31 October 2012

The End, The End, The End

Why bother dreaming up a devastated world when you live in one?

In honor of Hurricane Sandy, we are re-posting this essay from Issue 6 (Fall 2007).

The post-catastrophic novel began with Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), in which a plague kills most of humanity and provokes incessant warfare. Plague remains the triggering calamity in much post-catastrophe fiction up through the Manhattan Project; even as late as George Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949), plague rather than nuclear war is the problem. But between the invention of James Watt’s coal-fired steam engine in 1784 and the start of the Cold War, the most haunting sci-fi visions were not visions of the end of the world. They were visions—in dystopian novels like We, Brave New World, and 1984—of the consolidation of technological civilization into a system of total social control. Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell did not imagine a time when the boots stamping on human faces could no longer be industrially manufactured, so that people would return to smashing one another’s faces the old-fashioned way, with stones. The bombing of Hiroshima revived this notion of a reduced, brutally simplified future; and from Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957) to Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro (1985), through many novels in between, the idea of a future more primitive than the past ran alongside the idea of a future ever more technologically advanced.

It remains the method of most sci-fi novels to imagine a kind of heightened present, combining and extrapolating extant technologies (an MP3 player … in your brain!) to demonstrate their psychological and political effects. The post-catastrophe novel does the opposite; it takes away the MP3 player, and almost everything else. It liberates the violent potential of technology (and its enemy, nature) to create an altered world whose chief characteristic is a bewildering lack of technology. This in turn means a severely winnowed human population, and plenty of hardship and casual brutality. This future doesn’t intensify the present moment, it contradicts it: What would happen if we didn’t live in an overpopulated, technology-saturated world in which travel by foot is considered eccentric, tacos cost forty-nine cents, and the prerogative to commit violence—despite an amazing profusion of handheld weaponry—lies entirely with the state?

We didn’t always live in this kind of world. Or rather, we always did, but not long ago even Americans and Western Europeans didn’t. They lived in the 19th century, before the full flowering of the petroleum age; they belong to history. So too, increasingly, do the residents of the 20th century, with their reliance on cheap oil and predictable climate patterns. The century just ended was full of anxiety and terror, but it was also a pampered time. Even while tens of millions were murdered by oil-driven technologies like incendiary bombs and gas chambers, other oil-dependent technologies like tractors, penicillin, and nitrogen fertilizers enabled the population to quadruple in a few generations, and produced unprecedented comfort and ease for unprecedentedly large numbers of people. Now we’ve burned half the available oil, or close to it, and burning it (along with so much coal) has altered the earth’s equilibrium. Our future, like our past, may be virtually free of oil, and global culture, and many of the social safeguards we enjoy. Thus the novel of future catastrophe threatens to become a version of the historical novel.


At the beginning of Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown, a busload of armed sojourners depart Manhattan as the Chrysler Building crumples to the ground. At home, Manhattan is locked in a mutually debilitating resource war with Brooklyn. Beyond the boroughs, war and environmental collapse have produced a rather incoherent semi-annihilated world in which “the ocean is a toxic vat of death” and wireless handheld devices are scarce but still get service. The Manhattanites are headed out in search of oil, and their ill-planned trip takes them south to a strange settlement in Virginia populated by a violent, charismatic, and more or less thriving tribe of “Indians,” who, it turns out, are actually a multiethnic crew who have adopted the folkways of American Indians in order to survive. Their red-looking skin is due to the clay-ey SPF90 stuff they slather on themselves to ward off the ever-hotter sun. The most charismatic of the Indians is a girl named Pocahontas; the Manhattanite’s eventual leader is named John Smith. The future is the past.

Jamestown is, basically, a long, caricatured gloss on one character’s statement that “Nothing since the start of time has stopped men from killing each other. Art, though sometimes nice, has always been perfectly useless against war.” Violence in Jamestown is constant, casual, and joyful; there’s not much plot, but there are plenty of sucker punches and stabbings. The Manhattanites barely reach Delaware before they start cutting each other up for the heck of it, and their adversaries, the Indians, are even more deadly. Indian foreplay consists of a wife knocking her husband off a ten-foot ladder, kneeing him in the ribs, and shoving a piece of metal up his ass until he comes, whereupon they move on to tender missionary sex. The book’s most vicious character, John Martin, gets hacked up bit by bit until he’s a legless stump with an arrow sticking through his head; he’s the one who gets Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the best-looking white girl in the end. Rape is a tool of war; a good blow job is diplomacy. Guys bugger other guys without permission; often the buggered guys don’t mind. Somehow there’s no pain in Jamestown, amid the casual sex and slaughter. The demise of the state monopoly on violence has liberated extraordinary quantities of erotic and aggressive energy.

