For the other side of the argument, check out Chris Schluep's entry Apocalypse Now.
Of all the questions we
curious humans ask ourselves, the most potent begin with "What if"¦?"
What if you were trapped on a desert island with only 10 albums? What if you
had to choose between dying to save others and living while they perished? And
the perennial literary favorite: What if most of the population/world/universe
disappeared and only a handful of people survived? How would they handle it?
Wait"”we're forgetting the
most important question: Who freaking cares? It's sci-fi sacrilege to say, but
I am seriously over the hypothetical apocalypse. Believe me, I crave escapism
as much as anyone with a stack of bills and a 9-to-5 job. But I'm happy to find
it in novels about folks who might reasonably exist, struggling through
situations that might actually, you know, happen
Following on the heels of
ancient legend (see: Epic of Gilgamesh; Noah and his ill-fated dinghy), post-apocalyptic fiction
isn't a new trend in modern literature. Starting in the late 1800s with Mary
"Frankenstein" Shelley and her Last Man, writers have obsessed over what goes on in our
squirrelly minds when our normal surroundings and routines are blown to bits.
Seeing as stories can't exist without imagination, I understand this instinct.
But it also seems like kind of a copout: Why do authors need to strip away all
of society to figure out who people really are? For my money, it's a much
greater feat to make a reader hold her breath as Muriel Glass (the hapless wife
in J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories) paints her nails, ignoring the ringing phone.
Granted, the apocalypse
makes for a hell of a setting. Epic landscapes full of fire, craters, aliens, zombies,
abandoned buildings, the occasional bloodthirsty straggler left to fend for
himself. Ripe with possibility! Rife with symbolism! Relentlessly relentless! And
so, so, so played out. Give me a gorgeously drawn, wickedly insightful day in
the life of Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse or Zora Neale Hurston's Janie Crawford instead. Please.
With all due respect to Cormac
McCarthy and his countless disciples, I'd like to recommend
a selection of outstanding recent novels (and a handful of classics) that
tackle immediate human concerns, rather than hinging on unrestrained viruses or
Nostradamus-style prophecies. If you dive far enough into these imagined worlds,
you won't even notice the apocalypse raging outside.
Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, Lan Samantha Chang: Foibles and desires disrupt a
hallowed MFA program.
Know So Much, Elizabeth Crane: A hilarious, biting romp through
the psyche of a dysfunctional family.
100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared, Jonas Jonasson: Facing death from natural causes rather
than the end times, Allan Karlsson takes
his last adventure.
Home, Toni Morrison: The spare, masterful story of a
Korean War vet struggling to reconnect.
Shame and Love, Peter Orner: The finest chronicle since Bellow's of a
Chicago boy, born and raised.
Dundy: The original bumbling It Girl was ahead of her time.
See You Tomorrow, William
Maxwell: A tiny gem of a mystery set in 1920s rural Illinois.
A Dance to
the Music of Time, Anthony
Powell: Yes, all 12 volumes"”worth every lunch break.
Salinger: There are eight other capital tales, but you'll never forget Esme.
Herman Wouk: I reread Marjorie's feisty, moving life story at least once a