Book Review

It was mid-March when I received my copy of John Rember’s new essay collection, A Hundred Little Pieces on the End of the World, and the timing could not have been more appropriate: California was one week into the nation’s first stay at home order, half of my family was sick with COVID-19, and Netflix’s Too Hot to Handle had yet to air. There was not a lot to feel good about and even less to look forward to. Then, Rember’s book arrived. It did not help. Over the course of ten essays, Rember delivers a withering, if darkly humorous, diagnosis of a society on its last breaths: “We have become a depressingly aged and unfulfilled civilization. . . .  Where once we were full of promise and lust for life, we are now sticking to the known and the comfortable. In financial terms, we’re living on interest rather than producing. In agricultural terms, we’re eating the seed corn. In ecological terms, we’re parasitic.”

Rember makes his case by weaving together politics, creative writing advice, imagined conversations with dead philosophers, and anecdotes from his home in rural America. His prose, while sobering, is delightfully conversational—part homesteader, part college professor—which makes sense, as he is both of these things. Raised in Idaho’s remote Sawtooth Valley, Rember returned to the area fifteen years ago, “not knowing how long the world would last, but thinking it wasn’t going to last long.”

Rember describes Sawtooth Valley as a place where “men and women keep arsenals in their basements” and where “in the dark days of winter there are maybe a hundred people in our surrounding hundred square miles.” His perspective from this survivalist edge of America is important, as it gives his work a flair of anthropological authority, which might sound condescending if written from an Upper West Side co-op. In many ways, Rember follows in the footsteps of the anarchist writer, Edward Abbey, who analyzed the industrial world’s more noxious habits from his home in the Southwest deserts. Like Abbey, Rember delivers his bad news with a dose of dark humor, which is fortunate, as the collection might otherwise get lost in the deluge of apocalyptic warnings that have become depressingly common. Rember’s predictions of what the collapse will look like are never comforting, but always funny:

When that horde of murderous unschooled children shows up at your door, you can take out a couple of them before they get you. That will temporarily discourage them. . . . But in the long run, numbers, mobility, and a hunger-fueled lack of compassion are going to be on their side. . . . They won’t have the same reverence for the aged and educated that we aged and educated folks have.

Although much of Rember’s collection is devoted to biting observations of how our society is killing us and our world—war, carbon emissions, market economics—his essays are not meant to persuade. In fact, he says, “People who say that our world isn’t a fatally flawed human artifact, who say civilization will always find plenty of energy, who say capitalism will continue to expand in a world of finite resources, are suffering from the techno-industrial equivalent of Stockholm syndrome. Either that, or they’re all morons.”

Where A Hundred Little Pieces on the End of the World really shines is not in predicting the collapse or in Monday-morning quarterbacking the suicidal tendencies of the human condition, but rather in its exploration of how we might respond to the fact that our world is sliding toward a point of no return. If he’s developed a working thesis it might be summed up in a single word: love. In one imagined conversation between Rember, his wife, and the bioethicist Peter Singer, Rember tells Singer that “since we concluded that our species was committing suicide, it’s been hard for us to find any [moral imperatives], outside of loving each other and treating the people we meet with such decency and kindness as we can.”

The collection’s final essay describes a moment in which Rember and his wife bring a puppy home, seeing in it a lesson for these dark times:

Our puppy became our metaphor for a fragile, beautiful, short-lived world, one full of terror and tragedy, but one that is worth nurturing and being kind to. It is possible, in such a world, to have a kind of puppy-scale morality, where the peaks that surround our valley become an ethical horizon. You focus on the small things in front of you, the things you can do something about. You feed the puppy and groom her and make sure she pees outside and not on the rug. You try to lead by example. You make sure she’s safe, because she’s your best defense against a grief you can’t see the end of.

It’s hard to disagree with love, joy, and puppies, and indeed, Rember makes a strong case for turning toward compassion as we ring in the apocalypse. It’s a similar case made by Jonathan Franzen and others who compare the earth to a terminal cancer patient and implore us to enjoy our final days rather than prolong the misery with endless tests and painful experimental drugs.

The comparison falls short, however, for our planet is not a terminal patient, no matter how many terrible symptoms that Rember accurately diagnoses. As climate activists, like Greta Thunberg, tell us: it is not too late for radical transformation, whether in the form of a Green New Deal, or a technological breakthrough, or—I don’t know—a pandemic that precipitates sweeping changes in our lifestyles and values. Even the best-case scenarios predict immense difficulties for future generations on a warmer planet, but depending on what we do now, life could be a lot less difficult, and A Hundred Little Pieces on the End of the World would be a stronger collection if it acknowledged the possibility—and importance—of taking action. Rember, however, only glances up against the possibility of resisting apocalypse when he writes that “[e]mpathy and asceticism are our only human weapons in a world where industrial civilization moves along, crushing mountains under its feet, melting the planet down and rendering everything it touches into product.”

These assumptions are unfortunate, beginning with the idea that empathy and asceticism are the only “weapons” at our disposal. What happened to mass mobilization, to organizing, to the forces that defeated slavery and fascism? Equally unfortunate is the assumption that empathy and meaningful resistance are mutually exclusive. Why can’t we remain empathetic while also pounding a stake into the heart of the system that is destroying our planet?

By not acknowledging the option for transformative action, Rember risks letting his message of love and compassion come off as a form of fatalism, leaving a bruise on an otherwise unblemished collection of timely, important essays. Love and empathy are certainly critical tools in these times. Who wants to live in a world without joy? Without puppies? But future generations need more than compassion. They need us to fight, and they need us to start now.

About the Reviewer

Nick’s fiction has been read on NPR's All Things Considered, and has appeared or is forthcoming in the Paris Review, the Southern Review, Ecotone, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. He is a graduate of the Rutgers-Newark MFA program and recipient of a fellowship at the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers. He lives some of the time in Los Angeles and some of the time in Maine. In his non-writing time he installs solar panels, tutors kids, and plays the trombone.