Emergency, Daisy Hildyard
Emoji summary: 🦊 🌍 〰️
How much do you actually notice the world around you? Ether about it or in it. Like actually really notice? I think the world flies by me and I never really notice most of it. London is a rolling backdrop, Capital City just slips by in my periphery. I fall from my bedroom to the tube to the gym to the office to a— it’s like I appear in these places by magic. When I am in them, the space slips across my skin with a buttery smoothness. I do not notice the way nature interacts with the built environment. I do not notice the small beauty of the everyday. I do not really see the world. I take it at face value. It is a stranger to me. But the city is full of strangers, so it is all quite seamless! There’s almost no friction. Except, maybe… When I fall too deep into my phone screen and I miss my stop. It’s a rude awakening, isn’t it? That mild panic of not immediately knowing where you are / the way you can feel your brain calibrating, orientating itself. It’s ok it’s ok — I’m in the tunnel, halfway between Finsbury Park and Manor House. The heat climbs down, away from my face. But it is only then, in that moment of panic: I notice the quality of the tunnel’s darkness, the flickering light, the blank face of the person sat opposite, the smell and the spilled coffee stain sliding along the sticky lino floor.
Daisy Hildyard’s Emergency is a novel billed as a DARK PASTORAL FOR THE CLIMATE CHANGE ERA. An adult narrator is trapped alone in a London flat. There’s a virus outside, so she cannot leave because the government says everyone must stay indoors. In this isolation the adult narrator dissolves away, recollecting her childhood and the experience of growing up in 90s rural Yorkshire. The story is told across that weird transitional space between being a child and being a teenager. ‘Old enough to be outside and alone’, but still looking at the world with curiosity and wonder. I think this is a novel about noticing things.
I would struggle to tell you what happened in Emergency. There’s a cheeky cow called Ivy, a family of foxes that die (I think?), the first computer is delivered to the narrator’s primary school classroom, a kestrel hunts a vole in a quarry. Actually the quarry is quite important. But mostly, nothing actually happens. A spider crawls out of a bag of bananas. Everyone at school loses their minds over vanilla body spray. The entire world shifts around the narrator and she describes the turbulence of that shift. But that’s exactly it: nothing happened. It slips past. The entire world shifted!!! And nothing happened. No plot, only vibes, only slippage, only periphery. Why was this book not boring? By all means, it should’ve been. Absolutely NOTHING happens! And yet I loved the experience of reading it. I fell through the pages, experiencing smooth seamless buttery slippage. And when I closed it at last, I realised that my hands were hot from the friction.
The narrator does a lot of watching and noticing. Actually, the narrator does mostly nothing, except perceive. She is a filter for everything as it hits us. The novel opens with a scene: sitting above the quarry, the narrator watches as a panel of clay falls off the side of a surface. It reveals a cross section of a vole’s burrow (? Burrow? Nest? Hole? Vole hole sounds silly). The narrator then notices a kestrel. The kestrel notices the vole, I guess the vole notices the kestrel too. I think the kestrel notices the narrator. They all stand still in this moment, aware of each other and waiting for someone to make the first move. The narrator becomes transparent, disappears into the act of watching. We veer off into a story about when the narrator’s rabbit gave birth to a ‘nest full of babies’. Then Clare, the narrator’s best friend. Then Soldier, next door’s dog who was old and scary. The narrative falls through spaces, never tripping and never snagging. It shifts seamlessly, smooth. It is fluid, through change of season and change of era.
But wait. The quarry is quite important. If I stretch my mind to really think about it, it has a main character presence. Looming large over the village. It is a disruption of the idyllic pastoral scene, the perfect rolling hills and sweet little hedgerows of the British countryside. The quarry produces ‘gravel that was sent all over the world, the requirements of Norwegian motorways and new cities in China determined the shape of the quarry and the size of the shape it left.’ It is proof of industry. It is proof that it’s not just cities that network human civilisation in an enormous global supply chain, the rural is global too. More than just too, the global requires the rural as much as it requires the cosmopolitan. The rural just has a less glamorous role in this network. It is proof that there is no such thing as isolation and the image of the British countryside is a sweet lie made up for the benefit of tourists and tory MPs. It is proof that there is no real or meaningful difference between humans and environments, because humans leave stains and these environments leak onto us in turn.
I guess that’s the dark pastoral? The pastoral: a genre that deals with rural life in a sweet tidy way. The rural as an image of serene simplicity, purity or innocence // in comparison with the corruption and mess of the city. I suppose it’s something deeply internalised within The Culture, isn’t it? The idea that nature is inherently healing. That human relationships with NATURE are innate, primal, deeply embedded and yet uncomplicated. Because this cultural understanding is a bit of a shit dichotomy. It others nature. It doesn’t account for people who don’t make coherent sense in the countryside (me). It paints a flattened image of both the urban and the rural, erases all the weird liminal spaces between those two harsh ends of the spectrum. And it is also just fundamentally un-fucking-true. The rural isn’t inherently sweet or tidy. The corruption and mess of the city isn’t something unique to urban life. All around the UK there are rural areas that are deeply scarred by the big human hand of global capitalism. The quarry, the quarry! There is no such thing as isolation, no such thing as perfect serenity outside the mess of our corrupt system. I think that’s the dark bit of dark pastoral. It complicates this easy story we pivot to: the return to nature. That might not be a happy cottagecore thing. It might be a gross rupture: dirt and mud and shit and the collapse of civilisation and the inevitable embrace of the earth reclaiming us sooner than we think —
Back to the vole. I don’t think we ever find out what happens with the vole and the kestrel. But I didn’t find myself actually wanting to know. I think Daisy Hildyard is a trickster. I think the novel takes place on a different scale to the scale we are reading - word by word.
