The lady on NPR was correct. There is indeed a shift in the final third of the book.
For the first two-thirds, I wanted to put it down multiple times. I balked at the style—constantly picking up as though in the middle of a conversation whose beginning I never got to hear. Switching tense and focus in spasms. I balked at the characters—senseless, aimless, with priorities I utterly did not understand. They did not seem like people to me, or even caricatures of people: people like that don’t exist. “Perhaps,” I mused after a more lucid passage, “she is trying to show us a couple of pre-feminism feminists, and maybe they’re pretty shitty pre-feminism feminists, but that’s to make us welcome the end of this shallow world?” Not to mention the end of the book? I certainly wanted it to end.
But, well, once the world of the book is actually ending, then it is enjoyable. That is a story I know.
The diatribes against ex-husbands, the endless descriptions of misses apparel from the 1950s-1980s, the shoes, the self-empowerment seminars, the unloved offspring, the out-of-freaking-nowhere racism—that lost me. I fumed at it. It was a tale of people I’d never met in my life—not even the ghosts of people I could imagine meeting in my life—doing things seemingly at random, without any thought to their value or lack thereof, over the span of decades. Half a century, even. Wasted lives.
Once they brought in the nuclear bombs, the constant terror, survival rates, fallout patterns, I relaxed. That is a story I know. That is a story I can follow, people I can follow—bizarro ideas of people suddenly transformed into human beings by recognizable despair.
I won’t dwell on that because next to everyone I respect is just enough years older than me to know what that fear felt like firsthand, and for me to act as though I understand is probably demeaning in some way. So instead, a couple related things. I do think that people who were and culturally and politically aware in the eighties, and who were too young yet to have started families of their own and to therefore invest somewhat
inevitably desperately in the belief that the best possible outcome has to be theirs—I do think these people carry with them a certain heaviness and jadedness that I find it hard not to scorn. Jennifer Egan is a good example of this, with her dogged conviction that we are shit and our children are shit and our world is going to shit. Twentysomething of the 1980s, right there. There are scraps of it in David Mitchell when he talks about the Falklands War. There’s even some of it in DFW, which I am loath but determined to admit. That calculated disdain for the future, for the idea of hope in the future. That fills the whole first half of this book, and taints some of the rest of it, but not all of it.
Usefully, I just snapped pictures of the passages I wanted to save this time, rather than pausing to write them all out, or to put in a sticky paper which only puts off the pause to write them all out till later. But this means I have so many passages to hand that I cannot pick one to reproduce, to give you an appropriate feel of the book. I kind of want to veer away from most of the sexual politics because it’s a bit dated, very third wave and blind with anger. This was nice, I thought: “The two knelt silently with the boy between them. All across the estate, safe wives shut their eyes. There were some things they didn’t want to see, devoted their lives to not seeing.” Maybe it’s powerless, out of context, but in its place it was a startlingly clear moment amidst a whole pile of vapid observations. The angry she-vs.-he parts, some of them, were punchily phrased, but again they seem a bit dated and one-sided, now. For example:
“That would square with what I know of ‘men,’ those shouting red-faced loonies who howl that ‘you can’t have it both ways,’ even as they’re dancing to a tune that lets them have it both ways, three ways, if they can get it up and hard long enough; those irate, broken-home fathers who keep their kids in line by droning ‘my house, my rules!’ even as they wait anxiously for the results of this week’s gonorrhea test; those husbands who get their feelings hurt when they feel their horns pushing out, even as they peruse the hotel’s gift shop for plum-colored G-strings for this afternoon’s beloved.
But what I want to know is this: Who did think up the gas that goes on your skin and you throw up into your gas mask (if you have one) until you strangle on your vomit? It must have been a guy somewhere. Why don’t we know his name? Do men know his name, just like they always know the name of the Dodgers’ new shortstop? The secretary of the man who invented the vomiting gas must have known something, or did she just think of him as the generous lover who bought her the nightgown with the silver threads in grey chiffon and the matching negligee with the white feathers at the neck, or the cruel lover who stopped asking if she’d like to forget this world with him at the Beverly Hilton or the Foghorn down at the Marina? Maybe his wife knew he was a salamander, a newt, a sub-human who never should have crawled up out of the slime, but still she had to worry that he didn’t spend enough time with the kids.”
