Doomsday takes on some literary heft

  • By Scott Timberg / Los Angeles Times
  • Saturday, March 31, 2007 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

In one, a thick layer of ash covers everything as a nameless man and his son push their cart through a land of absolute silence and darkness without end.

In another, the world inexplicably floods, sending a watertight hospital full of sleep-deprived doctors and their young patients bobbing on the waves like a new Noah’s Ark.

And in a third, the Manhattan Company dispatches a team of rogues from a devastated Northeast to settle an untouched part of tidewater Virginia inhabited by a 21st century Pocahontas.

They’re all recent or upcoming novels with literary heft: Cormac McCarthy’s solemn and elegiac “The Road,” Chris Adrian’s ironic-religious “The Children’s Hospital” and Matthew Sharpe’s black-humorous “Jamestown,” respectively.

It’s not just Mel Gibson, Feral House and the “Left Behind” books anymore. Apocalypse has moved indoors, and it’s going highbrow. Literary novels with end-of-the-world settings – these books and others by respected writers such as Daniel Alarcon, Michael Tolkin, David Mitchell and Carolyn See – are surging at the same time as serious filmmakers engage a subject most often left to B movies.

Based on P.D. James’ 1992 novel, Alfonso Cuaron’s well-received 2006 film, “Children of Men,” shows a world in which human fertility has died out and fascism reigns. Over the next year, Hollywood will release a slew of films involving environmental destruction, among them M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” and James Cameron’s “Avatar,” in which the beleaguered planet Earth turns on its inhabitants.

The notion of apocalypse – the word is from the Greek for “the lifting of the veil” – has been with us, in various forms, for a long time. But it’s still worth asking: What does it mean that the dream life of the richest, most scientifically advanced nation in history is troubled by nightmares of the end?

The simple answer is that growing worries about global warming and the attacks of Sept. 11 and the Iraq war have brought a sense of unease and vulnerability to both artists and audiences. See, whose 2006 novel, “There Will Never Be Another You,” centers on chemical warfare, said that even more important was the fearmongering that followed Sept. 11. The worry over anthrax and other threats, she said, “lodged in a sick part of our unconscious. It turned something ordinary, like ‘yellow cake’ or opening a letter, into something that would kill you in a fearsome and disgusting manner.”

Literary issues are also at play.

“I think to a certain extent it’s a delayed reaction,” said Steve Erickson, a novelist who edits the California Institute of the Arts journal Black Clock. “It’s been going on in popular culture for a while, whether with the Clash’s ‘London Calling,’” which imagines a nuclear attack on Britain, “or ‘Blade Runner,’ which conveys a feeling that outside Los Angeles the rest of the world has kind of dropped off.”

This new emphasis also has to do with a blurring of lines between literary and genre fiction, said Erickson. “Twenty years ago, there was still an insularity to a lot of fiction, especially work put out by the New York publishing houses. It was still doing Raymond Carver and that neorealist minimalist thing. It regarded the futurism that’s kind of implicit in apocalyptic writing as kind of lowbrow.”

Now, Erickson said, “there’s a new generation of writers who are more involved with other things happening in the culture.”

Sharpe, whose second novel, “Jamestown,” comes out next week and has been getting strong early reviews, wrote his uncomfortably funny book out of anxiety for the future as well as what he calls “frustration and rage” about recent U.S. policy. His bumbling settlers look for oil, food and water in scenes meant to highlight our current short-sightedness. “One item in the writers’ tool kit I draw on a lot,” he said, “is hyperbole, to intensify and exaggerate the situation.”

His exaggerations come from historical models. When Sharpe – who teaches at Wesleyan University – started researching the 1607 Jamestown settlement, which was mercantile in inspiration, for his job advising middle school teachers, he “was fascinated by the sheer extremity and weirdness of it: 100 guys, and they were all guys, getting on a boat and coming to a continent they expected to be so narrow that a river would run through to the Pacific. And expecting to find, like the Spanish, gold in the ground. And then they got here and promptly started dying.”

As he wrote, after the 2001 terrorist attacks and during wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he saw parallels between English foreign policy of the 17th century and America’s in the 21st. “This sense of exceptionalism, that we are the moral arbiters, that we know better than they do.”

Sometimes the impetus for this kind of book is more idiosyncratic. Adrian was a medical student in the years he conceived of his well-reviewed “The Children’s Hospital.” “It started out as a story about being stuck in a hospital day and night and not being able to get out. Sort of a typical story of residency,” he said from his home in Cambridge, Mass. “But after 9/11, a lot of new ideas moved in.”

It forced him to rethink the book’s tone, and his approach also became more concerted.

“I knew I couldn’t set a story during a second flood without knowing something about the first one; I’d never read the Bible before.” He found himself digging in deep to get what he calls a background in apocalypse. “There’s a lot out there besides Revelation. Most of them involve a person who’s had a vision that’s mediated by an angel.”

The trick for a literary writer is to avoid the obvious, which might be one reason Sept. 11 has taken so long to show up in the serious novel.

“I think we’re just sort of figuring out how to talk about it,” said Erickson, whose next novel, “Zeroville,” comes out this fall. “It’s all so immediate it risks becoming a cultural cliche before we even know what to do with it. … It took a while to write about Pearl Harbor, I think. James Jones’ ‘From Here to Eternity’ didn’t come out until 10 years after the attacks. The culture has to process these things.”

Erickson himself felt the lure of apocalypse when he was writing his first novel, in the early ’80s, which he recalls as “a scary time,” despite today’s Reagan nostalgia. “‘Days Between Stations’ started out as a love story. And suddenly, about a quarter of the way through, I was burying Los Angeles in sand. I hadn’t planned on doing that, and for about half an instant I resisted it, because I thought it was the kind of thing that happened in fantasy or science fiction.”

His was not the only ’80s novel set after Earth’s destruction: Other notable examples included Denis Johnson’s “Fiskadoro,” a mythic tale in which shards of pop culture are worshipped as religion, and See’s “Golden Days,” in which nuclear war is, for some laid-back Angelenos, good news.

The roots of these doomsday novels predate America’s founding, according to Thomas Schaub, a University of Wisconsin professor who edits the journal Contemporary Literature.

These books, he said, resemble the jeremiads that Puritan ministers issued in the 17th century to awe-stricken audiences. “They preached the day of doom as a way of bringing the flock back to our original mission. ‘The wrath of God is upon us, we have forgotten what America was supposed to be.’ That’s a fairly consistent dynamic in American history.”

What’s new, he said, is an increasing pace of change, as well as an explosion of ways to bring that change to us. “The hyperawareness delivered by the media provides a sense of implosion, an immediacy, a sense of imminence.”

Instead of renewal, Schaub said, he picks up “a sense of real limits … and a kind of regret,” from both his students and new fiction.

Have things really gotten worse? “This is the most uncertain time since the early ’60s, since the Cuban Missile Crisis,” said Erickson, “where it’s difficult to have much confidence that things will turn out OK. If the times get any crazier, I think you’re going to see more and more of this.”

Strikingly, given the dead-serious subject matter, some of these novels are genuinely funny. “You couldn’t approach this with a straight face without seeming ridiculous,” Adrian said.

Without humor, Sharpe said, “I think it would be unbearable to me as the person who has to sit there writing it every day for several years. I would pause from time to time and say, ‘This is really grim, can I go on with this? Why am I writing this?’”

His answer ended up being that however nasty the subject matter, the novel and the future were important. “And I realized,” he said, “I had to face up to it.”

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