Monday, April 2, 2012

Books - I Heart the Apocalypse

I don't know why it is, but I love stories about the end of civilization. The more grim, the better. It's why I love The Walking Dead. I recently read a couple of novels in this genre, one new, one not so new.

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus is a surreal take on the apocalypse. In this book, a disease spread through language has made it nearly impossible for adults to communicate while children are immune. This has the feel of a bizarre David Cronenberg film. In the world of this book, Jews worship in secret in hidden huts in the forest. These huts cover a hole in the ground that connects to a strangely bio-electronic network radio system. It's very odd and also brought to mind elements of Jeff Noon's Vurt books. Overall, what resonated with me from this book was that sense of hopelessness that apocalyptic literature should have. In this case, the narrator is helpless to do anything for his wife, while his own daughter is basically killing them both with her language. By the end of the book, I'm not entirely sure the story holds together in a satisfying way. I can live with unanswered questions, but here, I think maybe some of the more bizarre elements needed a bit more clarity. Still, it was an entertaining read.

Last year, I saw the movie version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and found it was almost too much to bare. The sense of hopelessness in that movie is kind of overwhelming. Having read the book, now I think the movie pretty much nailed it. There's a dark side to parenting: that side where you consciously or unconsciously imagine the worst scenarios your child could end up in and what you would do to protect them. As a parent, you know you'd kill for your child. You know you'd give up your own life to save that of your child. But what if death was a certainty? What if there really was nothing left and the most humane thing you could do was to take your own child's life? That's the sense of impending doom that drives this story. The apocalypse in this scenario is not important, except to know that it happened and it wasn't pretty. What's left is even worse, as what remains of humanity, if you can even call it that anymore, has been reduced to horrific acts that go beyond mere survival. We follow a man and his son, traveling across what's left of the United States, trying to survive. There are moments in this book that are pure poetry. The structure, particularly the first half, is mainly imagistic vignettes, in short paragraphs. Some of them are not even events, but all of them convey the dread of this world. The language in this is amazing, with sentences that read like doom haikus. Overall, as grim as this story gets, and it gets about as grim as anything I've ever read, there is a small hope, tiny, really and nearly futile. Getting to that hope, though, is not easy. There were many passages in this book that had me near tears. This book will stay with me for a long time.

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