Jamestown takes as its stated premise the identity of past and future, but can’t find its way out the present. The best parts of the book, having to do with the relationship between Pocahontas and Johnny Rolfe, demonstrate what it’s like to conduct a complex flirtation by text message. Insofar as Jamestown sets itself in an ecologically annihilated world, and occasionally issues glib and clever proclamations about this annihilation (“What would you say was the chief cause of the end of civ?” “Airplanes.” “And its pinnacle?” “Airplanes.”), it tries to gather to itself a false gravitas of subject matter. You can’t read Jamestown to figure out what our common future will look like, anymore than you can read it to figure out what Jamestown colony looked like in 1607. Nor does it suggest to you what that future will feel like, the way that twenty years ago White Noise and The Names might have seemed premonitions of 2001. Jamestown‘s historical inspiration and its postcatastrophic setting turn out to be trivial. Sharpe’s Pocahontas nimbly quotes the Velvet Underground and Wallace Stevens, just like any girl (or boy) you wish you’d known in college.


You might say that Jamestown is honest enough to acknowledge the impossibility of its task: describing a future we can only know once we get there. In fact, only one fiction writer has taken it upon himself to scenario-plan our disastrous future: James Howard Kunstler, who’s written seven novels but is better known for The Long Emergency (2004), a nonfiction work about peak oil and its aftereffects. Toward the end of that book, Kunstler considers the regions of the US one by one and evaluates their chances of surviving the end of the petroleum era. The South is in trouble because you have to drive everywhere, but there won’t be any cars, plus the people are racially antagonistic and well-armed; the Southwest is in trouble because there won’t be any water for crops and drinking, or cheap energy to run the air-conditioning; et cetera. Small main-street towns in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, Kunstler argues, have the best chance of sustaining a compromised but functioning society— ungodly hot, due to global warming, but still livable. These communities have good soil and some vague memory of how to use it, as well as the remnants of a compact pre-oil infrastructure. Plus they lie far from the major cities—which in Kunstler’s analysis are sure to collapse—and so will be difficult for the rioting urban hordes to reach after the gas pumps dry up.

In World Made by Hand, Kunstler puts this scenario into a novel. It’s 2040 or there-abouts, and depleted oil supplies have cast the world into anarchy. Nuclear bombs have struck Washington DC and Los Angeles— and maybe other places, too, but it’s hard to tell without the internet, TV, phones, or a newspaper. The American government has no functional authority; whatever’s left of it is rumored to be holed up in whatever’s left of Minneapolis. You can’t make antibiotics without machines and so flu and other diseases have killed millions, or maybe billions.

Kunstler is less interested in the background horrors of this world than he is in what kind of society (and sex life) might be reconstituted in the aftermath. Thus the book is set in the most idyllic place possible, a small community in upstate New York called Union Grove which, after surviving the first terrible spasms of the petroleum crash, has established a tenuous new routine of life, based on a 19th-century, pre-electric model. More than half the locals have died; those who remain garden, mostly, and fish—the trout are flourishing—and keep chickens and rabbits. Horses are the way to get around, but there aren’t many horses. You make rose-hip tea for your Vitamin C; make fiddle strings out of sheep intestines; make paint out of slaked lime, milk, and chalk. People smoke a lot of pot; it and opium and whiskey are the only anesthetics. Surgery is primitive, though it helps to have an operating table. Some things worth knowing: spelt is immune to rust disease; sweet woodruff is good for flavoring wine. The book is an impressively schematic work of science fiction, designed to describe how future technologies will affect society and psychology; for Kunstler, the oil peakist, our future technologies are those of Thoreau.

The townspeople of Union Grove proper are surrounded by three other representative communities: Wayne Karp’s white-trash crew runs the town dump, a vital trade center now that metals and plastics can only be had secondhand. They’ve adopted a “tribal” lifestyle of campfires and matching tattoos, and they show their lack of couth by performing Nirvana and Metallica instead of old folk songs, and also by spinning the narrator’s best friend on a wooden wheel (“the Glory Wheel”) and beating his bare ass with a variety of phallic implements. (Torture by wheel evidently enjoys a revival in the future: it plays a prominent role in the post-global warming portion of Will Self’s The Book of Dave.) Stephen Bullock, whose wife is hot and went to Brown, heads up another community; his large farm is a productive estate worked by volunteer serfs. Then there are Brother Jobe’s New Faithers, a religious group that moves into the local high school after fleeing race wars and nuclear fallout in Virginia and Pennsylvania. The New Faithers seem off-puttingly pious at first, but they drink a lot, tell bad jokes, and are skilled with horses and guns. If you need to assassinate a petty warlord, liberate an abused donkey, or repair your ailing freshwater system, they’re your holy men. In an ungoverned, unpoliced world, religion casts off some of its dogmatic irrelevance, and resumes duties it has long since abandoned to the state.

