“Have we not continually experienced, since 1914 and even more since 1933 and with ever greater frequency in recent weeks, the most utterly improbable, the most monstrously fantastic things? Has not what was formerly completely unimaginable to us become commonplace and a matter of course?” wrote Victor Klemperer, the great chronicler of Jewish life in Nazi Germany, after surviving, also, the Allied fire bombing of Dresden. Soon, of course, the heretofore unimaginable would take another leap when an atomic bomb, then a hydrogen bomb, were dropped on civilian populations in Japan, in an effort to the end the war while saving American soldiers’ lives, some say, or was it rather to test such weapons while there was still wartime, thus setting the stage for the forty-four-year reign of terror of the Cold War and the start of the nuclear age.
Those of us born after 1945 have never lived in a time when the destruction of the human race, and of planet earth, was not possible. Why should a novel about the atrocious, the extreme, and the unimaginable—and yet they have happened—events of nuclear disaster calm us down, and at the same time enliven and reinvigorate? Perhaps the real post-modernist challenge to the human imagination is exactly this, a descent into the underworld of massive annihilation and the return, bearing fruit, the human stories, proof of the imperiled desires of those who without the author’s seeing heart would vanish without trace—clearing the way for more wholesale destruction of nature and of consciousness.
Thus it is that Darragh McKeon’s brilliant and brave first novel All That Is Solid Melts into Air, about the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 and the collapse of the Soviet Union it prefigures, feels redemptive and energizing also of contemporary fiction. Reading his book straight through twice, I set out to talk to McKeon, who has recently moved to Brooklyn where I live.
Karen Malpede: I know there are family reasons you moved from London to New York, but did you also come with literary expectations? And are those being met?
Darragh McKeon: New York is still at the core of an immigrant’s ambition. I recently spent a lot of time in South America, where even in the most remote Andean village I’d meet people who dreamed of moving to New York someday. So as a symbol it has retained its potency, and though it’s a more unequal place than at almost any other time in its history, its energy is undeniable. Here, unlike almost any other city in the world, I’m not an outsider, all stories are open to me. I haven’t lost the thrill of standing in a subway car listening to conversations around me in five different languages.
KM: You were a theater director. You tell the story of your novel through a large cast of central characters. Do you think that being in the theater has had something to do with your feeling that you wanted or needed multiple points of view? Or were there other more compelling reasons for your large cast?
DM: As a director, one of your primary concerns is structure. Not just in terms of the story, but also in terms of the physical structures that surround the story—what kind of setting does this play need, how can the lighting accentuate the thematic undertones, how do I incorporate the dimensions or characteristics of the performance venue etc., etc., etc.—so it was probably inevitable that I’d be drawn to creating a challenging structure for my novel, without losing the reader. Intricate structures almost inevitably lead to multiple characters and storylines.
KM: I was struck the whole time I was reading, and I’ve come away thinking, now this is what fiction can and should do. But can you speak to the role of fiction in manifesting the “heretofore unimaginable”?
DM: Faulkner said that he wrote about “the human heart in conflict with itself.” It’s a beautiful encapsulation of the role of a novelist. A novelist carries a responsibility to examine the contradictions of human desire and necessity. On a wider level, the novel—and perhaps only the novel—is expansive enough to take in and think through how these contradictions work within a society and to follow their implications. From the Iliad to the Bible to the Koran to the Torah, we have always sought understanding through story; narrative empathy is a central element of our humanity.
KM: Why did you, as a young Irish writer, choose the Chernobyl disaster as the focus of your book?
DM: Chernobyl is still quite a present issue in Ireland due to an Irish charity called “Chernobyl Children International”; they’ve brought over 20,000 children from the region to Ireland for recuperation. So I was very aware of the disaster while growing up. But I was motivated primarily by curiosity. I became interested in the farmers from the region who returned to their homestead despite the fact that it was highly radiated. My father is a farmer and the pull of the land, the draw of home, are themes that are embedded within our culture. So I felt very connected to the subject and I wanted to discover it from the inside.
KM: What was your process of understanding and holding the terrible realities of nuclear disaster you were learning? What shocked you most? How did you bear the knowledge?
DM: The chemical elements at work in a nuclear reaction are very recent technological inventions. Elements such as Argon and Caesium didn’t exist until just over one hundred years ago. Plutonium is only sixty years old. So we have never incorporated them into our evolution, either biologically or socially.
