Especially after the nightmare heat waves of 2012, my own apocalyptic nightmares have been all about ecological collapse. Maureen F. McHugh is more comprehensive in her vision of an unhappy future. There are nine different catastrophes in her beautiful, recently published collection of short stories, After the Apocalypse (Small Beer; Paper $16). Some of them are distinct possibilities—a bird flu epidemic, devastating fuel shortages, an avian prion disease—and some, I hope, are not. In one story, everyone is in the grip of an epidemic compulsion to drop everything and go to France. In another, the city of Cleveland has become a designated “zombie preserve.”
A collection of great stories is not necessarily a great collection, and one that flows as easily as the most compelling novel is a rare thing indeed, but After the Apocalypse is what a story collection should be: urgent, various, all of a piece. Whether she’s writing about disease or dirty bombs or refugee camps in Canada, McHugh focuses always on those people who suffer first and suffer most when things fall apart. For me the key story is “Honeymoon,” in which a young woman named Kayla annuls her marriage when she learns that her husband has gambled away their honeymoon money. This discovery occasions a devastating revelation: “It occurred to me that the reason Chris was with a girl like me was because he was a fuck-up.” “Honeymoon” is sandwiched between “Going to France” and “The Effect of Centrifugal Forces,” the story about avian prion disease, but there’s no question that it belongs just there. Kayla’s is a personal apocalypse, and although it arises from several economic crises, “Honeymoon” is not a story about politics or finance. It’s a story about a woman who has nothing and is forced to start again with even less.
In our present straitened circumstances, a working-class American like Kayla is a marginal person, right on the edge of destitution. Her economic opportunities are so limited that she has to volunteer for a drug trial in order to pay for her “Not-A-Honeymoon-Trip to Cancun.” She’s lucky enough to get the placebo; those who get the real drug end up in the hospital. But these are the risks she runs as a matter of course, and her story reminds us that apocalypse doesn’t have to mean zombies and disease and 250 million dead. For many Americans, the end of the world is already here.
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Near the end of Joshua Cohen’s Four New Messages (Graywolf; Paper $14), I was alarmed to read the following: “I’m doing my best here. This would all sound so much better in an original.” Is he talking about translation? The narrator of this story, who is also sometimes a third-person “He” instead of an “I,” may be traveling in Eastern Europe and may be speaking to a bear, which may also be a woman, in a language that may not be English or may be invented or may be a combination of real and invented languages. Or else he may not be in Eastern Europe at all; he may be sitting in a motel room looking at pornography. I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. Cohen writes not “the original” but “an original”—the indefinite, not the definite, article—and there can be no solution to this puzzle.
One thing is certain: Four New Messages reads as if it had been imperfectly translated from “an original” language. Opening the book at random, I find phrases like “indigenously endangered nestbuilding bird,” “a curveball’s slogged mire,” “tarmac tailgating the plains” and then this sentence: “He plucked an Apple—his. It had been a gift from his parents—for his birthday, for their having oblivioned his birthday—congratulating him on having been graduated from the age of being gifted.” “Apple” is his computer, I suppose.
Why pick always the wrong word, always the wrong metaphor, always the most convoluted way of saying everything? Trying to describe the motel room in which he sits plucking his Apple, the he/I/Cohen voice says, “A mess of burns, of stains—but who hasn’t read motel descriptions before…. Any description would be extracurricular unless he could blaze another way, an alternate route.” Indeed. Cohen is desperate not to write ordinary prose. Every time there exists a conventional way of saying anything, he invents a less intelligible way. It is important not to confuse this kind of writing with high style. The effect, to borrow a phrase that he/I/Cohen applies later to a Russian bartender, is to make the prose “facile but incorrect.”
And yet, at its best, this method does produce some wonderful moments—phrases like “nonprofit or negligibly profitable story,” “rut at her sexually from behind,” “like digging a hole to find a buried shovel to use to dig a grave.” And the stories themselves, when they can be decoded, are smart and well conceived. In “Emission,” a young man’s life is ruined when a rumor about him goes viral and his name becomes a lewd Internet meme. In “The College Borough,” a writing professor exiled to a state school in the Midwest—he longs for New York City and spends one class “not showing but telling the locations of the better bookmarts of Manhattan”—compels his students to build a replica of the Flatiron Building. In the end, the fact that Cohen is so exuberantly careless—perhaps even carefree—means that the reader is not himself under any obligation to think hard about what he’s reading, which goes a long way toward mitigating the aggravation. Despite everything, and much to my surprise, I find that I’m inclined to think of this book fondly.
Samuel Beckett wants you to have a less bad day, wrote Anton Thier in his review of the first volume of the writer’s letters (June 4).