One criticism leveled at The Long Emergency was that Kunstler, despite his protestations to the contrary, seemed to be predicting the end of everything with a kind of kicky glee. And indeed in World Made by Hand it’s hard not to notice that nobody fares better than the Kunstlerian narrator-hero, a widowed ex-capitalist (“I was multitasking so hard, I had panic attacks”) who, without remorse or apology, is sleeping with his best friend’s wife (“a beautiful woman, with deep breasts, a slim waist, and a small behind”). Our hero also saves a lovely young widow from her burning house, gets acclaimed mayor, and goes on a rescue mission to Albany during which he gets to ride a horse (fun) and shoot a man (troubling but fun); then he heads home and—after resisting the charms of the most charming young New Faith maiden, having sex with his best friend’s wife one last time in a meadow (“I left her there under the plum tree”), and needlessly filling us in on one other past affair—shacks up for good with the lovely young widow (“all wetness, all youth”) he saved from the burning house (“She was both tough and tender and brought me home to myself”). You can’t miss the pleasure taken in all of this—a middle-aged man of intellect and mettle, it seems, can fare pretty well in the sexual economy of the long emergency. And the food is good, too.

Apart from this wishful string of liaisons, though, there are sound reasons for Kunstler to set his book in a future where a wide range of sensual pleasures and pains is still available—because in all probability a wide range will be available, no matter how bad the catastrophes. Though the book is badly written, and characters’ emotions are usually described in a clichéd shorthand (see above), still Kunstler’s thoroughgoing reinvention of post-catastrophic social complexity gives his work an emotional weight missing from, for instance, Sharpe’s book, where the worst atrocities are only jokes.

Peak oil may or may not be the worst of our medium-term worries, and the world of 2040 may or may not resemble what Kunstler describes. But the round of pastoral war-games that is World Made by Hand proposes what feels like a plausible future, one which resembles a mixture of 19th-century New England (in its farming techniques and social arrangements) and the Wild West of the same period (in its lawlessness and uncertainty). What’s scary are not the jihadic bombs and the raging epidemics—these things are woodenly described—but the fear of contaminated water, the thought of a root canal without anesthesia, and the constant threat of being killed by some jerk who knows he won’t go to jail because there isn’t one. Kunstler’s schematic but socially complex future serves as pretty good history; you can read it to feel the terrors that befell Americans before cheap oil, and maybe after.


Because the post-catastrophe novel looks to the past, all of the major dangers of the historical novel are easily imported into its pages. Jamestown gave a partial illustration of the first danger—the false gravitas of subject matter. Thus the writer announces his seriousness by invoking the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Civil War, or the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Whether or not the approach is serious, the subject certainly is.

Many novels from now on may do the same with regard to the future: they will lay claim to significance not by invoking the touchstone events of the past, but by invoking the crises of the future. At the moment, we can see this happening most clearly in British novels, perhaps because global warming has been a public concern in Britain for several years—long enough to conceive, write, edit, print, and promote a novel. Thus we get a book like Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse, whose jacket copy promises “an America of the future”: “Once the safest, most prosperous place on earth, the United States is now a lawless, scantly populated wasteland. The machines have stopped. The government has collapsed. Farmlands lie fallow and the soil is contaminated by toxins.” Unlike Kunstler, Crace can’t begin to conceive of the practical ramifications of any of this. The Pesthouse begins well enough, with a moody opening section in which a landslide tumbles into a hillside lake, causing the lake to disgorge a bellow of gas that settles over the town below, asphyxiating the residents and their livestock while they sleep. Crace doesn’t name the offending gas, but a nearly identical disaster at Lake Nyos in Cameroon in 1986, killing 1,700 people and twice as many animals, and so the reader knows the culprit is carbon dioxide— a sly, macabre fable for the global-warming era. From there, though, the book devolves into an incoherent YA fairy tale that no young adult would want to read: “This fertile valley, of which it used to be boasted that you had only to flick a booger on the ground for a mushroom to grow overnight…” Crace seems most invested in his future world when it permits him to describe an unlikely sect of “Finger Baptists” whose theology forbids them the use of their hands. They are thus bathed, fed, and masturbated by willing young women who don’t seem to question why, in a world of radical scarcity, a bunch of guys who refuse to lift a finger should be revered.

