After the Apocalypse managed to hit all of my sweet spots for a short story collection: a meta-subject that I have more than just a passing interest in; an album-like exploration of related themes that has a casual, unshowy mastery of narrative voice; an emphasis on character over more precious concerns like making a novel-in-disguise or other spring-loaded plot devices. (Not that there is anything wrong with this, that is just not as interesting to me.) These stories are not about the apocalypse, but after. I’ve tried to figure how to work this quote in without being hamfisted, but it was not meant to be. Wallace Stevens once said, in a poem entitled “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”:
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
This is the kind of after in this book; the beauty of innuendoes after.
The end of the world, in fiction, seems to lend itself to the long shot, the slow pan over the ruined landscape, the chatty multiplicity of point of view characters that by needs winnows through the crisis, a sort of moral attrition. These stories, other than their multiplicity, belie that. These are characters nowhere near the center of things, on the phone to someone yelling, “Get me Washington!” The opening story, “The Naturalist”, is an interesting case, almost out of place in its science fictional aspects – most of these stories are depressingly plausible, occurring in Americas ruined by economics, dirty bombs, or more inexplicable declines. (If they occur in America at all, and if they occur in obviously post-apocalyptic environs, which is actually more depressing, because it makes you see how shitty things are just right now.)
“The Naturalist” is a zombie story, married to an Escape from New York/LA prison environment, and it is almost a spoiler that I describe it this way – there are very few action-story histrionics to be found here. Cahill is dumped off by a bus into the prison enclosure of Cincinnati, Ohio, cataloged by a narrator who says things like, “As far as Cahill could tell, there were two kinds of black guys, regular black guys and Nation of Islam”; a narrator who talks prison tattoos and slang. Cahill in turn catalogs the zombies, moving mostly singly through this rust belt environment, casually hating the people in whose houses he is squatting, lighting fires so the zombies come and they themselves observe the flames. We watch him watch them.
Next up is “Special Economics”, a story about economic slavery set in China. (Although, when I say economic slavery, it’s not like there is another kind – slavery is always good for the bottom line, and anyone who says that slavery was on its way out in the antebellum American South is shitting themselves and you. Just to be inflammatory.) I can’t assess the truth of the way China is portrayed, but this story has that from-the-ground perspective I find really compelling in the other stories, so I’ll just assume McHugh isn’t making shit up. The way she layers the generational perspectives – the Mao quotes from the grandparents, cut with all the pro-capitalist bullshit about theft – and Walmart! – this felt good to read.
“Useless Things” – In the whatever days since I finished reading this, I keep circling around like a cat trying to lie down to find my favorite. This one keeps coming back. Taking place outside Albuquerque, a place I have a passing familiarity with, this is one of the stories that occur in one of those depressing familiar, not-so-far-from-where-we-are-now places. A woman lives alone on the edge of the desert, making life like dolls for the few people who can still afford them. My little eyes turned to hearts when McHugh started talking about hobo symbols (something written about with an obsessive, Scandinavian in-depthness in Dictionary of Symbols). Also, there’s a kind of anticlimax that I really enjoyed, looking out over the desert in its immobile beauty.
“The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large” – So here’s where I talk about narrative voice. So far, this collection has been a mix of first and third persons, in a mix of snark level and credulity. This has that long-form reporter’s voice, the warm kind, the kind that muses in a journalistic way about the nature of things, but without revealing the self-reporter too much. A boy walks away from his family after a dirty bomb in Baltimore, claiming amnesia. He’s found again 5 years later, and the “article” charts the various famous cases of amnesia, the aftermath of the attack on Baltimore, the work life of the amnesiac boy. The last few lines kill.
“The Kingdom of the Blind” – Probably not one of my faves, but this one deals with emergent AI in a way that didn’t make me irritated. (And it’s pretty easy to irritate me when it comes to AI.) It’s more about geek culture, programmer culture, watching an emergent AI from the perspective of a tokenistic girl and the dudes she works with running medical software. There’s a lot of geek hat tips in this story, like the name of one of the programs being SAMEDI – Gibson much? But that’s almost so self-referential that I laugh. Of course you reference geek shit in a geek story, because geek culture is almost exclusively about referencing geek stuff to geeks. Geek.
“Going to France” – This story made no sense to me, and yet it completely filled me with dread. People who can fly go to France. Some other people want to go, but then they don’t. Seriously, it’s totally creepy.
“Honeymoon” – Sadly, this has turned into drunk book review, because I went off and hung out with friends I haven’t seen in like a year, and I have to do shit in the morning, so sad. Anyway, “Honeymoon” killed me. This is one of those that that takes place in rust belt America, in a setting that isn’t necessarily post-apocalyptic except for the personal metaphors. A woman gets married and then divorced because she realizes that the getting married was more important than the marriage, if you see what I mean. Then she moves to another rust belt town, and tries to go on vacation. Many of these stories have a sensitivity to the lives of the working poor without being condescending, and this one pinnacles that. Shit. The girl in the bathroom, in Cozumel or wherever she is – I bleed.
“The Effect of Centrifugal Forces” – The narrative voice on this one slayed me again – classic stream of consciousness that shifts from person to person, leaving the reader breathless and confused in the best way. The reason the match is lit and thrown on the pile that is reality is so personal that it doesn’t reside in any one person. I’m not sure that makes sense. Also, the world will end because of Chicken McNuggets.
“After the Apocalypse” – Here we go, titular story. This one, damn, it felt The Roadish, but in this absolutely backwards way, like a call-and-response, like a jazz riff. A woman and her daughter walk through a burning America, on their way to a place that gossip says will be better. (See it? See it? It’s the smartest reversal possible, really.) The mother, she (or the narrator) she gives voice to the frustration of parenting, the oh-god-why-are-you-a-child. She makes ugly choices, she decides things that will decide some other things. And she leaves it hanging in the best way, in the end. She will survive. Maybe even her daughter will too. Or not. Who fucking knows?
Here we (or I) grope for the drunken coda. I loved the shit out of this book. I keep turning it over in my mind, trying to find the convergences between these stories, trying to make it all work out. What I love best about this collection is how personal it is, how grounded in character, how little. How that none of these situations can be extrapolated. How they are these tiny lives in the sweeping innuendo that is the end of it all. And that after the end, we still are. Shit yeah, here we go.