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Fault Lines: Viral Disquiet in Sarah Moss’s Fiction

Failles : l’inquiétude virale dans la fiction de Sarah Moss
Émilie Walezak


Le dernier roman en date de Sarah Moss, The Fell, est un roman de pandémie qui explore les fractures sociales mises au jour par la crise du COVID. Toutefois l’atmosphère oppressante construite par la propagation tant de la peur que du virus se trouve être une constante de son œuvre. Dès son premier roman, Cold Earth, publié en 2009 quelques mois avant l’épidémie de grippe aviaire, Moss imaginait un groupe d’archéologues coupés du monde au Groënland à la suite d’une pandémie mondiale. Ghost Wall, publié en 2018, narre une expérience archéologique de reconstitution de la vie des anciens Anglo-Saxons dans une forêt du Northumberland. Dans le roman Summerwater, publié en 2020, des touristes de tous horizons se retrouvent isolés par temps de pluie dans un camping écossais. Moss développe ainsi ses intrigues sur fond de confinement et met en jeu les réponses individuelles aux dynamiques collectives par le biais de l’écriture polyphonique. C’est ce qui lui permet de mettre en scène les fractures politiques qui traversent la société : sexisme, racisme, violences domestiques. Cet article utilise les théories de l’affect pour rendre compte tant de l’esthétique que de la politique des romans de Sarah Moss.

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1It is a strange but perfectly fitting coincidence that Sarah Moss should have started her career as a fictional writer at the onset of the swine flu pandemic in 2009 since her first novel, Cold Earth, narrated the isolation of a group of archeologists in Greenland as a consequence of the global spread of a virus: ‘I was thinking of avian flu while I wrote the early drafts, but the WHO—rather disconcertingly—declared swine flu to be a global pandemic on the day of publication’ (official website 2020). While she detoured into historical fiction with Bodies of Light (2014) and Signs for Lost Children (2015), still looking into the themes of exploration and medicine, her most recent novels have reconnected with her initial inspiration both thematically and stylistically. Thematically, her novels depict oppressive situations of isolation that serve to explore individual obsessions and group behaviours. Stylistically they are short, condensed, and often polyphonic narratives that capture the individual voice within a variety of communities.

2Cold Earth assembles the first-person narratives of the members of the expedition to Greenland as they write what they believe to be their last words to loved ones. Ghost Wall (2018) tells the story of an experiential archaeological summer camp in Northumberland through the first-person narrative of Silvie, a teenager whose father has been invited on the trip on account of his survivalist skills. Summerwater (2020) intersects the perspectives of holidaymakers spanning a wide spectrum of class, age, sex, nationality and political allegiances, impeded by the rain on a Scottish holiday park. Moss’s latest pandemic novel, The Fell (2021), adopts the point of view of four characters as one of them decides to break quarantine to go walking in the Peak District.

3Moss is interested in ‘accidental physical proximity’ (Guardian 2020) between neighbours, which she investigates in lockdown situations. Her novels build up tension through the spread of anxiety within random communities. The polyphony of individual voices further dramatises isolation as the characters are unable to escape the sequestration of their own mind. The inevitable scapegoating result of her quarantine scenarios allows Moss to fictionalise sociological fault lines such as the gender divide in Cold Earth, domestic abuse in Ghost Wall, immigration in Summerwater, or single parenthood in The Fell. The cracks within society provide the plot momentum in the novels through the characters’ individual responses to catastrophe. This paper proposes to read Moss’s fiction through the lens of affect theory by problematising the diegesis in relation to the accidental, reinterpreting Bakhtinian polyphony as ‘differential attunement’ (Massumi 115) to the event and exploring the politics of affect in her novels.

Narrative Tension and Philosophies of the Event

4Moss started out as a scholar specialising in the literature of the far north. Her first book, The Frozen Ship, published in 2006, was an essay dedicated to the fictional tales and historical accounts of polar expeditions. It would account for her predilection for ‘liminal settlement areas . . . on the edge of habitability’ (Cold Earth 18). In Cold Earth, it is the bare summer landscape of Greenland where the group excavates ancient burial grounds and whose mission relies on minimising their impact on the land. The remoteness of the area becomes a threat when communication systems with the outside world fail and they are left stranded with their food supplies low as the plane supposed to take them back does not arrive as planned. The past of ancient communities decimated by plagues catches up with the present-day expedition as a virus spreads around the world while they are isolated on Greenland. The field expedition becomes a survival story and the characters are haunted by the traditional trope of cannibalism. The hauntings of the historical and literary past are heralded from the start with the narrative of Nina, the only literary scholar on the trip, who experiences ghostly hallucinations of the dead they are excavating. The ghost story genre however does not serve any metafictional purpose, rather it gives a realistic shape to the contamination of fear in a group facing extreme circumstances. The individual fault lines running through each character’s personal story, as conveyed through the epistolary form, clash and resonate with the larger circumstances.

