In his novel, Aaron Thier takes the long view on climate change
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GREAT BARRINGTON — Sometime after completing his first novel in 2013, Aaron Thier looked out his window in Williamstown at frozen trees in 2 feet of snow beneath a low gray sky and imagined the landscape transformed by climate change.
"I was thinking a lot about how much the rhythms of life are determined by the place where we live," the 32-year-old author said, in a conversation from his current home in central Great Barrington. "I was sitting there in the New England winter, looking outside and imagining what it would be like to see live oaks and Spanish moss," instead of white pine and Norway spruce. "That didn't seem so far-fetched, really."
That vision was part of the inspiration for his second novel, "Mr. Eternity," published earlier this month. Set in five time periods on the brink of environmental, political or cultural crisis — 1560, 1750, 2016, 2200, and 2500 — the story follows an old, perhaps immortal, sailor who calls himself "Daniel Defoe," maybe because, like Robinson Crusoe, he has been shipwrecked multiple times. Defoe's extraordinarily long life intersects with a quintet of young narrators trying to make sense of their lives in a damaged world.
Defoe travels from South America in the years following the destruction of the Aztec and Incan civilizations to a future St. Louis where the full 75 meters of sea level rise has turned the Midwest into a tropical tidal zone. Along the way are stops in a Caribbean sugar cane plantation, present-day tourist-infested Key West, and Boston and Baltimore after the global warming deluge.
The novel addresses issues of slavery, colonialism, genocide, and catastrophic climate change. It is also oddly hopeful and very funny, even as its characters misconstrue the past, present, and future. As the narrator from 2500 says, "Daniel Defoe explained [that] a DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] was a place to hang out and tell stories. It was a place for poor, sick people to congregate."
Thier is trim and boyish, both intense and effortlessly funny in conversation. Raised in Williamstown, he graduated from Yale, earned his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Florida, and made his debut as a novelist with "The Ghost Apple," an academic satire published in 2014.
"Mr. Eternity" reflects Thier's appreciation of history, language, and literature. Each timeline in the story is narrated in its own distinctive style, reflecting the voices of the narrator, including a South American girl sold into slavery, a stressed-out filmmaker, or the daughter of the hereditary king and president of the Democratic Federation of Mississippi States.
Teachers and critics appreciate Thier's talent for literary mimicry. Novelist Padgett Powell, reached by e-mail, wrote of his former MFA student: "Mr. Thier likes messin' with historicity, as did Faulkner, and he uses crisp precise wit, as did (Donald) Barthelme, to mess with it."
"He took to Florida like a manatee to a swamp," said another of Thier's teachers, David Leavitt, author of "The Indian Clerk." "In him the best of the subtropical and New England literary traditions are mingled."
One tradition to which Thier claims not to pay much attention is the growing sub-genre of climate fiction. "Cli-fi," as it is sometimes called, uses tools of storytelling to address possible outcomes of climate change. Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan stand at one end of the spectrum; at the other, a host of writers of young-adult dystopian potboilers imitating "The Hunger Games" or "Divergent."
As terrible as aspects of his future America might seem, Thier allows for the possibility of happiness in each plot strand in "Mr. Eternity."
"I was able to imagine that in the future there was room for joy," he said. "I think it's very easy to lose sight of that when you're reading all this apocalyptic stuff."
He agrees, however, with the Cassandras who forecast drastic change. "The increasing frequency of what used to be anomalous weather events is very scary," he said.
This acknowledgment of the biosphere's fragility has, at times, caused Thier to go to extremes in an attempt to live sustainably.
"When I was in Williamstown writing ["Mr. Eternity"]," he said, "we were only eating local foods, even in winter. I was milling flour every morning from grain that was grown 30 miles away. It was exhausting. And I had to get a hand mill to avoid using electricity."
He admitted, "It was unsustainable to live the way I was living, because it was driving me insane."
Last December, Thier and his wife, poet Sarah Trudgeon, whom he met in the MFA program, returned to New England after years of bouncing between Massachusetts and Florida. Thier said that they now enjoy being less dependent on their car and being able to walk to the farmers' market, the co-op grocery, and the hardware store a few blocks away. It's a big contrast to their time in car-obsessed Miami, where, Thier said, "There's already enough warming to destroy the city."
Four and a half months ago, Thier and Trudgeon welcomed their first child, Sidney. Their book-filled home is now littered with a stroller, bouncy chair, and other infant equipment. Thier has set up his workspace in the sparsely furnished third floor, a writing area he calls "the treehouse."
As a new father, Thier said he has hope for the future. And, indeed, "Mr. Eternity" is ultimately "supposed to be a heart-warming book — even though it's about climate change and apocalypse."
A child of parents concerned about the environment, Thier comes by his preoccupation with climate change naturally. "It was always part of my understanding of the world," he said.
His mother, Audrey, served as an environmental lobbyist in Albany, N.Y., working mostly on agricultural pesticides. His father, Williams College English professor Peter Murphy, "passed through a state of paralyzing anxiety about climate change in the late '80s. Then he settled into grim resignation," said Thier.
Thier seems to understands how quickly circumstances can change. After struggling with drugs and alcohol, he was able to quit both while in Gainesville, he said.
"Within three months of stopping drinking, my name was on the cover of The Nation, I had met the woman I was going to marry, and I had started writing the book that I knew would be my first novel."
As with "Mr. Eternity" and its mysterious Mr. Defoe, Thier seems ready for happy endings.
Aaron Thier reads from his novel "Mr. Eternity" Wednesday, Sept. 7, at 7 p.m. at Newtonville Books, 10 Langley Road, Newton Centre.