When I was a teenager, I went canoeing in a remote Canadian national park with nine other high school students and two counselors. After three straight days of rain, far from any road or phone, we huddled under a tarp and wondered if the rest of society had suddenly fallen into chaos. We were making campfire biscuits, and as we held the sticks clumped with Bisquik dough over the fire, we wondered aloud, “How would we survive?” The light took on an eerie quality, green and glowing, like the canopy above us. We’d make tools! We’d hunt bear and moose! We’d develop a system of order! We’d sing The Cure all day long! This is stranger than I thought / Six different ways inside my heart… Because no matter what, we’d have each other. Eventually the sky changed, and we were back in our canoes, on to the next campsite, and then back to the van and pizza. But everything looked different after that—temporary and glorious.
All to say, everyone should, at some point in their lives, imagine life after the collapse. Of course, many have. You can readily find lists of post-apocalyptic books and films, but other works have also addressed the end times or something akin to them. Here are not six, but 13 ways inside my apocalyptic heart, across many genres.
1. “Garden of Earthly Delights” — painting (right-hand panel) by Hieronymus Bosch, late 15th/early 16th century
I’ve always loved this wonderfully trippy painting for its Where’s Waldo-esque nature. You can stand for hours and look at it—in Madrid’s Museo del Prado or via reproductions in books and posters. The left panel shows the Garden of Eden, full of animals, just two humans (Adam and Eve), and God standing between them. In the central panel, happy naked people eat giant fruits or sniff flowers (some out of each other’s asses) or ride giant ducks/tiny horses or kiss or get ready to do more than kiss. Then on the final panel, there’s the hellish scene, considerably darker than the first two, where presumably those same hedonists now pay for their sins. Cities burn; people fight; disemboweled animals eat human flesh, demons, and corpses. All the people are now ghostly and deformed, vomiting, shitting, or getting stabbed by sharp objects. I love the grotesqueness of it all. Can you imagine the HBO version?!
2. The Lorax — storybook by Dr. Seuss, 1971
Ah yes, the colorful, rhyming picture book for children that offers a harrowing message about the horrors of capitalism, greed, and industry. Down go the Truffula trees to make useless furry scarf-like things that look kind of snuggly, but no, you don’t need a “thneed.” Or do you? As the greedy capitalist goes on “biggering” his business, the Lorax emerges from a stump to “speak for the trees.” But to no end—soon all the trees are gone, the land denuded and polluted—until a young boy comes along and is given a little seed. You know what happens next. Today’s real-life thneeds could be any of the crap we value over trees, clean air, and oceans—plastic water bottles, Sunday Amazon Prime deliveries, the iPhone 15. Unless, as the Lorax implores, we start doing things differently.
3. “Thriller” — music video by Michael Jackson, 1983
The first night the video aired, I watched MTV huddled on a sofa with tweens and teens from the dance studio where I spent most of my after-school hours. We were rapt. At 14 minutes, it was the longest dance video we’d ever seen. That set, that makeup! The dead, they could dance. We tried immediately to replicate the steps. We knew it was the beginning of something, but we didn’t know yet what. All we knew was that Michael Jackson and his zombies were the best dancers on the planet. But genius sometimes has a flipside. Decades later, it broke our hearts to learn of the terrible, unforgivable things MJ did. That in itself is a kind of apocalypse.
4. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” — song by R.E.M., 1987
One of the best, most recognizable drum intros to what might be the most animated song about the end times out there. Conceived as a dirge based on Michael Stipe’s dreams, the song changed after the audience met it with enthusiastic energy. I get it. The song makes me want to jump around, too. I first heard it on a mix tape. To learn the words, I had to stop and rewind over and over. The litany of tongue twisting, seemingly unrelated statements—inspired by Bob Dylan’s beatnik storytelling—were fun to sing. It still is. And while the lyrics still trip me up, the chorus has gotten wildly easier and, sadly, more apropos with every listen.
