Friday Column: The End of the World

Earlier this week I commented on how much I enjoyed Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital. Reading that book, a realist telling of the end of the world via a neo-biblical flood, got me thinking about other recent, notable novels that have dealt with the end of the world.

coverThe first one to cross my mind was Cormac McCarthy’s most recent novel, The Road. Critics have had mixed reactions to many of McCarthy’s previous novels, but there seems to be an overwhelmingly positive response to this one. This gushing first sentence from The Guardian’s review is typical: "Cormac McCarthy’s other nine novels could be cast as rungs, with The Road as a pinnacle."

Critics were also unified in naming this perhaps the most violent novel from an author who’s not exactly known for writing about pretty white bunny rabbits. The end of the world is just the beginning. After the apocalypse, a man and his son wander a world of earthquakes, firestorms, and malicious, senseless violence. So horrible is this world that the father–sick and coughing up blood–plans to shoot his son if it so much as appears that they’re going to be caught by any of the marauding gangs.

So why would anyone go on in this hell? The father tells the son "My job is to take care of you. I was appointed by God to do that." That’s a reason. There’s also intimations that the son is a Jesus-like prophet. Perhaps when they get where they’re going it will turn out the world has a chance. Or, given McCarthy’s reputation, maybe not.

I find premises like this hopelessly intriguing, but I usually stop myself before I start reading because–let’s face it–books like this tend to stink. However, I think I’m going to read this one. I’m partly convinced to read The Road because of the almost-universal positive reaction, but more because of what the critics have had to say about the prose. It’s been described as nothing short of divine.

But what propels The Road far beyond its progenitors are the diverted poetic heights of McCarthy’s late-English prose; the simple declamation and plainsong of his rendered dialect, as perfect as early Hemingway; and the adamantine surety and utter aptness of every chiselled description. As has been said before, McCarthy is worthy of his biblical themes, and with some deeply nuanced paragraphs retriggering verbs and nouns that are surprising and delightful to the ear, Shakespeare is evoked. The way McCarthy sails close to the prose of late Beckett is also remarkable; the novel proceeds in Beckett-like, varied paragraphs.

coverPerhaps the only thing that David Markson’s masterful Wittgenstein’s Mistress has in common with The Road is its austerity of language. The book is composed almost entirely of short declarative sentences separated into individual paragraphs. (There are a few instances of two sentences in a row). Sometimes these sentences read like koans, and sometimes they’re just the prosaic detritus of someone’s mind. All of them have been typed out by a woman who presumes herself to be the last person on earth.

Unlike McCarthy, Markson doesn’t waste even a moment on how or why the world ends. This book is entirely about the unnamed, titular woman typing out these sentences. On one level it’s a brilliant evocation of her isolation; brilliant because it’s next to impossible to express deep feeling in the narrative situation that Markson has set up–you try creating pathos with sentences like "I found a book about Beethoven." Michael Silverblatt, in conversation with David Foster Wallace summed it up:

What we like about it is its mixture of extraordinary intelligence and, at the same time, sadness. And the intelligence in it is really swallowed by a narrative situation that wants to compress it and make it nearly impossible to express. So that the book alternates between weeping, really, and extraordinary observation.

And later, DFW adds:

You’re talking about an effaced narrator where it’s not a literary choice, but it’s in fact a truth. And, except for very rare, transcendent pieces of fiction, I haven’t seen that done anywhere except spiritual and religious literature. Or, you know, at the end of Wittgenstein’s "Tractatus." I mean, you’re talking about the sort of thing that an absolute genius — I mean, a Mozart of living — comes up with after decades of effort.

I think Wallace is right to bring up the Tractatus, because in this book is pursuing a very Wittgensteinian subtext. Markson’s book captures the feel for how memory works (reading the sentences feels like someone running through her thoughts), and is also embodies the idea that language is all we have–the entire world of Wittgenstein’s Mistress consists of the sentences that run through the narrator’s mind. In one sense, these sentences are entirely real–someone is thinking them, after all–but in another sense, they’re very unbelievable: is the narrator really the only person left on earth? Doubtful. In pondering the truth of these sentences as thoughts versus the truth of them as descriptions of the world, Markson has written a book whose title, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, is very appropriate.

One of the things I like best about this book is how understated it is. Markson builds great depth without ever really pointing anything out. As I wrote previously in this blog

it would be difficult to read Markson’s sentences (especially the careful juxtapositions he has worked in) and not come away with a sense of the language games he is playing.

In a certain way, I think Wittgenstein’s Mistress is kind of a complimentary volume to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. Like Markson’s book, the Tractatus is a philosophical book about language that consists of a number of sentence-long paragraphs (Wittgenstein even numbers them for us). Also like Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a lot of the philosophy in the Tractatus is unsaid. This is because Wittgenstein was well aware of the limits of language–some concepts can’t be expounded upon, but only implied–and he wrote his book in that spirit.

coverAnother end of the world book that is very highly interpretable is Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. This book stands out as being one of the strangest novels from a writer who tends to be known for writing strange novels.

