black and white photo of the eviction of a tenant in 1888 during the Potato Famine in Ireland

Review: Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff

I think it’s generally true — though of course there are exceptions — that mystery novels tend to be about a city. The murder is a wound on the body politic, a blister where something imperfect about the social system rubs. The detectives then move through the various socioeconomic layers of the community, and often find submerged and surprising connections between this sub-culture and that, between families, between the powerful and the powerless. The city can be a small town, or a farming community, or a section of a larger metropolis, but mysteries move through a tight geography, the social layers stirred up like blood in water. The old saw is that the personal is political, and the mystery turns this inside out, in the very oldest senses of the words.

The apocalyptic novel, by contrast, tends to be about something bigger than a city: the nation, or, if that schema is too vague and high-level, the region or country. (I mean this last not to mean nation, but more broad area: north country, back country.) The Road is a Western. The Reapers are the Angels and This Dark Earth are both Southern Gothics. Station Eleven details my Northern Midwest. Parable of the Sower moves through California, and also Black America, a region that is not defined by geography, but nonetheless exists. There are dozens of apocalypses that detail that vast region of America — both the cityest of American cities, and a whole microcosm unto itself — New York: the elegiac Zone One, the chilly millennial Severance, the trash poetry of Monster Island. The writer destroys everything they know, and then sets to scrying the bones, throwing them down to see the immutable characteristics in the cant of ash. The apocalypse strips everything down to essentials: Rick Grimes clings imperfectly to his notions of family and the constabulary; Candace Chen hides behind a camera documenting it all for an Internet that’s blinking out; Mark Spitz relies on the law of averages; some found religions; for others, the play’s the thing. Each acts out their most basic instinct, culturally speaking, as they do the needful of water and food and safety.

One of the most pervasive modes of the apocalyptic novel is that of the road trip: if you’re going to get the pulse of the country, you have to cover some ground. During the road trip, the protagonist finds all the signposts marred and twisted, the roads empty and menacing, snarled with cars, overgrown, rotting. During the road trip, the destination is an illusion; worse, in the apocalypse, so is the road. It is here we first meet Orpen of Sarah Davis-Goff’s Last Ones Left Alive: rolling a wheelbarrow through a quietly destroyed Ireland, with a dog called Danger at her side. (This name is occasionally unintentionally comedic.) One of her more uncomfortable parents — her Mam’s Maeve — is in the wheelbarrow, shaking out with sweats and so silent you mistake her for dead. Maybe Orpen talks to her like a superego, like Job’s unhelpful friends in his blackest hour. But she’s not dead: Maeve has been bitten, about to turn into one of the skrake Orpen has been trained to kill her whole life. Orpen holds onto her childhood by keeping Maeve alive; when Maeve turns, something like Orpen’s childhood will have to die.

When I read The Bray House by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, it seemed to me that when the Irish kill their homeland, the result in fiction is more autopsy than spectacle, a long landscape pan instead of a detonation. Ní Dhuibhne nukes Ireland to a hard nuclear crust, and then lays out the debris with a cold hand. (Lord, but her main character is chilly.) The cataclysm in Last Ones Left Alive is similarly remote in time from the events unspooling, and much of the novel is spent detailing an Ireland in a green dishevelment. The events of the novel move forward and back in time from Orpen and her wheelbarrow, moving from her upbringing on the secluded island of Slanbeg off the west coast of Ireland, out onto the mainland and into Orpen’s matriculation. Though there are some interactions with the skrake — zombies in everything but name — it seemed notable to me how quiet this novel was for a zombie novel. In her youth, Orpen — named after the Irish painter best known for his depictions of WWI soldiers — often ditches her mothers to scratch about in the ephemera of that lost world in their island enclave. (She’s especially take by the graffiti and old newspapers referencing the Banshee: a fighting troupe comprised of women only.) Orpen has been raised in a safe kind of danger, drilled fairly mercilessly (especially by Maeve) but still protected from the real dangers of her world. There are no skrake on Slanbeg.

On the mainland, Orpen is pushing east toward the semi-mythical Phoenix City, where maybe her Mam and Maeve were from. (She doesn’t know much more than that; Mam and Maeve were always very closed mouth about where they were from, and why they left. She’s not Maeve’s biological child either way, and both Orpen’s parents drill her in the dangers of men.) She’s got the hyper-vigilance of the traumatized, spooking at every movement and worrying about the sound of the barrow’s squeaking wheel despite her enclosed upbringing. It’s an interesting mix: her safe upbringing that is nonetheless steeped in so much terror that she exhibits the earmarks of post-traumatic stress.

This reminded me of Colson Whitehead’s coinage of PASD — pronounced past — post-apocalyptic stress disorder. This neologism made me smile when I encountered it in Zone One — how clever — but I’m beginning to think it might be a real thing. Last week my son asked me to come out for a “porch talk” — he does this because he can find me smoking and I’m captive — and he burst into tears about the burning Amazon rain forests, the burning arctic, the geologically fast moving apocalypse we can find on the planet right now. I’m not going to be able to grow up and have children, he said to me, as he wept. I tried to soothe him, but I don’t like lying too much: There’s no reason it’s going to be “okay”, that blandest of reassurances, and the global environmental situation is well out of my control. I’d almost welcome just having to drill him in how to kill a reanimated corpse, because that is a concrete and discrete problem in the world: Either you kill or you die, but you don’t linger on in a worsening world, watching your possibilities narrow to ugly survival.

I was always irritated by religious fictions that brought down the conflict between good and evil into a fist fight. (I’m slagging, here, on C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy.) It always seemed like a cop out, even though I get the structural satisfaction of just punching evil into the floor. I’m a huge fan of punching Nazis — they fucking deserve it — but no country defeats them by individuals punching them one at a time. But I’m beginning to get why, beyond mere narrative catharsis, we write the apocalypse this way: half a generation past the panic, in a regrowing world swallowing up the vestiges of modernity.

The apocalyptic novel is about a country, not a city. In a city, your interactions with strangers might be colored by ties of consanguinity. I know I play the Name Game whenever I meet someone in Duluth, and though I wasn’t even raised here — my father was — it only takes minutes to find a connection. But the in the country, this won’t work. You’re going to rely on the broader cultural playbook between strangers, the one full up with the subtle gestures only the acculturated will understand. (Of course, those gestures are still going to fail as often as not. The Ireland she was raised in was right there off the coast, but she has never quite lived there. ) So yeah, it’s a fistfight, the kind we find between Orpen and people she finds on the road. It can come down to a fistfight once all the other fights have been lost. There’s something almost comforting about pushing past the world where children despair of a future bleaker than their past into one where everyday survival is a victory.

Davis-Goff is maybe a little too light in her allusions to the larger Ireland Orpen is moving though and into. I wasn’t quite clear how exactly the Banshees fit with both Maeve and Mam, and the ersatz family she encounters on the road. Is Phoenix City a Handmaid’s Tale style nightmare, or its opposite in sensibilities, if not particulars? But whatever, this is fine. Last Ones Left Alive is a credible sounding of the Irish apocalypse. It’s nowhere near as brutal as Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s, but then that’s an impossible standard. The horror of Last Ones Left Alive ends up being a comfort; Orpen abides, like Ireland always has, and in Ireland’s particular way.

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