5. “April the 14th Part 1” and “Ruination Day Part 2” — songs by Gillian Welch, 2001
I knew April 14 was an auspiciously bad day before I heard Gillian Welch’s haunting songs on Time (The Revelator). “Ruination Day,” she calls it. On that date in 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot; in 1912, the Titanic hit the iceberg; in 1935, one of the worst dust storms, “Black Sunday” hit Oklahoma and Texas. Welch sings of these unfortunate events in “Ruination Day Part 2”. In “April the 14th Part 1,” she adds to the list the day a young rock ‘n’ roll band from Idaho played a “five band bill” in her town, offering a dim, haunting picture of what life in a band can really be like. It’s slow and droning, and the “girl passed out in the backseat trash” feels specter-like. You can imagine the beer cans and the torn jeans and bone-deep exhaustion—all of it, in a certain light, or maybe at a certain age, seems kind of apocalyptic-chic. April 14 is also my birthday, which, all in all, was a good day.
6. “We’re Back” — Adbusters magazine, Nov/Dec 2004
This issue of the culture jamming magazine imagined a cataclysmic event that brings down the economy and power grid. The issue, published on newsprint six months after the fictional fall, featured dramatic images along with letters from readers about how they were faring. It included scathing critiques of greed and consumerism, clearly the causes of the collapse. But there are also plenty of poetic musings on what ultimately might matter once commercialized desire is gone, as well as a slew of survival tips, like how to make moonshine, practice self-defense, and collect plants for medicine. Two of my favorite entries were a hand-drawn map of the U.S. railroads inviting people to go west on foot, and a letter to a lover—a lament to distance. Inspired by these two entries, I created a character that took up such a cross-country journey to find his distanced lover. Then I wrote The Lightest Object in the Universe, a novel about love in the post-apocalypse world.
7. Idiocracy — film, 2006
What can I say? This film isn’t exactly a tour-de-force, but it’s possible that it portends our future, which means maybe we should pay close attention. A sci-fi dystopia directed by Mike Judge, the story follows two people of average intelligence who participate in a hibernation experiment (think cryogenics). They wake, 500 years later, to an idiotic world. The smart humans stopped multiplying, but the dumb ones didn’t, thereby diluting the average human intelligence with every generation. In the Idiocracy, everyone watches really bad TV and shops at a gigantic Costco. Maybe watch it with a few beers or a joint—you know, get a little primed. Just remember, it’s not a documentary. Although in the last decade I’ve compared contemporary America to the one in the film more times than I can count. Especially since 2016. Sad!
8. “Freedom of Information, Reprised” — dance by Miguel Gutierrez et al., 2008
In 2001 choreographer Miguel Gutierrez challenged himself to move for 24 hours blindfolded in a room in response to the U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the tail end of 2008, he did it again, inviting a dancer from each state to join him. I considered being one of them, but wasn’t sure I had the stamina. On grainy, live internet feeds, I watched a handful of my friends do it, though. This was just a few months after the U.S. financial crisis hit and a month after the U.S. signed an agreement to withdraw troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. There was a lot to be thinking about, moving about. In a blog post after the performance, Gutierrez responded to what people often say about war being inevitable: “Have we really, as individuals, as a group, tapped into our total power as spiritual beings, as thinking bodies? Have we exhausted compassion?” Gutierrez is always pushing limits—of performance, choreography, the notion of dance itself. The reprise of FOI intentionally stretched the limits of compassion, making space for the thinking and spiritual body, even in solitude, to find community and solidarity.
9. “Midway: Message from the Gyre” — photographs by Chris Jordan, 2009-present
These images of dead baby albatrosses will make you weep, but you should look at them. In 2009 the photographer began documenting the birds on the Midway Islands, 2,000 miles from any continent. The young birds died of starvation or from choking, and autopsies showed why—their insides were filled with plastic, fed to them by their parents who’d mistaken it for food floating in the Pacific Ocean. The amount of plastic inside the birds is beyond belief. But the photographs stand as proof. There’s a film, too, if you can handle it (I couldn’t). If this doesn’t signal the horrific and deadly dominion humans have over the world, I don’t know what does.
10. The Walking Dead — TV series from AMC, 2010-present
This is the zombie apocalypse at its best. I binge-watched the first five seasons one stifling Tucson summer during a bad case of heartache. Aside from cinematically displaying everything I was feeling inside, the storyline also taught me a lot about how we might cope if and when the zombies come. Some will hold on to the past, some will run, some will get power-hungry, some will be kind, and some will turn on their neighbors. What will you do?