The book has intertwined narratives that are told in alternating chapters. The first one concerns a 35-year-old Japanese man who is a sort of freelance mathematician. He underwent an operation that changed the composition of his brain so that he could put himself into a trance-like state where performs complex calculations incredibly rapidly (presumably, these are of the type that a computer couldn’t handle). One day he’s called to an office. After a minutes-long elevator ride he is placed into a dark closet that opens onto a ladder. He climbs several stories down into a subterranean cave where he finds a kooky old professor working on a project called "The End of the World." He gives the mathematician a unicorn’s skull and an assignment, telling him that if he doesn’t receive the results by Monday the world will end. The world doesn’t end, but eventually it turns out that the mathematician’s consciousness is also at risk–if he doesn’t get help from the old professor, he’ll forever be trapped within a sub-community that’s formed within his own mind.

That sounds like enough on its own, but we’re not even in the second narrative yet. This narrative takes place in a sort of medieval gated town called The End of the World. A man has just been let into the town, which is more like a grand prison controlled by The Gatekeeper than an actual city. The newest prisoner learns that residents of this town have had their memories stolen, and that soon his will be taken too if he doesn’t find some way to escape.

There are several links between these narratives–both protagonists are in danger of having their consciousness stolen, the unicorn’s skulls figure prominently into both narratives, and, of course, there’s that pregnant phrase "the end of the world" which we find at the heart of both narratives. The typical interpretation of this book is that the community called The End of the World is inside the narrator’s head, and that it explains what happens to him after he loses his consciousness. But, this is only the most basic interpretation–there are many other, much more nuanced ones. Murakami excels in creating fantastic stories that support an unusually large number of interpretations, and this novel is no slouch in that respect.

Another end of the world novel that I’ve enjoyed is Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things. It strikes me a very similar to McCarthy’s book, as it’s a sort of open-ended quest novel where humankind is plundering through the remaining products of capitalism (hence the "last things" in the title). Even though it’s a very dystopian novel about a world where death comes swiftly and mercilessly, I’d still say Auster’s world is far more merciful than McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic horror.

There are other books that have mined the end of the world: There’s Kate Atkinson’s collection of short stories, Not the End of the World, where people ignore things like biblical floods, catastrophic explosions, etc. There’s also Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island the story of humans in a sort of post-sex post-apocalyptic dystopian.

I think that Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Hard-Boiled Wonderland, The Children’s Hospital, and In the Country of Last Things (the ones I’ve read) can all be considered successful examples of the "end of the world" genre because, paradoxically, they’re not overly concerned with the end of the world. The typical stuff of novels–plot and characters–take center stage here. The apocalypse is treated as nothing more than background.

By contrast, I think Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, about a group of Australians who are the only ones to survive a nuclear holocaust, doesn’t work as literature because it’s overly concerned with demonstrating the horrors of nuclear war. It’s a good read, but Shute is too concerned with wringing melodrama from his characters to show the world that it really shouldn’t push the button. It gives in to the temptation that I think ruins a lot of authors that try to write about the apocalypse: the temptation to tell us what the end of the world–such a weighty subject–means. Novels tend to be at their worst when they’re telling us what something means, and Shute’s attempt to pass along a moral ruins his story.

Authors of apocalypse novels succeed when they use the end of the world as a singular concept that they can build interesting plots and characters around. In doing this, I think these books are doing exactly what any good book does. The books I like best are not the ones that have the most sensational story, but the ones that manipulate their premise in the most interesting ways. The authors of my favorite books think about how their premises let them build unique characters and structures; they find the most creative ways to get the most out of whatever premise they choose. So even though the apocalypse in literature is a very tired concept by now, I think these books prove that what’s important isn’t how original the premise is, but rather what’s done with it.

As I was reflecting on The Children’s Hospital, where a children’s hospital is the only thing that survives the flood, I asked myself, Why a children’s hospital? In trying to answer that question, I thought about how the novel would have been different if other things were spared. What if, instead, Adrian spared Congress, with all 535 representatives? What if he spared a law school? A baseball stadium in the midst of a game? If Adrian has chosen anything besides a children’s hospital, his book would have been drastically different. With that much diversity available within a relatively constrained plot, I’m convinced that the whole of the apocalypse has many, many more novels left in it, not in the least since people are always finding new and better ways to destroy this world that we live in.

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I just picked up The Road the other day and am hoping to get to it soon. I really can’t pass up anything by McCarthy.

Just to say thank you for this, Scott. I have a colleague working on end of the world fiction and this is an extremely informative post that I will be passing on to her.

Going back some years, Kate Wilhelm’s “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang”, David Brin’s “The Postman”(Best book ever ruined by a bad movie) Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” all great books about surviving the end of the world.

Let us not forget Russel Hoban’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece “Riddley Walker”. It’s shamefully a little-read book; Hoban is mostly known for his children’s books like “Bread & Jam For Francis”. “Walker”, set a thousand years after the human race is nearly obliterated from nuclear war, and written entirely in a language of Hoban’s invention, is an extraordinary book should not be left off of any End of the World reading list!

What if, instead, Adrian spared Congress, with all 535 representatives?
Adrian would then be asking too much of the reader, to believe not a single member of congress was absent!

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