Dyschronia, by Jennifer Mills

With the COP26 Climate Change Conference still in progress, this seemed an appropriate time to read Jennifer Mills’ Dyschronia, published in 2018. This book is not a prediction of the future — indeed, it is about now: the weird world in which we are living at present. The protagonist, Sam, is thought to have dyschronia, a condition where there is confusion about time and this is manifested through migraines, whereby she can see events that will happen. Sam lives in Clapstone, a fictitious town on the Spencer Gulf of South Australia.

For me, the most alarming and memorable scene in the book is where the residents of Clapstone wake up to their dogs barking portentously and find that the sea has vanished. The tide has gone so far out that people can’t see it and the beach is left strewn with smelly carcasses.

Jennifer Mills says that she set out to write about capitalism and indeed, Ed soon comes to town. His background is a bit vague, but he’s worked in finance. He can see potential in using Sam’s extraordinary visions of future events, which definitely have substance when she foresees a series of suicides related to the closing down of the local asphalt refinery where many of the population of Clapstone have been employed.

The structure of the book reinforces Sam’s disturbed perception of time and, by building the narrative on a series of concentric circles, the reader too is thrown into a state where time is fluid. Sam is a kind of Delphic oracle and the people of Clapstone, a Greek chorus, commenting on what is happening.

As well as supporting an asphalt refinery, Clapstone has been a recreational seaside town and has the remnants of a run-down Ferris wheel: Sam can sit in a rusty gondola and survey the town. There is not much room for humour in this book, but I did enjoy that the people of Clapstone designed a giant cuttlefish (when there was sea, cuttlefish migrated to the shores each year) — non Australians won’t appreciate this, but to attract tourism to various towns we have a Giant Pineapple, a Giant Banana, a Giant Lobster and a Giant Koala.

Whilst we are used to thinking forward in a linear way and the notion of dyschronia is disconcerting, throwing the reader into a kind of circular notion of time allayed fears that this would end with impending doom. In one sense, the doom is with us. In another sense, history hasn’t necessarily passed. Near the end of the book, the Greek chorus says:

We chose what to notice, what to think about, believed what we needed to. We prioritised. We were realistic.

We don’t want to think about the past, we want to move forward, time heals all wounds. But now we can’t get rid of it. The past, and the future. They rush together like tributaries, fan out again as a delta, spread through the world like blood.