5The combination of a hostile environment and a deteriorating situation contributes to creating the sense of an event in the text. Jean-Jacques Lecercle has likened the event as defined by Alain Badiou with the fantastic genre in literature (2005). It is a violent irruption in the daily fabric of reality that punctures time and introduces change. In her novel, Moss conflates the daily routine of the excavations and the chronological unfolding of the expedition with Nina’s rupturing sightings or hearings of ghosts that herald the catastrophic event of the group’s ultimate isolation. Present time haunted by resurgences from the past, however, does not metaphorise any return of the repressed but rather brings together the actual and the virtual just as the address of the first-person narratives couched as their last words to absent loved ones, whom they are not sure are still alive, substantiates the absent ‘you’. This materialisation of virtual potentials whether from the past or the geographically distant present gestures towards another philosophy of the event which belongs with Brian Massumi. Because the lost communication happens late in the book and the sense of disquiet is built from Nina’s perception and the need for the group to care for her, the event of the novel is not so much a single disruptive element as a process that comes to gradually affect each participant. It is the spread of growing fear in the group that actualises the threat. And the threat is multi-faceted: from a threat to the characters’ family in the outside world menaced by a deadly virus which has them wonder if potentially ‘vast swathes of America are desolate, flapping doors, abandoned vehicles and rotting bodies, a disaster movie with all the special effects’ (185) to the risk to their own lives as they gather together in a cabin to escape the cold and wait for the plane with no food left. Narrative tension builds on the time warp of potentiality. As Massumi phrases it: ‘Threat is from the future. . . . The present is shadowed by a remaindered surplus of indeterminate potential for a next event running forward back to the future, self-renewing’ (53). The fear affect makes the potential threat real: ‘What is not actually real can be felt into being. Threat does have an actual mode of existence: fear, as foreshadowing’ (54). It is my contention that Moss’s novels are best read through the lens of affect theory as her plots are built around affective logics binding individuals together through the intersecting exposure of both intimate and collective fault lines.

6Thus, the archaeological context of the novel does not lend itself to a poststructuralist hermeneutics that would equate the digging activity with the metafictional excavation of a collective unconscious or a subterranean ideology. Rather it serves to materialise the threat of death that the characters are facing, especially as one of the hypotheses why the Norsemen died was starvation (109). For Ruth, digging up the dead bodies makes the memory of her dead boyfriend resurface. The car accident in which he died echoes the sense of an event as understood by philosopher Alain Badiou, the shattering moment when her life was turned around. The eventfulness of the plot, though, is not singularly disruptive but rather builds on the plural perspectives on ordinary dailiness. The excavations precisely anchor the characters’ daily routine on the island because the head of the expedition, Yianni, is bent on making the most of their funded time and eventually dies from the cold as he refuses to let go of their discoveries to seek shelter in the cabin. Their routine mirrors the ‘customs’ they try to establish about the ancient community, their sparse cooking echoes the ancient worry about food as Nina gathers edible plants to customise their dehydrated diet, while climate change, past and present, as a vector for habit transitions, looms large in the Arctic environment of the novel. Once again, the resonances between past and present point to the complex relationship between potentiality and actuality in everyday situations.