In Daisy Hildyard’s last book, the Second Body, the narrator references an essay by Timothy Clark. Clark’s an academic, I think in the field of literary studies(?), who wrote about this thing called derangement of scale. Here, DERANGEMENT takes on a meaning that’s new to me: it describes a kind of disruption or a disturbance. Hildyard paraphrases Clark, explaining derangement of scale as: ‘a sense of confusion that is caused by the huge gap between the immensity of the human’s global existence and the smallness of your own private everyday life.’ It is most palpable when I think about climate change; ‘our tiny homes and even tinier bodies are bearing down on distant, huge, unknown things, and vice versa. For example, Clark says, every affluent French person is already lurking in the living space of a farmer in the floodplains of Bangladesh.’ We exist in the world in these two ways: as part of humanity’s global presence and as discrete individuals. The entire premise of the Second Body is an attempt to stitch together this duplicitous existence; the second body in question is the body that lurks across the expanse of Bangladesh’s floodplains, in rising tides, forest fires. Daisy Hildyard makes it less jarring by conjuring up the idea of a body. The second body is a kind of metaphor, but not really. It’s also entirely real. Our second bodies exist, but they only exist on this wider, zoomed out scale.
And that feels like a nice way to return to Timothy Clark’s derangement of scale. Describe the feeling: when something doesn’t match up to the scale you’re trying to read it at. Timothy Clark demonstrates his theory by referring to literal literature: Raymond Carver’s short story, Elephant. He writes through the way understanding explodes out, that the story can come to be read in all these different ways on all these different scales. There’s an interpersonal scale that takes what is presented to us at face value - the duration of the story itself. There’s a cultural historical scale that takes what is presented to us and sets it against the backdrop of the era - Reagan’s America or whatever. Then there’s the zoomed out scale - ‘that of the whole earth and its inhabitants’. This scale seems to jam the gears of the story, but also opens up strange new understandings. Loaded symbols that make sense on the cultural historical scale all of a sudden feel strange and alien. It’s like its been flipped inside out, the individual human starts to feel like a silly unit of measurement - better to talk about societies, or cultures. But talk about them in the way we would talk about individuals on that cultural historical scale.
Do this for me: think about humanity as a significant geological or historical force. Think about the human as a TYPE of geological force. Let that sink in, really consider it. Does it make your head hurt? Yeah, me too. It’s because we all dissolve at that scale. We just cease! We can’t be read as coherent! I think that’s the scale Emergency wants to be read at. Sharp tug, it feels like grit. It is speaking across scales, between them - maybe. As I traipsed further and further in, I realised. I was falling through the lines, missing the actual plot. The shift was happening and I wasn’t quite seeing it. I was getting distracted by the foxes and the kestrel and the mundanity of the way the quarry fell into disuse, then got bought up by a Canadian company, then the men all got laid off, no more digger because everyone’s gone to work on an oil rig — there. Did you see it? It was right there! It’s not in the mundane drip of the everyday. It’s in the wider shift. The entire world just shifted! I can’t speak it aloud in my human words. My head hurts and my hands are hot with friction burn. I can only surrender, sliding down the walls of this thing. I cannot comprehend things in any other way, on any other scale beyond that of the discrete individual. I don’t know why: maybe it’s neoliberalism or capitalism leaking into my brain like a groundwater swell. But it could also just be because I am a person and I rattle into a tailspin every time I try to define what a COMMUNITY is. Like what does that mean??? WHAT DO YOU MEAN, WHAT’S A COMMUNITY??? Sharp tug as we slip between scales: I think that is why Emergency is written in this way.
I was deep in my phone screen, scrolling scrolling and stopped on a Goodreads review of Emergency that described it as HEURISTIC. Enabling someone to learn something for themselves - sounds like a rigged process. Fuck around and find out, I guess. I think Daisy Hildyard is a trickster! Scale gets blown out, the world happens at full tilt. I am a lighter loose in the washing machine going round and round, beholden passenger. You are too. And it’s funny! I didn’t like or dislike this novel. I just enjoyed the experience of reading it - which is different - because I enjoy experiencing things that I don’t understand. I like the feeling of something taking place on a register just slightly above my understanding. Close enough that I know it’s there, but out of reach enough for it to be incomprehensible. I love the word ELIDE. It sounds slippery, like something is sliding past and you didn’t even notice. All of a sudden I am in the tunnel, halfway between Finsbury Park and Manor House. I am noticing the quality of the tunnel’s darkness. There isn’t wifi in the tunnel so I have to wait until the train reaches Manor House to 3D Touch and press LOOK UP on the word heuristic. This is a novel about noticing things.