CHICAGO — John Updike was visiting family in Brooklyn on September 11, 2001. He wrote later about watching Manhattan explode and crumble that day as if it were episodic TV, a perfect day with perfect reception, though every time he tuned in, hoping for the finale, “The nightmare is still on.” That returned to me this summer as I read an unnatural amount about natural disasters, and manmade disasters, plagues, infernos, dust storms, earthquakes and climate-led extinctions. I would read Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower,” her 1993 novel set in a United States dissolving into anarchy — “You’re supposed to be dirty now. If you’re clean, you make a target of yourself” — then turn to TikTok to watch the Beirut explosion from countless camera angles. I would dig into Stephen King’s “The Stand,” finding myself moved by the “Our Town”-like vignettes that check in on random Americans, finding lonesomeness and regret as a killer virus rages.
But when a tornado spun through Rogers Park, my window offered less than YouTube.
I binged on depictions of disaster, even as the real thing, and a real virus, unfolded outside.
Which sounds pathological.
Until you read “Chicago’s Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City” by Northwestern University historian Carl Smith, a fascinating new history billed as nothing less than the first accessible, “carefully researched” popular accounting of the fire. It arrives in October, a year before the 150th anniversary of the disaster that, Chicago insists, shaped the very appearance and character of the city. Smith’s book is, in many ways, a narrative about the narrative that Chicago tells itself.
“Almost right away after the fire,” Smith told me, “Chicago was swapping quality for quantity — we couldn’t just have a big fire, we had to have the biggest fire. The city quickly appropriated the fire to fit an already existing mythology that Chicago was unconquerable. So the scale of the fire immediately serves a very flattering self-mythology — for a city only about 40 years old then! The fire provides this instant epic of creation, and Chicago becomes the rare place that celebrates, even now, its destruction as a reminder of its civic spirit and, supposedly, how much stronger it is than fire itself.”
Disaster narratives are, of course, our way of dealing with a potential for disaster.
Or so say countless cultural historians and psychologists — and they are usually talking about the fantasies of destruction and resilience that have long been a specialty of movies.
Literature, however, as any disaster junkie will attest, is always a more haunting and entrancing way to binge on disaster, offering a spectacle of calamity with a harsh reality, often slowing down the bombast and death just long enough to give us a long ugly look at ourselves. For instance, as Chicago burned, the gapers of 1871 were reminiscent of the crash curious on Lake Shore Drive, only kind of worse: Smith writes that some onlookers of the fire turned the city’s destruction into an early tailgate, “drinking heavily” and laughing (then begging for more) as firefighters tried to clear them with fire hoses.
One of my first memories of disaster porn was a science magazine I found at a neighborhood drugstore. While my grandmother shopped, I disappeared into a cover story about what to expect from a nuclear exchange. Since I lived within an afternoon’s bike ride of a nuclear submarine manufacturer, I saw I wouldn’t actually live to see cities melt or highways jam with evacuees. I couldn’t even tell you the name of the magazine, but decades later I remember not a feeling of resilience but hopelessness. Which sparked in my head while reading “Survivor Song,” a prescient new novel from underrated horror writer Paul Tremblay, about a rabies-like disease that leads to familiar scenes of quarantine and crowded hospitals. But rather than traffic, the doctor protagonist sees empty roads and considers “a suddenly unassailable truth: Is this the end?”
It definitely is in “A Children’s Bible,” the fairy tale of a new novel from Lydia Millet that you’ll probably hear more about as the annual book awards are announced this autumn. Society collapses while a group of well-heeled parents and their kids vacation at a large weekend house. Alarmed at first, the adults drink themselves into denial and ignorance while their children set out to save themselves from the inevitable arrival of some unidentified world-changing cataclysm. “Scientists said (the world) was ending now, philosophers said it had always been ending. Historians said there’d been dark ages before. … Politicians claimed everything would be fine. Adjustments were being made.”
That same fatal complacency threads through “Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy,” by journalists Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano, their nonfiction account of the 2018 Camp Fire in California that killed more than 85 people. “With success comes certitude,” they write, and after the Chicago Fire and 1906 San Francisco earthquake (which resulted in doubly devastating fires), it was “hard to even imagine that a fire could invade a modern American community,” outfitted with fire codes, emergency exits and first responders. It’s a denial, indeed, that can become inseparable from the stories we tell ourselves to plan for those disasters. See climate change. Or read Jon Mooallem’s new book, “This is Chance! The Shaking of an All-American City, A Voice that That Held It Together,” about the massive 1964 earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska. It’s the local government agencies “officially responsible for keeping Anchorage from falling apart” that unravel right away. The book, instead, focuses on Genie Chance, a radio reporter who stays on the air for days relaying stories to the community, serving as their bond.
The beauty of a good literary disaster narrative — I’m thinking of “The Grapes of Wrath,” Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle,” “Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward, even Elizabeth Kolbert’s landmark reporting in “Field Notes From a Catastrophe” — is partly in its avoidance of the numbing sameness of the inevitable survival tales that make many disaster movies such a slog: After the main event (the destruction), it’s 45 minutes of thinly-written characters stumbling. As a professor says in Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” (which itself features a chemical spill that results in an “airborne toxic event”), “Only catastrophe gets our attention.” Once the spectacle is complete, there’s only who is left and what went wrong, and though many disaster movies don’t have especially compelling answers, a smart author recognizes the cataclysm is only the first round.
In last spring’s “Notes from an Apocalypse,” Mark O’Connell travels the world considering the big collapse and how people face end times, and decides, “What did I really mean by the end of the world, after all, if not the loss of my own position within it?” For someone living under a bridge, or sleeping in their car, that end arrived long ago. They’ve been stumbling through the ruins maybe for years, so if you have the time to ponder art that depicts the end of the world, you’re lucky. We call this “privilege” now.
Chicago puffed out its chest and, in a way, built a reputation on similar self-interest.
Smith said the traditional narrative about the Chicago fire paints it as a natural disaster that led to a stronger Chicago. “But it was anything but. Chicago burned because it was built sloppily. Even after being told it was flammable, politicians did nothing. After the fire, it was largely rebuilt with wood. And what safety changes were made, they came after kicking and screaming. The fire department stayed a poorly organized political organization, and it was hard to develop new building codes because wealthy landlords resisted. Ninety thousand lost their homes, yet without no money in the bank, there was no safety net. Meanwhile an elite group of Chicagoans became concerned about the presence of the new immigrants — even as they relied on those same people to rebuild.”
When Smith told people about the book he was working on, their inevitable question was: What could possibly be left to say about the biggest disaster in Chicago history?
“Everything,” he told them.
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