What I’d rather look at, though, are the huge (huge!) differences in post-apocalyptic tales told by women versus those told by men. Obviously they’re trendy now, and have been for some time, what with The Road and The Walking Dead and Left Behind and Y The Last Man, etc. etc. etc. These are tales of gore, firstly, and Big Men standing up and Keeping The Pack Together In The Face Of Certain Doom, next. The monumental psychological damage that would (um, hello?) kind of be demanded by an apocalypse-level event tends only to be touched on vis-a-vis who is fucking who, and if the fucker has a moral/pre-apocalyptic responsibility toward someone other than the fuckee. Real deep psychological trauma, there. (See? If I am not careful I can fall into the same crassly generalizing traps Carolyn See does. Yes, yes, we know, most weapons look or act like dicks. Moving on.) Clearly the real question, when you’ve got zombies on every side of you and your kid crying for you to save him, is whether to bang your best friend’s wife or the recently-widowed battered woman next door. Clearly.
When you finally get to Carolyn See’s apocalypse, though, it’s not about preserving these petty pre-apocalypse relationships. People’s skin is literally falling off like snow off a hot roof—no way are they holding hands, let alone having sex. Whole vocabularies—whole ways of thinking—are gone. Blitzed. And does that not make sense? Wouldn’t the destruction of next to everything you knew outside you necessarily cause some serious fuckups inside you—beyond the mere lobotomizing of your red blood cells, I mean? We spend pages and pages inside the fried psychologies of the survivors. And I mean their cognitive capacities—the roofs of their thinking abilities, and the lines they will not cross. Not just dumb questions like “in this new post-world, who shall I screw?” And when they eventually get to the point where they can process sentences again, it is an event:
“The first time I saw writing again was a sign I’d seen before up in that canyon—Ive Seen Fire and Ive Seen Rain. Yes many times before I’d seen that sign, in the old days, when there would have been a series of bad events, floods and fires, and little animals piled up in long, furry, putrid, wavery lines along the old roads. Someone would write on a plank, sometimes in paint, sometimes in charcoal, Ive Seen Fire and Ive Seen Rain. I don’t know who wrote up this one, but he put it right by the tree trunk down on what used to be Valley Drive—a riverbed now—the way down to Old Topanga Creek. Was it humor, irony, that made him put that sign—that we used to see on a long, unattractive, arid hill between us and the San Fernando Valley—right in the heart of nowhere where we were now, this dark deep ravine, next to the hollow tree that still bore the traces of an earlier, whitewashed warning: This place defended by shotgun law? People stood and looked at that new sign: Ive Seen Fire and Ive Seen Rain. Could they read it? Were we back to reading? Were they trying to remember the song it came from? Were we back to singing?”
Words are new. Writing is new. The people remain—this is no 295th-generation story, as in Cloud Atlas—but their words have been blasted out of their skulls, and they are slow to return. That makes sense to me. That is a side of the post-apocalypse that ought to supercede these (sorry!) survivalist circlejerks where each ripped and chisel-chinned shotgun-toting family man tries to outdo the next guy in acts of Brave Family Manliness. To hell with your end-of-the-world sex guilt! You should be worrying about how to keep your eyeballs from falling out of your head!
And when words finally do come back to stay:
“All of their faces obediently turned up to the dark blue universe as they searched for the star I told them about, and I saw peace come over their faces, but one old woman said into the dark, and the fire that had been tamed, ‘Surely, these are terrible times we have come upon.’
But I was filled with a terrible rage and light, and I stood up and put out my arm to quiet her. “No!” I said. “Some people say these are bad times, but I say they are good times. We have bravery! We have love! We have the future. We have the Beginning! We have the present! Listen to that word, the Present. We all know what that is!”
And that pretty much won it for me right there. If 98% of the world has died and we are still alive and you try and convince us all to get so sad we just off ourselves, I will stand up under the stars and tell you to shut your goddamn mouth. I know, I know, out of context the quote sounds like a bad campaign speech. But I imagine if your whole country’s been roasted in an nuclear war, it doesn’t sound like a campaign speech anymore. It sounds like a reason to live. Which seems rather important.
And, backtracking a little, to the final days before the blast, because I really loved it:
“Oh, Paradise! This is what we found.
Every minute was your minute to make a choice: It was turn on the television and watch some hated white man tell you about hell, or it was lie down on damp green grass—or the dry weeds of Topanga, or the red ants of Lancaster—and say thank you, I love you, I love this.”
Kind of beats barreling your Ferrari into the side of a racetrack, huh?