November 2015

Dan Froid

nonfiction

The World Is on Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse by Joni Tevis

If you grew up religious -- in a certain kind of church, essentially fundamentalist leaning -- you may have developed a taste for the apocalyptic. No greater way to feel panicked -- the world could end, after all, at any moment -- but, still, there's a kind of masochistic pleasure in awaiting that end. For one thing, you know the secret, the knowledge of how you can protect yourself: live right, whatever that might mean. If you end up on the wrong end of the apocalypse it's kind of your fault. The greater pleasure lies in seeing the portents, which are legion. Everywhere you look, another sign of our degradation. In a way, that's comforting. It sure makes the world seem a lot more knowable. It's within your grasp, at least until, you know, the apocalypse.

Revelation was the biblical book Joni Tevis read most as a child. She writes: "If we read it right, we could be on our guard, and as prepared as anyone could be. But reading the story implicated us, too, made us responsible. You know what to do. Live perfectly. Even as a kid, I knew I couldn't manage that." The extent to which this book jibes with readers may depend on their relationship with that culture. Again and again I recognized that, to some degree, we knew the same stories; our anxieties in childhood had taken the same shapes. We knew what to do: live perfectly. Live perfectly, and avoid the violent retribution in the days soon to come. This apocalyptic sensibility provides her new book, The World Is on Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse, with a tone and a trajectory.

More palimpsest than scar, Tevis's religious upbringing provides a running sublayer in her consciousness, a distinct way of perceiving events and phenomena. There's "When the Levee Breaks," the song Memphis Minnie Douglas wrote in response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 (and made famous by Led Zeppelin). In it, Tevis sees a trace of the Flood of Genesis. And she sees the similarities between the Book of Revelation and the Atomic Age, perhaps the closet twentieth-century Americans got to a tangible apocalyptic threat. This book's great strength is the complex emotional tenor such observation provides. If Tevis is preoccupied with apocalypse, her focus nonetheless stays on scrap and treasure. As she says, "I loved the world, believed its every inch paved with treasure, but knew it could be ripped away at any moment."

Ambiguity and complexity color every essay, every weird bit of history or pop culture Tevis considers. Accordingly, we learn that while scientists in New Mexico worked on exploding the first atomic bomb, artist Jesse Sanders, "a survivor, building a new world," crafted dozens of tiny fairytale sculptures, which remain on display in a grotto in Rock City, Georgia. As for the figurines themselves, radiant though they may be, they still give off a sad energy. Hansel and Gretel's witch is "too tired to be sinister, just an old woman getting home after a long shift." Speaking of long shifts, the women who painted the figurines got bone cancer from the radioluminescent paint -- another wonder of the Atomic Age. Fear and wonder, sorrow and resignation. This sounds relentless, too heavy to bear. But Tevis is such a beautiful stylist that I'm willing to follow her anywhere, to feel anything she wants me to.

If The World Is on Fire has a trajectory, a narrative arc, it's that apocalyptic sensibility, which follows her throughout the country while she considers the large scale -- like the atomic bomb -- and, toward the end, surrounds her mind and body as she struggles to get pregnant and mourns a miscarriage. So if, early on, one feels the dread of a world threatened by annihilation, toward the end, one experiences sympathetic anxiety reading about Tevis's grief.

A major concern of the book is labor: the possibility of engaging in work worth doing. Is proper work an attempt to stave off culpability, to demonstrate one's resistance to the evils of the secular? Maybe, maybe not. At one point Tevis writes:

Something of the fallen world in this trading of time for lucre, and something of the divine. To make, even of particulars not of your choosing; to start a job without knowing quite where it may finish. As even the good Lord makes score after score of people, minor changes on the great mold.

She's talking about her own itinerant work history, and of a soothsayer passing through town. Perhaps she's wondering how to live perfectly. The industry workers of the South who've lost their jobs when the factories shut down -- are they so different from musicians or writers, who also trade their time for money? Nothing is secure: as for apocalypse-watchers, so for all of them.

Outsiders and eccentrics populate the chapters, providing models of work, artistic and not, that range from musicians -- Memphis Minnie, Freddie Mercury, Liberace -- to fascinating weirdos like the Walker sisters, seven spinster sisters who attained some fame in the mid-twentieth century for their self-sufficient life on the family homestead in Mississippi.

Take Sarah Winchester, inheritor of the fortune of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. After her husband's death, she followed the advice of a medium, who told her to go west and build a house and never stop: apotropaic measures to befuddle the ghosts of those killed by Winchester firearms. The book opens with an account of a tour of Winchester's enormous, bizarre house. About her, Tevis writes:

Right away someone asks, "Was she crazy?" The question sticks in my craw. It feels too knee-jerk, too dismissive. What can you call that level of revision but obsessive? And yet something in it resonates with me; maybe she just wanted to get it right. I tuck the question into my notebook and hurry to catch up with the rest.

This passage could function as a kind of mission statement for this lovely and weird book. The fear of imminent disaster forms a basis for a concern with proper, or perfect, work. Live perfectly. Or, if not, set oneself aflame along the way. A line from Annie Dillard's Holy the Firm, another unusual, oblique meditation on artistic creation, kept popping into my head: "What can any artist set on fire but his world?" The book ends up offering a dozen-odd ways of doing that, for Tevis is interested specifically in those whose very lives are consumed by work.

If sometimes it seems like a stretch to compare all these disparate figures --  Liberace and Winchester, Freddie Mercury and Jesse Sanders -- that isn't, I think, Tevis's point. Rather, we marvel with her at the various figures she finds fascinating, and if there's consonance among them all it's in their striving, their attempts to do work worth doing. What can any artist set on fire but his world?

On a stylistic level, this book is gorgeous, its sentences rhythmic and rambling and reflective. (You could discern, even if she hadn't told you, the influence of the Bible.) Even if I found myself disagreeing with her, or was surprised by what she said, or found my interest waning, I took pleasure in the prose and appreciated her willingness to wonder on the page about such a wide array of subjects. Why was I surprised, for example, to learn in a passage on habits that she herself has a habit of reading her Bible every night before bed? Her attempt to exorcise her apocalyptic sensibility seemed to me to necessitate a rejection of religion, as if, once inculcated with that particular sensibility, one could only escape the anxiety by escaping everything else, too. But that's simplistic, and Tevis, true to form, rejects such simplicity. This book is often unsettling, uncertain. Tevis, though, knows exactly what she's doing, and she does it beautifully. What has she set on fire but her world?

The World Is on Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse by Joni Tevis
Milkweed Editions
ISBN: 978-1571313478
256 Pages