Will Self’s The Book of Dave suffers, if only half the time, from the same problem of seeming largely fashioned out of the novelist’s auto-erotic daydreams. The book alternates between contemporary London, where it tracks the marriage and divorce, psychological collapse and partial redemption of a bitter cabbie named Dave, and a flooded-by-global-warming future in which an unhinged screed Dave buried in his ex-wife’s yard has been unearthed and elevated to gospel. Self, like Sharpe, writes an assured and rhythmic prose, and some of the present-day sections succeed in evoking the full gray weight of an intransigent, car-dominated London that has little to do but collapse. The sections set in the future, on the other hand, devolve into a combination of cheap religious satire and puerile fantasy. Self loves words like “cockslip” and “tittyrub,” and he never misses the chance to toss in a sexual or eliminatory function. Critics of the regime don’t just get spun on the wheel and disemboweled—they get spun on the wheel, disemboweled, and then get their genitals cut off and shoved into their mouths. This could partake of the Rabelaisan tradition, but not when the interminable quest plot is so silly and childish. The futures evoked by Crace and Self seem to belong mostly to the authors’ prelingual fixations. And the function of their devastated worlds is only to wrap this stuff in “significance.”


If one distinguishing problem of both the historical and the futuristic novel is the temptation toward fake gravitas, another is that of voice. Rather than confronting English as it exists, writers of historical novels often take refuge in an antiquated diction and syntax, whether from the 1970s or the 1830s. This old-fashionedness is perceived to be literary. Actually old words are cloaks beneath which the writer can smuggle outmoded ways of feeling and a regressive nostalgia for them. The language we hear and read every day is multivalent and messy; so are our moral and political situations, and the resulting emotional states. Tidy up the language, as historical novelists are prone to do, and everything else—morality, politics, emotion—tends to get tidied up, too, as if the past truly were a simpler time.

The post-catastrophic novelist can fall into this historical novelist’s trap. So in The Pesthouse people drink “flagons” of apple juice and eat “gobbets” of honey, recalling a lyrical pre-industrial language that hardly existed in the first place. Kunstler’s futurology, too, has a slightly musty odor; both characters and narrator use a down-home country diction which, the occasional reference to Nirvana notwithstanding, belongs to a pastiche of the “regional” novel of the 1920s. The danger, again, is nostalgia for a “simpler” past—and a simpler future. In a way, though, Kunstler and Crace are right, if only sort of and accidentally: language and technology comprise a single system, and the way people talk in the ecologically devastated, post-oil future will be different from how we talk today. Yet if there are places where life gets reconstituted on a 19th-century smallholders’ model, this will nevertheless be done with a scrambled memory of the early 21st century; and in fact the language we speak in the present day may be our most durable possession, since speech doesn’t require technology to be transferred and preserved. The way we talk now will be combined, over the next fifty years, with new expressions called into being by new states of feeling, as we learn that our dreams of the earth’s infinitude were only that. What will the language of the future be like? Not like pastiched Steinbeck, or Excalibur.

In the most distinguished of the new post-catastrophic novels, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, hardly anybody speaks at all, and if they do they say, sullenly, “Okay.” McCarthy used to look to the American past to find a bloodthirsty tribal world in which aggression and domination weren’t routed through diffuse social and technical systems, but got carved into the bodies of men by other men. It has always seemed that his style would explode on contact with a board meeting or microwave oven. In The Road, he finds his anti-modern material, for the first time, in the American future. It’s impossible to say what prompted this shift, but one suspects the aerial attack of 9/11 had something to do with it. The Road‘s motivating catastrophe is of the old-school variety—all-out nuclear war, to which McCarthy devotes just one of the book’s terse sections:

The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didnt answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and then turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand. What is it? she said. What is happening?

I dont know.

Why are you taking a bath.

I’m not.

The drunk-Faulknerian indulgence of Blood Meridian has been replaced by the spare prose of the Hemingway hero who always knows exactly what to do with his hands—in this case, secure a supply of fresh water. This “he” is the kind of man capable of surviving ten or so years after the blasts, and so he does. When the narrative begins, every living thing that isn’t human has died in the meantime, and the ambient soot of nuclear winter dims the sun. The wife has committed suicide; their son has become a frail blonde boy who can almost be forgiven his thoroughgoing humorlessness, since he’s starving to death and has never known anything but a ruined, contaminated world. His dad is basically the same way. The main sources of food in McCarthy’s post-catastrophe are scavenged canned goods and human flesh; the man and his son depend on the former. They are traveling south through the eastern US toward the sea, less because there’s anything there (the sea is dead, too), than because they need a destination, and because a long voyage—as also in Sharpe, Kunstler, Self, and Crace—seems to be an indispensable feature of the new post-catastrophic novel. The Road‘s other survivors have mostly survived by joining cannibal gangs.

