Bookshelf · 05/06/2016

The Great Explosion

Our bookshelf is a space where the editors (and, perhaps, guests) can share what we’re reading and thinking about without the formality of a longer review or the focus on recent books, or even sticking to fiction as we usually do.


We mostly focus on fiction here at NF — it’s right there in our name — but we’re also interested, as with our Research Notes series, in how fiction gets informed by other things, and a book I read lately has that very much on my mind.

Brian Dillon is one of my favorite essayists, and I enjoyed his novel Sanctuary very much, too, so I couldn’t resist importing a copy of his most recent book The Great Explosion: Gunpowder, the Great War, and a Disaster on the Kent Marshes (get on this, savvy US acquisitions editor!). Living beside a marsh with an industrial history myself, I’ll read pretty much anything that wanders such places, but rather than present a straightforward history of the 1916 disaster alone Dillon explores the history of explosives and their manufacture, the effects of explosions on the human body and artistic representation, and the legacy of the event. It’s a history that avoids the “grand narrative” approach I find hard to stomach, and a book that isn’t afraid to leave behind questions rather than answers.

And one that’s as compelling in its structural choices as its content, opening and closing with sections of environmental writing akin to the explorations of so-called “liminal” landscapes I’ve found so exciting in books by Gareth Rees and Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts.* Its three sections echo Dillon’s striking point that the nature of explosions is that we can potentially retrieve a great deal of information about what happened before, and can gather massive amounts of data in the aftermath, but the moment itself — or the fraction of a moment in which a blast occurs — is almost entirely lost, an irreplaceable crater between before and after. (Echoes of the opening line of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, “About the accident itself I can say very little.”) The Great Explosion seeks, through authorial walks in the landscape and archival probing — including a wonderful, hilarious scene of library-induced anxiety I look forward to sharing with my students — to uncover what has been overgrown in those marshes by vegetation and time and cultural memory alike.

These are qualities I’m usually looking for in fiction, too (and as a writer, aiming for): circling around something instead of tidily pinning it down, a story or idea or exploration that spirals out ever larger rather than zeroing in toward an unmistakable conclusion. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that a novelist I’m really excited by these days, Nicola Barker, has set more than one book in locations not too far from where Dillon digs into the upturned earth of the explosion, and that those novels of hers are equally inquisitive wanders avoiding the easy satisfaction of firm conclusions.

* I can’t say enough about Rees’ fiction/nonfiction hybrid Marshland, just that reading it was a moment of finally discovering a book I’d been wanting for years without having the words to say quite what I was after. I’m curious why such edgelands-oriented writing seems to be largely (sadly) absent from US environmental writing, but that’s for another day.


Steve Himmer is the editor of Necessary Fiction.