Apocalyptic Prose

Perhaps it is the grinding uncertainty of an election year (all too often causing partisan anxiety akin to a constant bloodletting), which spawns a slew of post-apocalyptic literature. Now, I haven’t studied the publishing patterns of prior election cycles—and considering print publishing lead times it is hard to imagine these companies coordinating their release schedules so competitively—nonetheless it does seem like the past year has brought us a number of well-reviewed novels focused on a world gone awry. I’ve read three of them:

Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, and Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars.

I didn’t begin the summer expecting to allocate much time to such uplifting fare, but as is often said, shit happens. In my case it started with Tom Perrotta and the Yale Writers’ Workshop: I’d applied, been accepted, and was further notified that I would be placed in Mr. Perrotta’s one-day, master class during the workshop—thrilling news given how much I enjoy his work. I bought a copy of The Leftovers, as much to have a nice clean copy of a Perrotta novel for his signature as for the fact that I hadn’t read it yet. He was asked during the master class session about his reaction to reviews and he noted a touch of discomfort with a recent review that compared The Leftovers (unfavorably, it seemed) to Karen Walker’s new novel. Nonetheless, he said that The Age of Miracles was a “cool” book. So I placed my order.

I read Tom’s novel first and I have to admit that I greatly admire his prose style. There is an elegance and flow to his sentences that always evokes the humor and emotions I so wish I could emulate. The Leftovers is no exception, but his usual humor seems to disappear early in the novel and we are left with the lurching uncertainty of his extensive cast of characters as they attempt to come to grips with a “rapture”-esque occurrence. The set-up was intriguing and I remained hooked to follow these people to the conclusion, but nonetheless felt that the ending fell short of the narrative revelation (pun intended) of his other works. Still, a good read.

The Age of Miracles was more problematic in my view. Tom was correct: it is a “cool” idea, if not the great book so many others have reviewed positively. The world’s rotation is slowing and that screws up everything. And I get that the perspective of an adolescent girl, more concerned with pre-teen angst and finding true love than the end of the world, is a neat viewpoint, but I kept waiting for something to happen! The grandfather dies, okay, but too late; and the lead-up to the boyfriend is endless and cloying, and his removal all too obvious. The prose is nonetheless exceptional, but like The Leftovers, I felt a great idea was not fully exploited.

The Dog Stars was altogether different: the apocalyptic event (virus wipes out most of humanity, most the survivors are quite nasty) is fairly mundane, especially compared to the other books discussed here, but the characters and story felt original and compelling—and stuff happens! Granted, this is more of a “guy” book than the others: planes, guns, survivalist tactics, and, yes, a hero dog (a hot love interest eventually as well), but the novel is no less filled with emotion and provocative themes; a quick read and thoroughly enjoyable, a hopeful ending, too.

All in all, three wonderfully different takes on the ever-popular concept of the end-of-the-world as we know it. I only wish that I believed the heroic clean-up from Hurrican Sandy, and the completion of the current election, might steer popular literature to imagined solutions for the world’s ills…but I don’t.

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