does not linger. The storm’s ferocity grows, and through the house’s thin roof Esch’s family hears “every fumbling rush of the wind, every torrent of rain.”
The fear those noises engender are nothing compared to what happens once the house’s foundations begin to shift:
“The house,” Randall says, and his voice is steady, calm, but I can hardly contain the panic I feel when the house tilts, slowly as an unmoored boat.
“It’s the water,” Skeetah says. “It’s the water.”
“Shit!” Daddy yells, and then we are all bracing in the dark as the house tilts again.
“Water,” I say.
The dreadful procession of images coming out of Puerto Rico, Houston, the Keys, Dominica, St. John, and so many other places have brought me back again and again to the scenes in these two books, to their demonstration of how storms make panickers of us all. Tanizaki’s characters are naïve and Ward’s expectant, but in the face of catastrophe, the starting condition is irreverent to the base terror that rising water produces. A creeping wetness that comes on slow and accelerates without warning; the feeling of liquid “cold as a first summer swim” that keeps filling up the room until your body is suspended and you have no choice left but to paddle.
Books are often treated as a refuge from the world’s ills, but the best literature is that which forces you to confront the enormity and the tragedy of the world, not escape it. Tanizaki and Ward force images of destruction and suffering off our screens and into our imaginations. We can not turn off the feeling their visions of being trapped in a flooding house impose on us. We can not change the subject to something more comfortable. We have to sit with such visions, and grieve, knowing that the reality of what the people affected by the last month’s storms have experienced is worse.
My essay on the teeth-grindingly annoying copy style of The New Yorker, “Élite Politesse,” was published late last month by the good people at The Baffler. Check it out to see why all the critics are raving, “I clicked the link confused about why anyone would care about this.”
Something I didn’t write this month but that you should read anyway: “Slaves of ISIS,” Cathy Otten’s report for The Guardian about the Yezidi women captured by the Islamic State in 2014 and the gut-wrenching things they have been (and continue to be) subjected to while in captivity. The article is an excerpt from With Ash on Their Faces, Otten’s book on the subject which is due out on October 24th.
Thanks for reading and subscribing. You can find me on twitter @KPaoletta, or wandering the streets of Boston in search of gainful employment.