7Moss used archaeology again in Ghost Wall, taking the quotidian a step further by imagining an experiential summer camp. A group of students and their teacher are accompanied on their trip by Silvie’s family on account of her father’s survivalist skills. They isolate themselves in a Northumberland forest to replicate the living conditions of the ancient Britons. The boys go on hunting expeditions with Silvie’s father while the girls, Silvie and Molly, forage for herbs and berries and Silvie’s mother, Alison, cooks meals for the group. Silvie’s abusive father embodies the threat whose potential variously emerges when he takes his belt to Silvie’s back for instance, or remains implicit as his very presence and unpredictable reactions forebode the probability of his acting out Silvie’s narrative testifies to the constant vigilance that is required of her and her mother. His abusive attitude contaminates the group until the novel climaxes with the re-enactment of the ancient ritual sacrifice of a young virgin girl. The mediating element between the past and the present is a shoe: the shoe that Silvie lost in the bog is paralleled with a Victorian shoe retrieved by the students, from which the group extrapolates the idea of a votive offering. The rabbit skulls collected after cooking account for the novel’s title as well as for the omnipresent threat of death. Indeed, the Professor decides to put them to use to replicate a defensive palisade called a ghost wall, demonstrating how, in the words of Massumi, ‘defensive preemptive action is in its own way as capable as offensive preemptive action of producing what it fights’ which ‘blurs the boundaries between defense and offense, domestic security and military action’ (57). It is the contagion of the ambient threat of domestic abuse by Silvie’s father that accounts for the slippage from an innocuous game of replicating ancient defensive modes of survival through hunting and defensive empowerment through skull magic to the execution of the offensive preemptive ritual of a human sacrifice. Through the individual story of a disciplinarian pater familias, the book also writes a social story of the fractures of patriarchal oppression.

8Sarah Moss has refined her approach to threat and event in her latest two novels by foregoing the chronology to focus on the atmospheric while retaining the virality of anxiety. The event in each novel is a non-event so much so that Summerwater, written before the COVID crisis, has been described as a pandemic novel by Melissa Harrison in The Guardian. The rain that mostly keeps people inside in Summerwater echoes the lockdown imposed during COVID in The Fell. In the two novels, the variety of perspectives (eleven in Summerwater, four in The Fell) angles the perception of the confinement to make it into an ambience of diverse tensions, which demonstrates how ‘an atmosphere can be how we inhabit the same room but be in a different world’ (Ahmed 2014, n.p.). Summerwater’s construction around whether to stay indoors or face the rain mirrors the characters’ wish to escape the family or the couple’s pressure, as exemplified most paradigmatically by the teenage characters. The tensions within the couples and the rifts within the family unit end up being projected on the noisy cabin of the Romanian seasonal workers. In that respect, one of the most significant scenes, situated halfway through the novel, is that of young Lola bullying the Romanian girl, Violetta, mispronouncing her name as ‘Shit-chenko’ (74), tricking her into getting stuck on a swing over the lake and throwing stones at her. It heralds the catastrophic ending of Violetta’s death in the cabin that catches fire during yet another party. The familial splits within the characters’ stories echo the larger post-Brexit cracks within the country. The Fell is articulated around Kate’s transgression of the lockdown restrictions to go walking in the fells, while her son, Matt, her elderly neighbour, Alice, and the mountain rescue agent, Rob, respond to her delay in coming back.

9The proximity of the characters is thus not born of an exceptional situation like the expedition in Cold Earth or the field trip in Ghost Wall but of the next-door ordinariness of a shared environment. It is accentuated in Summerwater with the sandwiched short chapters transitioning between each character enunciation that describe the interactions between humans and the environment like planes in the sky (‘engines above the clouds’ [45]), boats on the lake (‘bones of skin coracles’ [97]), foxes, cars and waste (‘beginning to rise’ [151]), music sound waves (‘drums’ [187]) or the unseen forces that shape the landscape and impact the wild life like water (‘beginning to drown’ [77], ‘the weight of water’ [119], ‘where the bodies lie’ [133], ‘flights begin’ [165]), or the life of trees (‘maybe they dream’ [173]). The vignettes narrated by an omniscient voice contrast with the nervous agitation of the characters relayed through free indirect speech. At the same time, they serve to expose the tenuous interconnections that get drowned in the chatter of solipsistic human voices. The diegetic situations chosen by Moss of either extreme or ordinary isolation thus mirrors the characters’ mental lockdown, as the text pictures individuals trapped in their own minds.

