A ‘sacrifice zone,’ American novelist Roger S. Gottlieb tells us, is “a place so polluted it can never be cleaned up.” It is also the title of a highly original, deeply moving new novel from Gottlieb — a prolific philosophy professor at Worcester Polytechnic University (WPI) in Massachusetts who has also written dozens of non-fiction books on everything from Marxism and contemporary spirituality to the Holocaust and religious environmentalism.
I met the professor online a few weeks ago and was intrigued by the new novel’s title. So I asked him a few questions and he told me plenty.
Not surprisingly for a novel written by a philosopher, ”The Sacrifice Zone” explores a central question of human existence: confronted by terrible suffering that you cannot stop, how do you respond? The novel’s three central characters each have a different answer, onlyone of them, Gottlieb told me and seems to suggest, offers us a chance at happiness.
Let me introduce the characters.
Daniel is a middle-aged college teacher who has, because of his ignorance and denial, inflicted an environmental illness on his beloved daughter. In response he becomes — and heknows it — intolerably obsessed with the ongoing environmental crisis. In fact, he cannot stop thinking and talking about climate change, dying species, inner city pollution, animal rights and all the rest. You get the picture. He alienates his wife and daughter while he grieves, rages, despairs and takes in all sorts of information.
Anne, a highly respected American Buddhist teacher in her community, is comfortably ensconced in her own rural center. But her treasured equanimity is crumbling because she is haunted by long suppressed memories of the devastating effects on her family of her older sister Lily’s opiate addiction. Her need to escape her family’s suffering led Anne to a life rooted in meditation and to replace her family ties and her own ability to feel, desire, or care with a rigid spiritual austerity.
So far, it seems, our only choices are to immerse ourselves in the suffering and be miserable, or abandon the world and suppress our emotions. Yet Professor Gottlieb offers a third alternative with the character named Sarah, an early middle aged environmental activist whom Daniel meets and becomes lovers with. Sarah knows all the facts of the environmental crisis and has devoted her adult life to responding, “taking all of nature as her mate.”
Unlike Daniel, however, she is not bitter, ragefull, or weighed down by unending grief, Gottlieb told me in a series of emails. Seeing the sun strike a sea gull across an urban pond, she is struck with gratitude for the Earth’s splendor. Reflecting on the environmental criminals who are poisoning the Earth, she feels pity for how lost they are, howaddicted to power and money, ruining a world that their own kids will inherit. Confronted with violence by thuggish polluters, she freely admits to being afraid, but says the fear is not going tostop her — any more than having tired legs will stop her when she runs.
Also, while Sarah enjoys sex with Daniel, she thinks of it as something she has in common with trout, trees, and chimpanzees.
My verdict as a book reviewer: The book is beautifully written and scene after scene immerses the reader in the demands of environmental activism and the soul-crushing effects of addiction. When Sarah and Daniel confront the minor representative of a huge meat packing corporation whose facilities are causing serious pollution, they are told “Of course we pollute, of course our chickens aren’t very healthy. We just don’t care.”
Lily returns to her beautiful suburban home after stealing two thousand dollars and living on the street. Tattered clothes and sores on her arms, she seems a broken, defeated child. But when her family asks what she needs, she replies: ““What I need. What I need. What I need” IS SOME DOPE.” The beaten girl crumpled in front of their door was replaced by an insatiable monster.
There are some minor characters also to flesh out the emotional background of ”The Sacrifice Zone.”
A dirt poor West Virginia man clings to his family home as mountaintop removal mining destroys everything around him. The head teacher of the Thai Buddhist monastery where Anne has fled cautions her “Do not cling to peace you find here, cling to nothing.”
A successful developer seeks to pave over treasured urban woods and defeat local environmental opposition. His life is perfect — except for his disabled daughter, perhaps herself a genetic victim of pollution.
Okay, if you are still with me, by the end of the novel, Anne has found a way to return to life and her sister. We are not sure if Daniel has learned Sarah’s secret, since a tragic accident has separated them.
The author tells me he leaves this unsettled. Daniel’s future, like that of our overheating, polluted, species poisoning way of life, remains in doubt. ”The Sacrifice Zone,” according to Gottlieb, is not meant to give us any hope on that score. It aims, rather, “to offer a source of courage so that we can act in defense of life but never take the life we have for granted.”
His characters’ experiences suggest doing this requires that we see not only the world’s suffering but its beauty — which is just as real.
”The Sacrifice Zone” is, as you will see if you chance to pick it up and read it, is a brilliant and moving work of contemporary fiction (some might even call it subgenre of ”cli-fi”) : an unflinching exploration of the moral, emotional, and spiritual realities of our time.
Professor Gottlieb delivers.