On Mothers and Mother Nature in "The New Wilderness"
Diane Cook's new novel is the book you need to read right now.
Recently I came across a meme, where a woman turns away from “college, parents, capitalism” to check out “running away to live in the woods.” It’s a thought many have probably had in the last weeks/months/years/since 2016, and it is an alluring, comforting, thought. That no matter how bad things get in the real world, in the rat race, mother nature will always be there waiting for us with open arms, a sweet escape, a safe space.
In Diane Cook’s debut novel, The New Wilderness, the escape-to-nature fantasy is now a last resort for survival. The world is dirty and polluted and the people are constantly sick and dying. In the city, only ten trees remain, gated, so no one can touch them. Nature exists only as a swath of protected land, unavailable to the people at large. Except for the eighteen that have volunteered to live in this Wilderness State as part of a scientific experiment—can humans live in nature without destroying it? It is here that we meet Bea, a former interior designer who has chosen to live in the wild as a last resort to save the life of her daughter Agnes, who has spent her young life perpetually sick, coughing up blood. “What this child needs is different air,” the pediatrician tells her, the same way that we wish for things that we know are impossible to attain.
“It started as just a premise about land use and this idea; what if in the future there was just as one huge swath of wilderness area and no other nature anywhere else in the country?,” Cook tells me over the phone from Brooklyn where she lives with her husband and two children, a few days after it’s been announced that the novel is in the longlist for The Booker Prize, and is also being adapted into a TV show. Although Cook grew up in the suburbs, the wildness of nature has always figured in her work.
“I guess the thing that I realized later in life is that I always lived in these new suburban developments, where the line between the undeveloped and developed land was still visible, you know?,” she recalls, “So that might be where the interest comes from a little bit of wanting to be in nature. I think I've always liked the idea of being alone and in empty spaces.”
It’s hard not to read into how being surrounded by this stark contrast landscape influenced her. Cook’s previous book of short stories, 2015’s Man v. Nature, also mined the juxtaposition of our “civilized” world with our own animalistic human instincts. It was while writing those short stories that the idea for The New Wilderness came to her. She quickly realized that although it had a similar theme to the stories she was working on, it was meant to be part of something bigger.
“The stories always kind of take a fabulous turn where things happen that really can't happen, but the novel is speculative,” Cook explains, “So I really wanted it to be something that though unlikely or maybe feeling absurd at times, it definitely could happen, transpire.”
That the events taking place in the book could in fact, transpire, is one of the things that make it such a compelling read. People have already described the novel as a “climate change” story, but at what point do we stop pretending that “climate change” is an object, a thing, separate from our current world? Yes, the book is fiction, but reading about the urban hellscape within is more akin to imagining the lives that people may one day lead in a building that is currently in construction. The stories are imagined but one day the building will be finished and people will move in and make their lives within. For some then, it may be more apt to describe its central theme not as “climate change,” but as a story about the relationship between mothers and daughters.
“I always knew I wanted to write about mothers and daughters, and thinking about the relationship they have that can be so prickly, the challenges you have with someone who’s gone; whether it’s because they’ve died or just because they’re missing from your life, and all the questions you can’t ask them anymore,” Cook explains. “When I started the book, I thought a lot about being a daughter, my mom [had] died in 2008, and then I had a daughter while I was writing it, so then it got even more layered for me.”
Cook welcomes whatever way readers identify with the story. “I wanted to leave space for people to bring themselves to the story,” she says. Some will say it’s a perfect quarantine novel, the feeling of isolation within a mirror of our own socially distanced lives. And yet its root is also in the fantasy of escape, Cook sought out many places in the wild while in the process of writing The New Wilderness.
“I spent a lot of time in the high desert of eastern Oregon,” she recalls, “It's a huge empty landscape; all sage, and small mountain ranges full of tall pines, and pinyon. There was this dry lakebed that was the size of Manhattan—which inspired the playa and dust storm in the first third of the book—and it was totally empty, not even a tree. In the summer you could walk across it. In winter it was mud. On one trip I took there, my desk looked out over it and all I could think everyday I was writing was, All of Manhattan, and all its people could fit in this empty place.”