Polyphony Reinterpreted through Affect

10In the four novels under study, Moss has explored a variety of voices to convey the sensation of contagious anxiety. From a narrative point of view, tension gradually arises from the exposure of the individual characters’ fallibilities or fault lines to the censorship of the group. It parallels the building up of diegetic tension born of a constraining situation. In Cold Earth, it is exemplified by the use of first-person narratives. The unveiling of each individual story follows the chronology of events on the island so that the personal perturbs the event. The chronological display of each individual’s reaction to, first, Nina’s unravelling and, then, to the event of the lost communication with the mainland, highlights how the characters are impacted by their surroundings while the accumulation of singular perceptions on the other members of the group reveals how each alters the collective dynamics. The succession of Nina’s, Ruth’s, Jim’s, Catriona’s, Yianni’s, and Ben’s narratives, circling back to Nina, materialises affect as ‘the passing of a threshold’ (Massumi 4), all the more so as the chronology follows a dramatic progress from bad to worse. It corresponds to what Massumi calls ‘differential attunement’: ‘We’re all in on the event together, but we’re in it together differently’ (115).

11Ghost Wall uses the first-person narrative differently by having Silvie relay the speech and reactions of the people around her. It corresponds to her own anxious attunement to her father’s abusive attitude so that the event turns out to be not so much the camping expedition itself but the very presence of her father to which each character will respond. Their attunement to his brutality will split them into three groups: Silvie and her mother conditioned to vigilance and careful observation to ensure their self-protection, the boys and the Professor who will gradually mimic his misogynistic attitude, and the solo girl figure of Molly who embodies resistance and is providentially seconded at the end by a midwife from a neighbouring village, Trudi. Silvie’s narrative combines shy, passive recording of the dialogues around her with her own internal thoughts largely focused on how other people speak freely without being aware of how their words might anger her father.

12In her latest two novels, Moss has developed her narrative technique towards the atmospheric by letting go of the strict chronology in favour of a kaleidoscopic approach that makes use of free indirect speech to picture the inner life of a gallery of characters. In Sara Ahmed’s words, ‘an atmosphere is most striking as a zone of transition’ (Ahmed 2014, n.p.). It is what builds up the progress of the characters’ narratives. The bare plot focuses on neighbours isolated in their own minds just as they are in their own cabins or houses. Narrative tension is supplemented by the inner disquiet of a wide variety of characters. Moss’s texts offer a re-interpretation of Bakhtinian polyphony through affect theory. Bakhtin’s description of Dostoevsky’s novels as ‘a plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world, [which] combine but are not merged in the unity of the event’ (6) so that ‘the fundamental event revealed through his novel does not lend itself to an ordinary pragmatic interpretation at the level of the plot’ (7) is also apt to characterise Moss’s novels. However, while Dostoevsky’s novels endeavour to picture the complexity of moral situations, Moss’s polyphony attempts to convey the barely tangible effects of affect on action and the connections between potentiality and actuality. It is really her way of also manifesting the difficulty to process the event of climate change, the paradox of its seemingly uneventfulness couched in a series of catastrophic events. In The Fell, Kate reflects on climate change in what reads as a metafictional commentary on the very form of Moss’s novels: ‘one of the things we’re learning, we of the end of times, is that humanity’s ending appears to be slow, lacking in cliff-hangers or indeed any satisfactory narrative shape; characterised, for the lucky, by the gradual vindication of accumulated dread’ (81–82). In the words of Bakhtin again: ‘At the heart of the tragic catastrophe in Dostoyevsky’s work there always lies the solipsistic separation of a character’s consciousness from the whole, his incarceration in his own private world’ (10). In Moss, the tragic could be said to arise when the virtual and viral disquiet expressed by the characters finally materialises with the fire in Summerwater and the walking accident in The Fell. In Moss, however, what supplements the characters’ self-isolation in their own heads is the interaction with the environment which leads to a series of barely discernible atmospheric changes that come to an affective head. Kate’s decision to go walking alone in the fells—something she habitually knows not to do—exemplifies the superimposition of affect and the environment as her own irritability, her sense of going crazy under the lockdown restrictions, her violation of the ban, are what prompt her to forgo the usual precautions of informing people that she has gone walking and taking her phone with her. Once again, the description by mountain rescuer Rob of the tragic accidents that may happen on this particular terrain reads as a recapitulation of Moss’s narrative form in her latest novels:

one thing forgotten leading to one small but in retrospect unwise decision and then some unexpected change of circumstances, usually the weather, magnifying the poor decision or the forgetting and suddenly you can see how this could all go really badly wrong but mostly you’re lucky, mostly it doesn’t. (71)

13In both novels, the sense of a pending catastrophe that goes almost unnoticed is represented graphically through the chapter titles written in lower case. They read like minimal cracks harbouring the potential of major rifts.

