- The Anthropocene Reviewed, by John Green. Ebury Press, $35.
A book of semi-autobiographical essays threatens to devolve into a book of sentiments. In attempting to bridge the ambivalences between the objects of a life and the themes of life, essayists often become too clever or too romantic; reach for too global an answer, from too small a perspective.
John Green's The Anthropocene Reviewed does not fall into this pit. Educator, online personality and author of The Fault in Our Stars and presents 44 essays, building out of objects from his life, and winding into a larger anthropocenic themes and concepts. It's a break from his regular fictive mode that Green attributes to the peculiar crucible COVID anxieties: "[T]alking so much about myself in the context of fiction became exhausting for me, and a little destabilising. ... I realised I didn't want to write in code anymore."
The double-entendre of the titular subject - the Anthropocene; the age of man - invokes the meeting and disjunction between the life of the individual and the human world; the way, as Green puts it, "small life runs into the large forces of the Anthropocene". The topics of his essays range from the parochial and the personal, such as "Diet Dr Pepper", to more general features of the paradigm, such as "The Internet" and "Plague". Like a well-told story, these chapters do not pursue a conclusion, as much as they mobilise in a direction towards a general resolution.
Though at first blush threatening to be too clever, the conceit of Green's book - the reviewing of eclectic features of the Anthropocene - is emblematic of a measuredly sardonic attitude towards the reduction of life to myths and narratives in the modern world, including into digestible numbers and statistics. Each chapter sees Green engage in a prolonged, free-associating, multi-disciplinary discussion through the strange penumbra of his subject, only to end with a score out of five stars, that might suggestively save the reader the trouble of reading the essay. Full of sadness and joyful beauty, these chapters reflect a style of humanistic essayism at its most vibrant - sensitive and alive to humanness.
Further, Green's scope is rarely as hubristically broad as his title implies. Instead he maintains an appropriate smallness of perspective and narrowly focused subject. This humility does not diminish but clarifies the reach of his observations. Within his frequently referential mode, which draws heavily on quotes, tales and anecdotes from science, history, culture, literature and beyond, Green synthesises his voice with the voices and tales of a broader human paradigm to generate a fuller chorus of meaning.
In his third chapter, for example, Green muses on Hayley's comet: sidling from his own adolescent viewing of the comet, to the viewings of Mark Twain which book-ended his life. He considers the comet's discoverer, Hayley - whose greatness as a man is matched by his smallness as a bubble in the tide of European empire, and who sponsored Isaac Newton's 'Principia' in his own "plague year".
Yet, at times the topics are entirely mundane, with no intention of reaching into history, to the bookshelf, or even to pop-culture: the scent memories of Scratch and Sniff stickers, for example, occupy one chapter.
Moreover, Green is clever. Employing his characteristic disrespect for form and generic expectations, Green includes witty asides and regularly blurs the line between meandering story-telling, affective discussion, and purposeful argument or illustration. His rebellious flares are subtle enough to be artful, and throughout his sense of humour, typified by an irony still sensitive to deep feeling, is charismatic and ingratiating.
There is something of an arc to the topics of his chapters: endangered geese; bears hunted by Teddy Roosevelt; the Hall of Presidents at Disney World; air-conditioning. I am not won over by all his essays. Some do feel too clever, or too small or parochial, or even too sentimental. But these cases are few and marginal.
In particular, a recurring purpose of Green's, as with his larger catalogue, is to dispel the mythologising of chronic illness and pain. In this area his commentary is sophisticated, wise, affecting, important, and persistently ambivalent. Within the biographical elements of the book, Green's insistence on ambivalence emerges not merely as an intellectual hang-up, but hard-won experience with the insufficiency of attractive half-answers.
It is a worldliness that he maintains through his other discussions, and reveals The Anthropocene Reviewed as a distinct response to anxious Covid world, built paraphernalia of the world before.
Ultimately, the sophistication with which Green finds, interrogates, and realises meaning in the time of the human - the life and the age - is rich and sensitive, beyond mere sentiment.