Chernobyl was a truly unprecedented event in human history. As a species, we had no comprehension of large-scale acute radiation. Maybe the only comparable development was the conquistadors carrying European diseases to the New World. The research I worked from was suffused with tragedy. I read testimony from survivors who gathered on their balconies to look at the beautiful crimson sky resulting from the accident and days or weeks later dying in the most horrific ways imaginable. Maybe the most shocking part of the research was reading a report from Physicians Against Nuclear Proliferation, an group of international medical experts, who predict that the ultimate human cost from Fukushima will be comparable to Chernobyl. There is no doubt that radiation eviscerates the human body, even at the lowest doses, and we’ve learned nothing from the previous twenty-five years.
KM: Though everyone in your book is controlled by outside forces of political tyranny and nuclear disaster, they all strike me as admirable, decent people who never, even in the worst situation, become cruel or inhumane. Can you comment on the potential for decency in the midst of extremity? Was it a conscious choice of yours to portray good people and why?
DM: No, and my characters are not without their cruelties and they harbor their petty grievances. But ultimately they were all disempowered by the system. I’m writing about the mid-eighties, just thirty years after the Stalin regime. The culture of fear in the Soviet Union was all pervasive. To question authority was to question the system and the Stalinist legacy had made such a thing unthinkable. There were many good nuclear scientists who were aware of the unsafe nature of the power plants and yet were constrained to act because of the prevailing culture. I’m interested in how the working culture of institutions affects the day-to-day lives of individuals. Brecht says that “[t]he victory of reason is only the victory of reasonable men.” In other words reason alone, right alone, is not strong enough in itself. It’s only exceptional people or people in exceptional circumstances that can ensure that reason and morality prevail.
KM: Contrarily, the nine-year-old piano prodigy, Yevgeni, who may be the hero of the book, and who begins as a victim of older boys’ cruelty, takes perverse delight in kicking the head of a man who has become victim of a gang. But, shortly after, he sits at piano and plays Grieg. Can you comment on this juxtaposition of senseless violence and intentional creativity?
DM: The Soviet Union, Russia especially, was a place that placed a huge value on classical culture, in particular on classical music, and yet it’s a culture that values strength and brutality. Yevgeni came out of that contradiction.
KM: On the other hand, Grigory, the physician, might be your only truly heroic character, and therefore the moral center of the book. Do you think so? Is heroism completely beside the point? Or do you find true heroism in the survival tactics of the mothers, Alina and Tanya, struggling to protect children in impossible situations?
DM: For my money “heroism” is a form of cultural hysteria. So many atrocities are committed in its name. In Nazi Germany Goering was a hero, Himmler was a hero. The Soviets used the veterans of WWII to proclaim the greatness of their brutal system of governance. The characters you’ve mentioned are motivated by morality not glory.
KM: Your prose is wonderfully imagistic, richly layered with detail, both visual and psychological. What is the relationship between the poetic richness of your style and the harshness and violence of your subject matter?
DM: I’m trying to balance the scale of the prose. The Soviet Union and the events I enter into are so vast that they require a language that has a certain sweep to it. I wanted to create a visual landscape that gave a sense of expanse. On the other hand I’m influenced by a writer like Michael Ondaatje, who uses what he has taken from the craft of poetry to create an intimacy in his prose. That blend of scale lends itself to cinematic imagery, close up and wide angle.
KM: Noam Chomsky, the great linguist and activist, spoke at the opening of the recent PEN World Voices Writer’s Conference about the two looming threats to humanity and the planet: nuclear disaster and global warming. He ended his talk by saying that future generations will not look kindly on our apathy. Do you agree? In what ways might fiction fight apathy?
DM: I do agree, but I don’t think our apathy is necessarily derived from cruelty; it’s a product of the 50,000 distractions that are fired at us on a daily basis. Orwell was so astute in focusing his anger on bureaucratic machinations. If you keep people occupied by running around to fill in forms (or updating their social media profiles) they don’t have the time or inclination to step away from minutia, to take a broader look at what is happening. That’s where literature can be valuable. True literature is not a distraction, it’s an invitation towards contemplation. Whatever global chaos we may be about to face—and that now seems inevitable—only empathy and deep thought will carry us through.
From Ireland, Darragh McKeon has worked as a theatre director throughout Europe and the USA. He lives in New York. All That is Solid Melts Into Air is his debut novel.
Karen Malpede is a playwright.