14Summerwater and The Fell synthesise Moss’s earlier strategies by combining the oppression of a constraining environment with the polyphonic echoes of individual attunement to the collective dynamic. The reader is made to experience, to feel, the building dread of Kate’s son, Matt, as he anxiously awaits the police’s phone call for news of his mother in the chapters entitled ‘lonely road’ (63), ‘he hears the helicopter’ (84), ‘another half hour’ (103), and ‘checks his phone’ (118). As evidenced by the last two chapter titles, the dreaded and awaited phone call has Matt on alert and his thoughts, going in circles, anticipating the worst, echo his pacing around the house. His anxious vigilance is further dramatised by the enforced isolation which means he cannot seek the company of his neighbour, Alice, or his friends. The use of free indirect speech allows Moss to manifest her characters’ experience through a combination of their jumbled thoughts and jittery behaviour. Thus, Kate’s increasing fretfulness at being on lockdown translates as a frenzy of thinking and seeking an occupation that the text transcribes through accumulation and scarce punctuation and which ends up bordering on hallucination when she imagines the ghosts of the mink massacred to prevent the spread of COVID, accounting for the chapter title, ‘small blood footprints’ (18):

Kate wonders what are the ingredients of whitewash and how much do they cost and can she order them online, supposing she can afford them, actually, however much it is, and meanwhile she takes down the Cézanne and leans it against the box in the hall which maybe isn’t exactly progress. The mink are coming back from the dead. As the bodies decompose they pop up, probably literally, and in the photo you could see they weren’t the white silky bodies in the first pictures of the cull but red, bloody, which of course they would be because you’re not going to kill all the mink you were keeping for their fur and bury them with the fur still on them, are you, which means it was someone’s job, though of course it was always someone’s job—Those mink, she thinks, those mink are going to haunt us forever and so they damn well should, they should be leaving small blood footprints on the street corners in Copenhagen and Dublin, they should be skittering around corners as we walk down the corridors of hospitals and airports, under our feet as we go downstairs in the dark, whisking in our peripheral vision for ever more. (25–26)

15The incision of direct questions, adverbs and tags, and the second-person address imitate the rambling of Kate talking to herself while at the same time drawing a picture of the complex interconnectedness of the world that COVID highlighted: the farming industry, the fur trade, the airports, the news media and art. The mention of Cézanne weirds out the still life of the butchered mink in the news picture while the last words of the paragraph reference Poe and anticipate Kate’s later encounter with a raven on the fells which, in addition to her need to purge her circuitous thoughts, will lead her off the track. Once again, the reader is made to feel Kate’s disquietude through immersive free indirect speech.

16In Summerwater, the reader is positioned as a neighbour spying onto the characters’ unfiltered thoughts through free indirect speech. The reader is given access to the most intimate aspects of the characters’ lives, especially the things they keep to themselves, like middle-aged, middle-class mother of two, Justine, who, despite a cardiac alert that she minimised to her relatives, needs to go on her morning run. The reader also pries into Milly’s sex life, a young feminist who has just got engaged but needs to fantasise to cope with morning sex with her husband to be. Her chapter illustrates in a roundabout, comic way the feminist phrase ‘the personal is political’ as her distraction from Josh’s attempts at simultaneous orgasm has her reflect about gender-based domination, colonialism, the Holocaust, and climate change. The characters’ inner monologues, characterised by their free association of ideas, spiral towards fretfulness caused by inactivity. Teenagers exemplify the need to slip away, like Alex who goes on a kayak ride to escape the cabin confinement and air his murderous thoughts: ‘He won’t die after all, out here, and he might kill someone if he stays in there. His dad, for example, he might kill his bearded, soup-dribbling dad. Shut up about the soup, he thinks, but its viscous tomato smell seems to hang in his hair’ (82). Despite their endeavours at escaping their own thoughts, at shutting themselves up, anxiety expressed as an unstoppable train of thoughts spreads through the chapters.