The morality of father and son is that they don’t eat people; their mythology is that they are “carrying the flame.” They don’t tell stories about the old days or fantasize about the new. They possess endless ingenuity but lack imagination—so much so that, even given the circumstances, the son’s morose literalness seems impossible. Wouldn’t even the sickliest uneducated 9-year-old project some elaborate private logic onto a vacant world? And yet the book might be weaker if father and son ever took their eyes off the road. Relentlessness is the point. And the road itself, unlike those that wind through the other post-catastrophic novels, is recognizably one of our own: tarred and sooty and sad, littered with jack-knifed semis, lined with peeling billboards and service stations. Father and son hungrily scavenge drops of motor oil from a drum of plastic quart bottles to light their lamp (or “slutlamp,” as McCarthy can’t resist calling it)—they’re the last of Petroleum Man.

McCarthy’s end of the world is also a version of the end of the novel. And it is the best of the recent post-catastrophe novels because it brings its poverty of novelistic means in line with its vision of a radically impoverished world. McCarthy shows us a future in which the end of nature spells the end of art, character, conversation, politics, and social complexity—all the things that make the novel possible and necessary. He defends the world we know by giving us none of it.


The end of the novel has been prophesied for a long time, and the prophecies have usually come in one of two varieties. There is the formalist end of the novel, in which the novel exhausts itself by running out of new techniques or subject matter. And there is the technofantasist end of the novel, in which an interactive, image-based culture destroys the capacity for patient reading. Post-catastrophe novels remind us that the end of the novel may come about another way.

The novel, after all, is one of our modern industrial technologies, bound up with all the rest. This is true in a thousand trivial, if world-destroying, ways; novels are printed on pulped trees, and after they’re printed they get shipped via oil-burning planes and trucks to the Barnes & Nobles near our homes—except Amazon is cheaper, especially with SuperSaver shipping, and so another set of vehicles delivers the book from Amazon, while the unsold books at Barnes & Noble are shipped back to a warehouse to be marked as remainders, and shipped out again, and so on. The book business is like the rest of our businesses—global, profligate, and controlled by a small and still-consolidating group of conglomerates. You can distribute your work on the internet, sure—but then there’s the ecological cost of making a MacBook, and the fact that no one will read you.

To what extent is the bulky, unmemorizable novel (as compared to the portability of poems, or the locality of theater) an oil-dependent technology—an ambitious expansionist form for an ambitious expansionist system? The “American Social Novel” arose as a strategic retaliation against American society—the inhumane industrial city, and then the inhumane suburbs. America was big, and so the American Social Novel had to be big. It partook in a kind of arms race, an escalation. Novelists wanted (and want) the novel to continue to matter, in a way it maybe never did, and so the novel scaled up and globalized. In many ways the secret desire of the novelist, so dirty and so noble at the same time—the desire to “matter”—is similar to the imperial dream of Barnes & Noble, because it takes a Barnes & Noble in every shopping center to get the novelist’s novel into readers’ hands. The novelist comprehends the irresponsible, destructive, global world, and rages at it; his rage is as big as the system he wants to dismantle. To change that system he needs something that only that system can achieve—perfect distribution.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 served to remind us of the fragility of American society, which has existed for only a few human lifetimes and could indeed disappear, as McCarthy has it, in a single “shear of light.” Since 2001, our understanding of this fragility has taken an ecological turn, as the first effects of global warming (hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, extinctions) and increasing fears that we’ll soon pass the maximum rate of oil extraction make clear how dependent we are on cheap fuel and stable weather that are steadily vanishing. Our consumption of nature accelerates alongside our awareness of the consequences of that consumption, and the ambient sense of danger Kunstler, Sharpe, and McCarthy latch onto is not going to go away. In the next few years we will surely read more novels set in a disastrously diminished future; we will also read many novels in which cherry trees mysteriously blossom in January, and characters remark in ironic passing on the inscrutable weather. There won’t be anything wrong with this, though as with treatment of any de rigueur topic, it will often smack of dutifulness and opportunism.

The problem with the post-catastrophic novel, in the end, is that it enforces a false distinction between what is and what will be; between what we’re doing and what we might someday do. Why bother dreaming up a devastated world when you live in one? A possible posterity has always hedged the novelist’s hopes; he consoles himself for his lack of money and political power by imagining his future readers. But that future readership depends on an elaborate system of production and distribution that subsequent generations may not enjoy. The only time the novel can count on is now, and the catastrophes that need describing are neither exotic nor hypothetical.

Image: From The Road (2009).

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