Intangible Gunk in Gray Ice: The Kamchatkans Look at Their Lives

This is how we have lived, for too long.

Julia Phillips’s debut novel Disappearing Earth is set in the Kamchatka Peninsula which sits on the far eastern tip of Russia. I’ve never been there. It was tempting to google the unfamiliar location names, tribes that I’d never heard of, and exotic volcanoes. I resisted, to keep my mental and bodily canvases intact. I wanted a feel of Kamchatka, uncompromised. And my patience paid off.

A few days after finishing the novel, I googled “Kamchatka Peninsula.” I was ready to give a visual form to my fresh feeling of this unique place, which was potent but still rather amorphous. Google gave me tons of pristine, awesome, and detailed images such as these.

The images were sublime. They showcased the magnificent volcanoes and wild bears, the signatures of Kamchatka. Which was why they were disappointing. In Disappearing Earth, neither the volcanoes nor bears were sublime, and even that fact seemed barely important.

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Intriguingly, it was this kind of awesome image that initially drew Phillips to Kamchatka. “Seeing beautiful Kamchatka through Google Images made up my mind for me,” said Phillips, which was around the time that she finished a semester in a college in Moscow. Two years later, Phillips moved back to Russia as a Fulbright scholar and stayed in Kamchatka for a year. Scrolling through the endless images of snow-capped volcanoes, bears dipping in ice-blue rivers, and occasional photos of indigenous tribal dances, I imagined Phillips looking at the same beautiful Google images on her return flight to the US. I also thought of my Fulbright years. I remember the thrill when a classy image of Beacon Hill came up when I looked up “Boston” before my departure to the US.  

Acorn Street on Beacon Hill (image Source: WikiMedia)

During my stay, I visited and passed by Beacon Hill multiple times. And I still find its narrow streets and steep hill visually appealing. Only now, this lovely place triggers messier memories—that its humid summer streets are never empty, always swarming with tourists; that you can tell the residents from the visitors by the expressions on their faces and dogs they bring with them; that you should pass on Tatte across the Hill if you don’t want an over-priced and bland shakshuka that you must wait 30 minutes for, standing, because a table never opens (and that Watertown or Allston is a better bet for Persian food).     

Another bunch of volcanoes and bears popped up and my vision blurred. My mind kept getting distracted—the irritation of waiting in Tatte for lackluster food; the bricks of the buildings glistening in moisty red; my return flight to Korea at the official end of my Fulbright years; and Phillips’s Fulbright years. Kamchatka in Phillips’s book felt more like reticent gray than inviting multicolor as in these photos.

Looking back at those glossy images of Kamchatka in mid-air, would Phillips’s mind have scattered all over the place like mine?

The Kamchatka Peninsula is one of the densest volcanic regions in the world with more than twenty among several hundreds active. The volcanoes are one of Kamchatka’s major attractions that draw ecotourists from all over the world. Understandably, volcanoes are a steady presence in Disappearing Earth. I mean steady, not grand. In every chapter, there is some account of this geological spectacle. However, none of these volcanoes spurt out terrifying fumes as in science or news reports.

Dramatic views of volcanic eruptions in Kamchatka. You don’t see them in Disappearing Earth. (image source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, video source: Global News YouTube channel)

Kamchatkan volcanoes in Disappearing Earth are simply there. They are there when the first chapter “August” opens. They are still just there when a yearly cycle in the peninsula closes with the last chapter “July.” Most of the time, there are only cursory observations or factual statements about the volcano that sits in the background as the narrators, different in each chapter, recount their daily lives. In “August,” the three signature volcanoes of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky appear as distant “blue tops” that shoot up “on the horizon” beyond the municipal building. There is no further description of the volcanoes’ characteristics or their awesome visuals. Each chapter has barely two sentences that mention the volcanoes. As the winter nears in “September,” we learn that “the Koryaksky volcano [is] capped with its first snow” as the anxious teenage narrator throws a mindless glance at it. In the following “February,” a nurse loses her rescue team husband who was helping “hikers unable to descend from volcanoes.” In “April,” a dejected new mother dreams of “[flying] over a volcano” to start her life afresh. The volcanoes are merely a single thread in the fabric of many Kamchatkans’ lives. So are the other Kamchatkan characteristics and attractions that awe the outsiders and draw tourists— tsunamis, grizzlies, salmons, roadless tundra, etc. These common threads just exist, occasionally signaling the passing of seasons or merging entirely into the mundane landscape that sits in the back of the Kamchatkans’ minds.

Now, look back at those Google images, the mountain ridges and snowy peak emphasized with violent contrast, squishing flat the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky harbor. This is closer to the perspective of an outside observer than a resident—the splendor of the surrounding geology overshadowing daily life. Disappearing Earth, in this sense, is an inversion. The novel wants to channel how those who live in Kamchatka experience their seemingly idiosyncratic landscape. And It is certainly not in high-contrast with the landscape’s physicality.