17While Cold Earth and Ghost Wall explored fear through identified threats and first-person narratives, Summerwater and The Fell verge on the atmospheric by addressing the more diffuse sense of anxiety through free indirect speech. In the words of Sara Ahmed:

In anxiety, one’s thoughts often move quickly between different objects, a movement that works to intensify the sense of anxiety. One thinks of more and more ‘things’ to be anxious about; the detachment from one given object allows anxiety to accumulate. In other words, anxiety tends to stick to objects. Given this, anxiety becomes an approach to objects rather than, as with fear, being produced by an object’s approach. (2004, 125)

18Polyphony reinterpreted through affect materialises the very topical issues of fear and anxiety that climate change and the COVID crisis are giving prominence to and which resonate with a number of political concerns related to the vulnerable fault lines that run through society.

The Politics of Affect

19Affect theory is useful to analyse Moss’s novels in its ‘proto-political’ dimension as outlined by Brian Massumi who reinterprets Spinoza’s formula ‘to affect and be affected’ as the onset of political relations around an event. As evidenced by the plot summaries exposed earlier, there are recurrent intersectional preoccupations in Moss’s novels which thematically address domestic abuse, gender imbalance, and racism. Ghost Wall serves as a paradigmatic example as its characters are divided along geographic lines with Silvie and her family displaying the accent from the North of England by contrast with the posh English of the students. The geographic gap is prolonged into a social divide as Silvie’s father is a bus driver and an amateur historian who seeks to demonstrate that there is an essence to Britishness. Silvie owes her name, Sulevia, to a Northumbrian goddess, ‘a proper British name’ (19) according to her father. She resents the students’ prying into her personal life as she is aware of everything that separates her from them: ‘yes, I do know, [Sulevia is] a Roman corruption of a British name. There are actually people who know Latin where I come from, we do have books. I could hear my accent shifting as I spoke to them, talking posh and then getting angry and speaking normally again’ (20). The conservatism of Silvie’s father, Bill, expressed through his fascination for a far past extends to his management of the family according to strict gender partitions as evidenced by the replicated activities splitting the group between boys and girls.

20Once again, the past does not metaphorise forms of resurgences, as it would in historiographic metafictions, but rather functions as a fantasy space for the political affects of xenophobia and misogyny that masquerade as love of the nation and the family. When the idea of sacrificing Silvie emerges, it is out of Bill’s love for her as the most precious thing he would be willing to offer to the bog. Sara Ahmed, taking the example of an Aryan Nations web site, articulates the love/hate discourse to the construction of imagined subjects brought together in a community of bodies and social space by positing imagined others as ‘a threat to the object of love’ (117). Moss’s novel deconstructs the fanatic discourse by locating the actual threat in the father figure who is willing to extend his domination of his daughter to death. Ahmed has coined the phrase ‘economies of affect’ to define affect as that which ‘does not reside in an object or sign, but is an affect of the circulation between objects and signs’ (120). The commodification of British history and of Bill’s own family contaminates the group through their attunement to Bill’s domination.

21The non-chronological polyphony of Moss’s latest two novels emblematises this circulation of affect as, instead of an unfolding of events, the text is built on the physical proximity both inside the plot—because they are neighbours—and on the page, with the successive chapters, of the characters’ perceptions. In Summerwater, the equivalence, in terms of disturbance, drawn between the rain and the noisy Romanian neighbours, ultimately parallels xenophobia and ecophobia, equating foreigners and the environment as others threatening the holiday home. Moss has explained how the book was a response to Brexit before the COVID crisis happened:

I was thinking of post-Brexit Britain, a country of apparently similar people with a great deal in common, no longer able to leave easily, and so divided and distrustful that they can barely communicate across gradations of class, generation and political allegiance, absorbed in judging and raging against each other while the real crisis, which is climate change, gathers speed in the background. (2020, n.p.)

22The projected fears of multiple others are meshed with real familial anxieties that the characters fail to communicate to their partners like Justine’s cardiac problem, the onset of Mary’s Alzheimer, Milly’s unsatisfying sex life. Moss strategises the internal cacophony of the characters as overwhelming, mirroring the outside noise produced by the neighbours, while the transition chapters paint the larger, background picture of the climate crisis. In The Fell, the threat of death is omnipresent through both the virus and the dangerous environment while home has become a source of oppression under lockdown. Giving the lie to the COVID political slogan ‘stay home, stay safe’, the notion of an unsafe home intersects with the individual familial situations of isolation of Kate and Rob as divorced single parents, and Alice as a widow. The Peak District background where Kate goes walking, forgetting its potential threat, meanwhile, evokes the earth as our collective oikos and the lack of awareness as to its own crisis, etymologically speaking, a decisive moment in the progress of a disease, echoing the COVID context of the book. Climate change also loomed in the background of Cold Earth set in Greenland, the far north being the location where the impact of the climate crisis is most salient. Taking Moss at her word, one could argue that she strategically places the environment in the background to demonstrate its current place in the political debate, drowned as it is among issues of the projected fear of migration and the defence of the nation state by the far right. Her novels do not need to address the environmental question directly or thematically to make it a political issue. Instead she experiments with human polycacophony and non-human interludes to place the circulation of affect as the main protagonist:

