The End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

December 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

This is going to be a shorter note, because it’s the holidays and I’m writing this from a cramped laptop surrounded by far too much cheer.

I just finished reading Oryx and Crake, my first book by Margaret Atwood. Go ahead and pick your jaw up from the floor. No, please. I’ll wait, I’ve got time. I don’t know why I chose it over The Handmaid’s Tale or The Blind Assassin, except that Oryx and Crake is a story about the end of the world, which is the kind of story I find myself seeking out lately. Maybe I’m always seeking it out, I don’t know.

Suffice to say, I liked this book immensely. Atwood has a fullness of style that doesn’t particularly take up space, like it does with Iain M. Banks or George R.R. Martin, and it manifests best in a talent for bon mots that are heartbreaking in context while still being quotable out of it. The biggest stumbling block to my total enjoyment, besides Atwood’s penchant for conflating commercial branding with phonological butchery, was the premise of the novel itself, in fact.

It might just be a failing on my part. Atwood paints a fine picture of a world in decline, but regardless of what the picture actually was, I couldn’t help being more interested in the state of affairs afterward, once everything’s done bottoming out. Maybe it’s my natural pessimism, always a presence in whatever I’m thinking, or maybe it’s a sign of how much things have changed in the eleven and a half years since the publication of Oryx and Crake.

Sometimes, it seems like a sure thing that the world as we know it is ending someday soon. On Facebook, just a few days ago, I watched more than a few friends talk at length about having children and saving for retirement, an evergreen topic for people around the age of thirty. It was surprising, yet somehow not entirely unexpected, for me to see them all agreeing that these things seem impracticable when the problems they face today are only mounting in number and severity. How will you raise your children when the icecaps melt? What good is your Roth IRA in a police state? These are questions that are ridiculous to ask, at first blush, but still they weigh heavily on most people I know.

They aren’t the first to carry that weight, of course. One of the most evocative moments in medieval literature is from the twelfth-century Chronica sive Historia de duabus civitatibus by Bishop Otto of Freising, relative of several Holy Roman Emperors. Despite the power held by him and his family, he still wrote forlornly about the misery of living “at the end of time,” the point at which all the collective evils of humanity throughout the ages threaten at last to overwhelm the good done by Christ’s first (and so far, only) incarnation. There’s no way to know whether Otto persisted with such an apocalyptic attitude after he halted his writing in 1146 to participate in the disastrous Second Crusade, but if I had to guess, well…

It’s probably a universal vanity, for a given generation to think that the problems it faces are the ones that will make it the final generation ever to live. For Otto, life went on, although never free of trouble, and I don’t doubt that it will be the same with the friends of mine who look askance at parenthood and retirement. Myself, I see and hear so much about the end of the world that Oryx and Crake, for all its brilliance, didn’t really have anything to tell me about it. The glimpses of the aftermath were certainly tantalizing, but they weren’t what the novel was written to be about, and I found that just the slightest bit frustrating.

Maybe Atwood knows. Maybe she knew all along. After all, her novel stops right as the plot catches up to the “present day” laid out at the beginning. She spends her sweet time recounting every step that humanity takes towards the brink and then leaves her readers hanging there, after they’ve spent the whole story wondering what could possibly have survived the fall. Maybe what she wants me to see, along with all her other readers, is that the post-apocalypse is really the foregone conclusion, hence that the apocalypse leading to it is what is of interest to us. Maybe what our disaster-obsessed society needs, like every disaster-obsessed society, is another story about disasters, but this time one that’s smart and thorough, to keep us from from getting too carried away. Well, it’s a thought, isn’t it?

Or maybe the post-apocalypse is in her next book, The Year of the Flood. No, probably not, but I can’t wait to read it when I get back home anyway!

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