11. “The New Plague” — short story by Frankie Rollins from The Sin Eater & Other Stories, 2013
It’s hard to pull off an apocalypse in a short story, but Rollins does it delightfully, which might be a strange way to describe a story about plague, but there it is. Likely transmitted by a stray cat the narrator lets inside, the illness starts with sores on the body. The narrator and her husband, Chas, are soon quarantined in their house, subject to prodding and chemical spray-downs by doctors in hazmat gear. With this particular plague, the end is heralded by the arrival of the “Visitor,” a smelly, gaspy, grunting Grim Reaper-like figure. And so, our couple is left to wait inside their marriage, with her guilt and his derision. Little joys arrive, the way they can in the midst of illness and fear. A friend smuggles them Chinese food, and they savor every bite. An art project in the basement delights the narrator: “The gestures of these hands, their movements and shape and heat, these things will be gone soon. There will be nothing left of them, no mark, this life I’ve lived nothing more than a breeze, a long exhalation.” Sadly for you, Rollins’s exquisite collection is out of print, the book’s publisher—Queen’s Ferry Press—is now defunct. A few copies remain on Amazon. But maybe the end isn’t really the end. Might we get a second printing?
12. Fifth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — scientific report, 2014
This comprehensive assessment of the climate represents the voluntary work of thousands of scientists and experts across the world, and it reveals the unequivocal consensus about the existence of climate change, its impacts on humans, and its acceleration because of us. The first sentence: “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of green-house gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.” To see the impacts in real time, of course, all you need to do is watch the daily news. One year after the release of the report, 175 parties signed the Paris Climate Accord, pledging to keep global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius. But when President Donald Trump entered office, he announced he’d be pulling the United States out of the accord. Follow-up reports to the Fifth Assessment reveal the continued harrowing impacts posed by human-induced climate change and forecast many more. Trump continues not only to deny the science but also forbid it. Meanwhile, in 2019, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reported that one million plant and animal species now face imminent extinction, more than in any other period in human history.
13. Matieres Fecales — fashion designers/Instagram phenoms/musicians, 2016-present
I learned about the Canadian artist duo Matieres Fecales or “Fecal Matter,” on Instagram while making this list. I’m typically distrustful of fashion, but this work helps me understand it in a new way. Hannah Rose Dalton and Steven Raj Bhaskaran are millennials, but their work carries us right into the post-human future, making us question who we might become. Their looks, to me, are a blend of goth, zombie, cyborg, alien, BDSM, and Avatar. In welcome ways, they push the definitions of gender and fashion, in response to the child labor, low wages, and throwaway culture on which fast fashion often depends. “Calling our platform Fecal Matter was really a stab at the heart of the industry—showing that all of these material belongings we are all collecting and harvesting is all just shit at the end of the day,” says Dalton in ArtSlant. You can shop their provocative and affordable line on DePop, where you’ll find such wearables as a Facetox Harness, “a metal ring system that is applied on the mouth to pull it back to create a puckered face” (and can also be worn as a necklace), or a Hardcore Harness made with metal handcuff and designed to represent “the restrictions we feel sometimes within the system.” They also make grinding, industrial, futuristic music, to which you can dance in their special barefoot high heels. Trippy!
And because some say 13 is an unlucky number, here are a few more:
14. The Day After — made-for-television movie, 1983
Before this movie, we ducked under our tiny desks in classroom drills because our teacher told us to. After the movie, we knew why and we trembled.
15. Hadestown — album/folk opera by Anais Mitchell, 2010
Before the Broadway version won eight Tonys in 2019, this modern adaptation of Orpheus and Eurydice was a folk opera sung in voices so achingly beautiful you can feel the underworld and its opposite come alive in your body.
16. “Inventory” — short story by Carmen Maria Machado, 2013
In this gorgeous chronicle of one woman’s inventory of sexual encounters, before, during, and after a flu pandemic, Machado explores the meaning of intimacy within the inherent fragility of life as we know it.
Image credit: Unsplash/Cata.
In Dan Chaon’s story “Prodigal,” from his collection Among the Missing, the narrator says: “When I was young, I used to identify with those precociously perceptive child narrators one finds in books. You know the type. They always have big dark eyes. They observe poetic details, clear-sighted, very sensitive… Now that I have children of my own… I think of that gentle, dewy-eyed first person narrator and it makes my skin crawl.”