No awe-struck description of the landscape means no spellbound individuals having subtle, sensory experiences. Disappearing Earth is not interested in how an individual feels about a place—it’s interested in how the community of Kamchatkans feels. While their individual lives differ vastly in professions, economic situations, and views on social and political issues, there is a collective feeling of what it’s like to be in this peninsula, a place of geological and historico-political peculiarities and also day-to-day life. “That’s how we live,” says a team of Kamchatkan guides in response to the recent volcanic rumbles that would have freaked out non-Kamchatkans. The guides’ placid words seem a gentler articulation of how the Kamchatkans live in Disappearing Earth. There is something unsettlingly wrong with the people’s lives, as if some gunk has been accumulating for a very long time. Everyone can see its congealed blackness. But their senses are exhausted with the same old life, and no one can seem to tell clearly what that gunk is made of.

There is something unsettlingly wrong with the Kamchatkans’ lives, as if some gunk has been accumulating for a very long time.

The sense of calcified gunk mostly stems from the long stagnation in the lives of the Kamchatkan narrators. For some, it is the recalcitrant remnants of the Soviet past, whether nostalgic, embarrassing, or simply unexperienced. For others, it is the grueling repetition of routine that will continue unless they leave Kamchatka for good. Behind the feeling of entrapment and inertia lies the peninsula’s long sociopolitical and geographical isolation. Massive tundra separates the peninsula from mainland Russia. There is no land road. The only way to enter is either via water or air, and even those used to be strictly restricted to a few military personnel because of the Kamchatka’s strategic importance during the Cold War. Kamchatka remained closed until 1989 for civilian Russians and 1990 for internationals. However, the official opening did not incorporate Kamchatka into the momentum of a structural change that swept the mainland. The formal dissolution of the border exposed how long Kamchatka has been cut off from the movement of history. Unveiled were the residues of the obsolete political system, and the grim prospects of herding for the indigenous tribes which couldn’t compete with the more lucrative opportunities in cities. There was no effective governmental suggestion or plan for the uncertain future. The Kamchatkans have been basically on their own to navigate both physical and mental isolation and the subsequent feeling of overfamiliarity that, in Disappearing Earth, suffocates all narrators like saturated fog.

Phillips mentioned that she wanted the title of her novel to reflect the “unsteadiness and instability” in peoples’ lives as in the Kamchatka’s natural landscape. While socio-economic stagnation weighs down on the Kamchatkans, what speaks more keenly is the people’s bleak recognition that everything in life has ceased to progress and that there is nothing they can do about it. Life that moves with time pulses, oozes, and rots at the end, awakening the senses of those around it. And such signs are totally absent in the Kamchatkans’ lives.

What further disturbs the narrators is that what surrounds their lives, the natural world, appears to renew constantly. There are unmissable visual, aural, and olfactory signs— the chrome gray of the winter gradually takes over “the acid-yellow” of the “golden fall” in the forest, the sulfuric smell in the air thickens as a volcano releases its daily fumes. Against the static lives of the people, nature’s crystalline mechanism of temporal progression looks enviously self-sufficient, self-content. The narrators feel this gap, but do not quite know how to articulate or tackle it. This is why everyone in Disappearing Earth wanders, seeking something new that will bring them out of their entrapment.

Ideally, wandering is an act of exploration and possibility. However, the narrators’ wandering is a retracing rather than venturing, as Phillips makes clear from the first page. The novel opens with eleven-year-old Alyona and her younger sister walking around the bay of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Since the sisters have never left the peninsula, wandering the city center is to literally trace the edge of their world. Alyona already knows what happened in the past, what has happened today, and what will happen in days to follow: “they hung around the city, watching rain clouds gather and the sunlight stretch out. Their faces tanned gradually. They took walks, or rode their bikes, or came here [to the bay].” A colossal change, like a Kamchatkan tsunami and volcanic eruption, is at best a morbidly exciting story for Alyona. It is so for the other residents as well.

Ideally, wandering is an act of exploration and possibility. However for the Kamchatkans, rather than venturing, it is closer to retracing.

It is then understandable that the chapters are titled with the chronological order of the months rather than the names of the narrators, since the only change happening in each chapter is that of the natural world attuned to the passage of time. On the other hand, people’s lives are uniformly stagnant. It does not seem to matter which narrator tells the story first. Though a rare, cataclysmic event—the kidnapping of the young sisters— happens in the first chapter “August,” there is no suspense or development in the following chapters. As the vibrations of the girls’ disappearance hang in the air as gossip, news, rumors, and faint hopes, daily life continues.

The news of the kidnapping makes headlines for months as if to remind the people that a massive change can happen in Kamchatka. That just might be what people want to believe. In each chapter, there is a Kamchatkan who is both consciously and unconsciously drawn to the news of the kidnapping for a faint possibility that it would create some ripples their static days.

