“Wouldn’t it be nice,” I thought in the run-up to Hogmanay, while on an extended social media break, longer than my regularly enforced weekend deactivations, and longer than I had intended because the sound of silence was too appealing to go back quite yet, “to spend 2021 being completely ignorant of everything that is going on?”
I imagined cocooning from bad news; or any news at all. The rap artist Megan Thee Stallion sings of a “hot girl summer". I briefly dream of embarking upon an entire stupid year, unplugging completely from the stressors of social media, avoiding anything likely to spike anxiety, and drifting through the days cluelessly.
But this was a fleeting fantasy, because it’s not in my nature, and nor, as a writer, is it very practical. For half my life now – I’m in my mid-thirties, the last generation to grow up without social media as we know it now, for which I am deeply and greatly thankful to the gods of fate – I have been Very Online, first in forums, Livejournal and MSN, and only relatively recently swallowing the manic tickertape of Twitter, which never ends, its corrosive influence taking residence inside us like a tapeworm.
Combining the social and promotional rewards of engaging an online following, with a personal predisposition to anxiety, quickly segues into involuntary, habitual hyperawareness to what’s going on, not just in my immediate physical surroundings (for which to better assess the dangers of I only wear one earbud) but stretching out into the psychic distance: our terrifyingly shapeless, intangible future.
While on my extended break I sent an interesting news story, 24 hours after its publication, to a friend who laughed at me. “This is normie behaviour,” they reply, used themselves to consuming news the moment it appears online, and often before established channels have published their fact-checked versions. Part of me feels a vague, lefty responsibility to be switched on all the time; how can anything change, if we don’t know what’s going on in the big picture of global societal collapse and ecological nightmare? But awareness itself, as we should have learned from the charitable appeals which characterised the slacktivist 2010s, often achieves little but burnout and fatigue.
I recently got around to reading two books by Maggie Nelson. Jane: A Murder describes the killing of an aunt, on her mother’s side, which happened four years before she was born.
Interspersed with extracts from Jane’s own college journal, in which her musings on life and happiness take on a darkly ironic tint, Nelson attempts to come to terms with how the tragedy impacted her family life, showing up in her mother’s habit of barricading the door when home alone, and in other, subtler ways.
A later, linked book, The Red Parts, deals with the trial of a man not originally linked to the case, which was assumed to be part of a run of killings by a serial killer active around the same time and place.
Nelson combs through records and newspapers relating to Jane’s life and death, questioning all the time exactly why she feels compelled to do so, and whether, in fact, it’s healthy or healing. She develops what she calls "Murder Mind”, paranoia and fixation on the macabre that comes with her immersion.
“I would work all day on my project with a certain distance, blithely looking up ‘bullet’ or ‘skull’ in my rhyming dictionary. But in bed at night I found a smattering of sickening images of violent acts ready and waiting for me...”
It is persistent intrigue in cataclysmic disaster, or how to deal with it, that draws Mark O’Connell to seek out the company of doomsday preppers in his book Notes From an Apocalypse, a surprisingly fun, though always heartfelt, romp through the possibility of end times.
“I was obsessed with the future, an obsession that manifested in an inability to conceive of there being any kind of future at all. Personal, professional, and political anxieties had coalesced into a consuming apprehension of imminent catastrophe. I suppose it could be said that I was depressed – and in fact it was said, often enough, by me – but it was a state characterised not by a closure against the world, but by an excessive openness to it.”
Conspiracy theories can open purse-strings
Over the subsequent chapters, O’Connell embarks upon a series of trips to understand people who take apocalyptic preparations seriously, sometimes as a political ideology (here Peter Thiel and William Rees-Mogg, father of Jacob, make an appearance), and sometimes as a money maker, like the salesman of concrete shelters in North Dakota, who tosses out conspiracy theories (political, economic, and nuclear) waiting for one to open the purse-strings.
The book is at its best when O’Connell skewers the patriarchal, colonial ideals of those who spend their spare time ‘prepping’ supplies for an apocalyptic future, the men who are “involved in the shared escapist fantasy about the return to an imagined American frontier – to an ideal of the rugged and self-reliant white man, providing for himself and his family, surviving against the odds in a hostile wilderness” and, of course, shooting those who get in their way.
The only weak chapter of this otherwise brilliant book is, regrettably, set here in Scotland; I wished O’Connell had applied some of his political sharpness to the Englishmen of the Black Mountain Project who guide a meditative group to the “wilderness” of the Highlands, performing vaguely defined mindfulness rituals at the “edge of civilisation”.
But, he concludes, “Somewhere along the way, in any case, it became apparent to me that a state of perpetual anxiety was no way to live.” It rings true.