Storms Crash Through These Two Novels, Leaving Humans in Their Wake

By Blair Braverman

By Jon McGregor

By George R. Stewart

Years ago, my husband was caught in a tornado. He stopped his truck on the highway just outside Winner, S.D., and crawled into the ditch. “I’d always heard that tornadoes sound like freight trains,” he told me, “but at that moment, I swore I heard a freight train. And I thought, Where is the train coming from? Then, of course, I realized what it was.” Hail and debris fell like punches; the sky turned greenish black. The storm’s power was infinite against him. He would die or he wouldn’t. He felt, he said, at peace.

Two novels this fall — one old, one new — explore this particular kind of power, the unpredictable ways that storms can shape and control us. “Lean Fall Stand,” by Jon McGregor, starts in present-day Antarctica, where three men set out to map a remote peninsula. Two are researchers; Doc, the eldest, is their guide, a veteran of decades on ice, tasked with keeping the younger men safe and cleaning up the detritus of his previous missions. For a book that opens midadventure, the pace is almost leisurely; the unsayable thing about Antarctica, one of the younger men reflects, is that “a lot of the time it was pure boring.” But the blizzard that catches them is sudden, disorienting. We get bursts of radio static through whipping snow, a glimpse of a man on an ice floe. When the air clears, one researcher is dead, and Doc is flown to Santiago, Chile, after suffering a stroke.

The rest of the book — the bulk of it — deals with Doc’s rehabilitation, a laborious journey through speech therapy and support groups. Doc struggles to communicate; his wife, Anna, struggles with the caretaker duties that require her to put her own scientific career on hold. McGregor gestures toward, and mostly lands, observations about the infantilization of sick people, the division of labor in straight marriages and the failures of social support systems: “Don’t go to any trouble,” visitors to Anna and Doc’s home say, before telling Anna “how many sugars they took.” The insurmountable force, here, becomes the limit of Doc’s own body as he strives to tell the story of the blizzard.

“Storm,” by George R. Stewart, which has sold more than a million copies since it was first published in 1941, has recently been reissued in a new edition from New York Review Books Classics. The book tracks a fictional storm from its first stirrings over the Pacific through its explosive peak and gradual demise after it crosses a third of the world. The storm makes for an alien protagonist, free from conventions of standard plot; even at its height, the storm is a product not of human choices but of shifting currents of air.

Stewart, a novelist who taught English literature at the University of California at Berkeley, presents meteorological detail with obsessive care, although not without wry humor. “Doubtless the ship would be of interest to sailors,” a “new junior meteorologist ($2,000 a year)” notes of a speck on his map, “but to him it seemed wholly dull and mechanical” — this after Stewart has led us through pages of isobars, barometric pressure, physics equations and meridians.

Where humans appear, they are almost incidental. The junior meteorologist — J.M., as he’s later referred to — names storms after girls he’s known and, when he runs out of acquaintances, after girls whose names end in “ia,” “which suggested actresses or heroines of books.” It’s J.M. who spots the first stirrings of our protagonist and names her Maria. (After “Storm” was published, the National Weather Service began assigning names to storms itself.) J.M. works under an aging weather chief who prides himself on having forecast the weather for President Grant’s inauguration, an event he cannot actually recall. The chief is anxious about a new generation of meteorologists who elevate science and slide rules over instinct and art; they make forecasts without even sticking their heads out the window. “Oh my God,” remarked a friend of mine, a meteorologist, when she read the chief’s laments. “This is literally meteorology Twitter today.”

Stewart misses no opportunity to philosophize. He reflects on water as symbol and theme in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, and the tendency of humans to relate to the earth when we are, in fact, creatures of air — just as “a crab moves on the ocean-bottom, but is of the water.” Had meteorological concepts like Polar Front theory (proposed by Norwegian scientists in the years after World War I to explain the genesis of storms) been made in peaceful times, he points out, our understanding of weather might have been shaped by metaphors of love and marriage rather than battles and fronts.

Had this book been written in peaceful times — well, it’s hard to imagine it would exist. The storms Stewart contemplated from his home with a view toward San Francisco Bay were not just meteorological. If “Storm” seems dark, he notes in his introduction, “remember that the text was largely written during those grim and terrible months of Dunkirk and the fall of France.” But by looking down on society from the height of a tempest, he frames all human and animal lives — earnest and ignorant, shaped by forces they forget to consider — as being on the same side as they strive for meaning and survival. A fur trader spits on the ground. An owl is electrocuted by a power line. A boar — named Blue Boy, after a boar in a Will Rogers movie — drowns in a gully, and his body blocks a culvert that delays a train. A telephone worker transmits the sound of the minister of Thailand’s cough.

“Storm” is a product of its era in ways both troubling and benign. Stewart sometimes invokes ethnic slurs and stereotypes, particularly disturbing for a book whose central — if subtle — moral is that we all ought to get along. The book has been called the first eco-novel, and falls prey to a common shortcoming of the genre, at least among white American writers: An author fancies himself neutral, capable of the pleasant illusion of stepping outside humanity, and thus projects his cultural biases onto nature itself.

“Storm” is also a testament to attention spans of the past; it’s hard to imagine a novel with more science than plot selling a million copies today. For the first few chapters, I felt I was reading a highly unusual textbook, albeit an often beautiful one. But by the middle of the book, the humans in their small lives seemed dear, and I rooted for each as I would for, say, a hamster digging in shavings for a pellet of lost food. “You know so little!” I wanted to tell them. “But you’re cute! I know you can figure it out, probably.”

What would “Storm” look like if written now? What metaphor would it take to make the argument that all people — all Americans, even — are on the same side? Whom does that fantasy comfort, and whom does it hurt? Meteorology won’t do it. In an era of climate change, the idea that weather is the one thing humans can’t influence seems quaint, and the thought that we might instinctually band together against an existential threat, naïve. If there’s hope here, it’s that we do matter — small as we are, and short-lived, passing like clouds through the air. The world rolls on regardless. The storm won’t care, but we do, and maybe that’s enough.

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