Everyone struggles with their own stagnation, varying in its nature and apparent seriousness. But Phillips takes care to visit each of these stagnations without prioritizing one over the other, so a young white woman’s frustration with her stale romantic relationship is given the same quiet empathy as an indigenous single mother’s yearning for a different life outside of Kamchatka. Swallowing her irritation at another clumsy blunder of her partner, Katya, a customs officer at the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky port, thinks about the fresh shock she felt at the news of the kidnapping. The news made Katya “nervous, touchy, about everything” because she couldn’t fit the event in her otherwise uneventful days. It was a similar kind of shock that she felt when she first met her partner Max, that “tug in [her]stomach” which she couldn’t shake off.

That “tug,” however, is long gone. Katya must remind herself that she “loves him” despite her annoyance at all the signs that they are “well on their way to domesticity.” The news of the kidnapping hits Katya just when she has been starving for something visceral, something equivalent to that initial “tug” which awakens her senses. Phillips compares this hunger to the spine-chilling yet titillating stirs of meeting a grizzly in the dark Kamchatkan forest. The grizzly is “saturated with color, its face dirty and snout bleached and eyes shining through” the “grainy dawn.” In front of fear-frozen Katya, Max unexpectedly shows gumption and chases the bear away. Katya feels her body firing up anew at the site.

Not everyone is as “lucky” as Katya. Barely anyone gets Katya’s breakthrough. After the last dispirited argument with her partner over their “garbage palace of a rental house” in Esso, a young mother Nadia is determined to “start over” with her little daughter. Nadia dreams of St. Petersburg, Istanbul, and London for the two of them—to leave Kamchatka, the grudging native despair, and eternally “broken radiator pipe.” Her hometown Palana, their temporary sojourning place before the much-hoped-for change, has stayed the same: “all the half-collapsed buildings, the flaking Soviet murals, the stained smokestacks, the mended nets, the tethered rowboats, the exes who no longer acknowledged her.” The river has filled itself again with red salmon and the wind has turned gritty crystalline with the March wind from the Sea of Okhotsk. Next to those quiet and consistent alterations, the lives of her family, her life, remain “half-collapsed.” Taking in such a gap, Nadia thinks of how freely her partner used to gossip about the disappearance of an allegedly promiscuous native girl, one that never made the news, unlike that of the white sisters’. He must have been drawn to its “drama,” Nadia seems to believe, something non-existent in their lives. But she wants drama in real life. And that’s much harder. “March” ends with Nadia returning to Esso by the wish of her daughter: “Then, let’s go home.” The cycle repeats.  

In every month, there is a life that can’t quite catch up to the ever-renewing landscape. And Phillips observes and collects each life with her unassuming and egalitarian honesty. When the novel reaches a full year, a collective residential sentiment, which initially felt like the dark gunk in ice, sharpens into shape. And it is stiflingly vivid—a collective sense that life in this saturated yet gray peninsula is overdue a change forms an irremovable clot in the air that presses on everyone’s lungs.

In every month, there is a life that can’t quite catch up to the ever-renewing landscape. Those lives form a pressing collective sentiment that life in this saturated yet gray peninsula is overdue a change.

Phillips did not write Disappearing Earth in Kamchatka. It wasn’t until some years after she was back in New York that the first draft materialized. This made me think again of Phillips’s and my return flights to our respective home countries, ending our sojourns as Fulbrighters, as non-residents. It might be because I googled Beacon Hill out of the blue about a week after I got back in Korea. Whatever the reason, I am sure with a curious certainty that Phillips must have pinned that beautiful Google image of Kamchatka, her initial invitation to the peninsula, on the work board in her New York apartment next to all her notes and memos about the Kamchatkan lives. I am also sure that Phillips must have looked at them side by side, suspended in their nearly irreconcilable gap, trying to translate that void into words.

It may not look that exceptional or even novel, this shape of the Kamchatkan life that Phillips channels. I mean, aren’t we all struggling with some form of stagnation? To me, what feels truly exceptional is Phillips’s invisible effort to be sober in an alien place which, speaking as a fellow one-time non-resident, can easily intoxicate your senses with its strangely romantic air. If the collective Kamchatkan life in Disappearing Earth seems nondescript, unexotic, then it may mean that this “expat novel” is worth a read all the more.  

Work Cited

Gresko, Brian. “A Novel at the Edge of the World: In Conversation with Julia Phillips.” Lit Hub, 19 Nov 2019.

“Julia Phillips Discusses Disappearing Earth with Noreen Tomassi.” Center for Fiction.

“Koryak Volcano.” Kamchatka Land.

Phillips, Julia. Disappearing Earth. Knopf, 2019.

Vinopal, Courtney. “Why a Writer Traveled to a Far-Off Russian Peninsula for Her Debut Novel.” PBS News Hour, 10 Apr 2020.

Cover image credit: photo by Max Fuchs on Unsplash

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