‘There’s an extent to which the whole idea of the protagonist is a symptom of privilege: the idea that you can control what happens to you is deeply built into the novel from the 18th century onwards,’ she says. ‘It’s one of the consolations of fiction, right? The idea that there is meaning or purpose or pattern. But this seems increasingly questionable, and not just in relation to climate change and pandemics—the body betrays us all the time, but it’s not really a betrayal. It’s a statement of fact.’ (Armistead n.p.)

23Moss’s novels thus draw a complex picture of the circulation of contemporary anxieties that the lower-case chapter titles illustrate metonymically. They are sentence fragments extracted from the text of the chapter whose meaning escapes capture into a significant whole as attested by the use of the minuscule. They stand out as minor and the typography mirrors Moss’s attention to the details of everyday life, which she opts to do to accurately represent experience: ‘I write with attention to daily life because that is how we experience the world almost all the time. . . . We live in moments, not eras, and so I write in moments and let the eras take care of themselves.’ (2020, n.p.). Her politics of attention that assemble together multiple perceptions through the barely tangible circulation of affect resonate with current new materialist attempts at picturing the processes of worlding and bodying. Anna Tsing, for instance, uses polyphony in connection with what she calls ‘the arts of noticing’ to write stories of assemblages that testify to the entanglement of humans and non-humans:

When I first learned polyphony, it was a revelation in listening; I was forced to pick out separate, simultaneous melodies and to listen for the moments of harmony and dissonance they created together. This kind of noticing is just what is needed to appreciate the multiple temporal rhythms and trajectories of the assemblage. (24)

24Reinterpreting literary polyphony through affect allows Moss to renew the empirical representation of reality in the realist text by making space for the tenuous connections and blatant disconnections between human voices and the environment. As attested by the variations of narrative strategies in her texts, she has experimented with the novel form to shape new approaches to realism. As she has expressed in an interview, she means to persist with the novelistic form: ‘“I think the form of the novel is absolutely committed to the story of meaning and purpose,” she says. “And I wouldn’t want to write one that didn’t have those things, because that’s why we read: to find a pattern that we don’t find in life.”’ (Armitstead n.p.). The patterns that are emerging in her fiction however are new patterns of entangled economies of affect that inform the global world today and respond to the necessity of an epistemic turn to factor the incommensurable impact of climate change. It is no wonder then that her first novel anticipated the COVID crisis which has laid bare the interconnectedness of biology, medicine, industry, transports, economy, farming, ecological habitats, borders, fear, threat, death, and politics. From her very first novel, she has been interested in representing the viral in all its forms and meanings and giving shape to realist stories of contagion as a way to address complex enmeshments.

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Émilie Walezak, « Fault Lines: Viral Disquiet in Sarah Moss’s Fiction »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 64 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2023, consulté le 29 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Émilie Walezak

Emilie Walezak is a professor of contemporary British literature at Nantes Université. A specialist of women’s writing, she has devoted articles to the works of A. S. Byatt, Angela Carter, Sarah Hall, Rose Tremain, and Jeanette Winterson. She is the author of Rose Tremain. A Critical Introduction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and Rethinking Contemporary British Women’s Writing. Realism, Feminism, Materialism (Bloomsbury, 2021).
Emilie Walezak est professeure de littérature britannique contemporaine à Nantes Université. Elle a publié des articles sur A. S. Byatt, Angela Carter, Sarah Hall, Rose Tremain et Jeanette Winterson. Elle est l’auteure de Rose Tremain. A Critical Introduction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) et Rethinking Contemporary British Women’s Writing. Realism, Feminism, Materialism (Bloomsbury, 2021).

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