It’s the end of the world as we know it…and the publishing industry has caught on.
Though post-apocalyptic literature dates back at least as far as Mary Shelley’s 1826 The Last Man, there is no denying an unusual abundance of doom and destruction in contemporary fiction.
Previously relegated to the back of the bookstore with the other “impossible” stuff of sci-fi, the end of the world suddenly became literary when Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—a devastatingly-written nightmare about a father and son traversing an unrecognizable America—won both the 2007 Pulitzer Prize and Oprah’s approval. Similarly, Margaret Atwood received critical acclaim for her MaddAddam trilogy, which was completed in 2013; and, in 2014, Man Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson took on the genre with his novel J, in which the world-changing cataclysm is referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. There’s also Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, Max Brook’s World War Z, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One….and, while I’m at it, a host of runaway YA hits, including The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner. All of these have been published since the dawn of the new millennium—in tandem, it would appear, with our growing awareness that such apocalyptic scenarios may be more than speculative.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this trend, however, has been how many of these books are not, in fact, about the end-of-the-world’s last man—but instead, its last woman. As we contemplate, as a culture, not only how to survive the end of the world but whether such survival would even be worthwhile, we seem to be turning increasingly to women to help us decide. Edan Lepucki’s California, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Laura van den Berg’s Find Me, Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star, and Claire Vaye Watkins’ soon-to-be-released Gold Fame Citrus all revolve around women who have weathered disease, drought, disaster, governmental collapse, loss of family and friends…but continue to seek a future worth fighting for.
Each of these books offers different reasons why the world, or at least its inhabitants, should carry on despite devastation. For Frida of California and Luz of Gold Fame Citrus, the arrival of children worth caring for triggers the search for somewhere safe to raise the next generation. In Station Eleven, a troupe of actors devote themselves to bringing art into the lives of those who remain after the apocalypse—because, as they have painted across their wagon, “survival is insufficient.” The Country of Ice Cream Star uses fractured prose to make tangible on the page a broken world in which no one lives past twenty, and the future is something all children know they won’t grow up to see: “We was so proud, we was ridiculous as wild animals, but we was bell and strong.” And in Find Me, questions of memory—of who and what can or should be forgotten—shape the story of a woman named Joy whose life has fallen, so far, rather short of joyous, but who embarks on a journey in search of something more.
[bctt tweet=”All of these women confront misadventure in perhaps the most dire sense of the term…”]
All of these women confront misadventure in perhaps the most dire sense of the term—“bad luck, misfortune, a mishap,” as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary. But they also encounter misadventure in this magazine’s sense of the word: they are challenged to take risks, to overcome incredible odds, to be brave in spite of themselves, to rise to the occasion of adventure, even if they didn’t ask for it. They don’t necessarily offer inspiration, or even much guidance, but then, why should they? Like us (despite being fictional characters) they are real, everyday women, still wrestling with the small stuff even as they face the calamitous, proving to themselves what they are capable of accomplishing, of fighting for, in worlds that fight back just as hard….worlds, when you think about, not unlike our own, apocalypse aside.
California, by Edan Lepucki
Frida and Cal, the couple at the center of California, talk like you and me might, if we had fled apocalyptic L.A. to seek shelter in the wilderness while the world descends into a dystopic nightmare. This zippy dialogue, combined with a page-turning plot, makes for an engaging read, but the book falls prey toward the end to what I call “Post-Apocalypse False Prophet” Syndrome. That said, the discordant, dissatisfying note it strikes in its final chapter is just right for a book interrogating what sorts of choices we make about how to cope (or not cope) with the end of the world.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
A finalist for the National Book Award, this post-apocalyptic novel is unusual in that it chooses hardly to focus on the apocalypse at all (a deadly flu epidemic, in this case) but instead delves into its aftermath, long after the flu has subsided. A few stragglers survive in isolated cities, and the book features a traveling theater troupe who perform Shakespeare for these communities. As they make their way slowly around Lake Michigan, the group reminisces about such ancient artifacts as air conditioning and the little light that turns on when you open up a refrigerator—or, at least, Kirsten thinks that might have been the case; she was eight when the flu came, and can’t really remember. Though sentimental at times (and also featuring a minor case of PAFP Syndrome) this book is unique in the way it unpacks what makes us human—not, as in many other post-apocalypse novels, the biological drive to survive, but instead, our love of and need for art: everything from theater to film to comic books to tattoos to the stars.
Find Me, Laura van den Berg
It might even be unfair to call this book post-apocalyptic when its pandemic remains so decidedly in the background, in favor of focusing on Joy and her individual struggle to be found—by her biological mother, and also herself. “Imagine a world where you can go to a store and pick out a new person to be,” she muses. Though the second half of the book (in which she seeks out the woman she believes to be her mother, and in doing so crisscrosses an eerie, changed America) is less tightly-plotted than the beginning, Joy’s decision to make herself be found, rather than wait for someone to find her, is strikingly misadventurous.
The Country of Ice Cream Star, Sandra Newman
Not for those who don’t want to decipher apocalyptic prose, this novel is narrated by Ice Cream Star herself, in a strange slang that hearkens back to both English and Creole. Not since A Clockwork Orange have I seen such a lyrical rending of language. Like many other post-apocalypse novels, this is a road trip book, but Ice Cream, who will do just about anything to find the cure for the disease that wipes everyone out at twenty and is now threatening her beloved older brother, is a character you’ll want to travel with even after the final page.
Gold Fame Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins
This books wins best title, hands down: it originates in a line musing over why people moved out to California in the first place—for gold, for fame, for citrus. There’s not much of those left, though, in this debut novel set after a drought has turned most of the West to a giant sand dune. Luz, the main character, is selfish and spoiled, a former child model who has suffered a lifetime of difficulty and only recently found relief with Ray, a survivalist and ex-soldier on the run. Written in precise and startling prose, and featuring a number of point-of-view shifts showing off Watkins’ skill at capturing a variety of compelling voices, the book nevertheless falls a little short by the end. Once again, we have a case of PAFP Syndrome, and the pacing of the final third feels rushed, as Luz’s motivations and desires become less clear and less interesting, even as the various plot points coalesce for a dramatic ending. Watkins’ short story collection, Battleborn (though not post-apocalyptic) is chock-full of misadventurous women, most of them more darkly transfixing than Luz, and is perhaps a stronger book overall; but Gold Fame Citrus deserves a read on the merits of its sentences alone.