A New York Times review of the recent novel Mercury Under My Tongue praised the book by saying of its protagonist, “Fortunately, unlike the precocious child narrators that populate so much fiction, there isn’t a whiff of gee-whiz wonderment or innocence about him.”
I love precocious narrators. Of course the child narrator is not a new construct, but some of the most buzzed-about novels of the 2000s, such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, have featured memorable young leads. The books have met with both exuberant acclaim and accusations of being cloying, gimmicky, mannered, precious, faux-innocent, forced, unbelievable, exasperating, show-offy, or just plain annoying. But I admire the books’ inventiveness, and I love the characters’ idiosyncratic voices, unapologetic intelligence and bold curiosity. And, like Chaon’s narrator, and probably like many lifelong readers, I see a bit of myself in them.
With so many precocious children and their quirks to keep track of, here is a guide to some of the genre’s recent standouts:
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Oskar Schell, 9, “inventor, jewelry designer, jewelry fabricator, amateur entomologist, Francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, computer consultant, amateur archaeologist, collector.” Having found a key left behind by his father, who died in the 9/11 attacks, Oskar sets out to find the lock.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics: Blue van Meer, 16, who never met a simile, metaphor, parenthetical quip, reference, citation, or Strategic Capitalization she didn’t like. Her mother died in a car accident; Dad is a brilliant, nomadic, and pompous professor.
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: Christopher Boone, 15, autistic and mathematically gifted. A fan of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles, he investigates who killed his neighbor’s dog, and uncovers the truth about his mother’s death.
Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love: Alma Singer, 14, who keeps a notebook called “How to Survive in the Wild” inspired by her adventurous father, who died of cancer. She is trying to find the author of an old novel that her mother is translating.
Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet: T.S. Spivet, 12, a cartography genius traveling by train, alone, from a Montana ranch to Washington, DC, to accept an award at the Smithsonian.
In each of these books, told in first-person, voice is central. Reviewers often remark that the protagonists sound nothing like a “real” child or teenager. But aside from Curious Incident, which is meant to be a feat of channeling—this is how the world looks through the eyes and brain of an autistic boy—reality and fidelity are not of primary concern. Lacking much real-world and life experience, the characters filter their lives through film noir, cowboy movies, detective stories, Jewish mysticism, novels and history.
As T.S. says before beginning his train journey, “I guess I was a sucker for historical myth just like Father. But whereas his Spiral of Nostalgic Unfulfillment was directed at the cinematic West of the trail drive, one need only whisper the phrase ‘bustling railroad town’ to raise my blood pressure a notch.” Alma’s hero is the aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who disappeared during WWII. Blue describes Hannah Schneider, the film teacher whose mysterious death fuels the book’s plot, as straight out of a black and white classic:
She had an elegant sort of romantic, bone-sculpted face, one that took well to both shadows and light… Within her carriage… was a little bit of the Paramount lot, a little neat scotch and air kisses at Ciro’s. I felt, when she opened her mouth, she wouldn’t utter the crumbly speak of modernity, but would use moist words like beau, top drawer and sound (only occasionally ring-a-ding-ding).
These influences from previous eras create an internal logic for each book. The trick is similar to that of the movie Brick, which transported the conventions of ‘30s detective fiction to a Southern California high school. Would a high schooler say “No, bulls would gum it. They’d flash their dusty standards at the wide-eyes and probably find some yegg to pin, probably even the right one”? Of course not. But as Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir wrote of the film, “it’s an engrossing fantasy picture that in some ways gets close to the feeling of teenage life, even though it bears almost no relationship to its reality.”
For his Spring 2008 ready-to-wear collection, Marc Jacobs designed shoes that had squat heels jutting out backwards, horizontally, from the ball of the foot. I love shoes as much as I love reading, and found this pair quite special: Jacobs had managed to rearrange conventional elements into something whimsical, and expand the idea of what a shoe can be.
Most books fit within a remarkably limited format, but formal inventiveness is a salient trait of these novels. Like children, they don’t always follow the rules. The books include maps and diagrams in the margins; pages in color and marked up with a red correction pen; illustrations and photos; blank pages; pages with type so dense they’re unreadable; foot notes and citations; chapters named for classic books or numbered with increasing prime numbers; and codas of a mathematical proof (Curious Incident), a Final Exam (Special Topics), and a flip book (Extremely Loud). According to critics like B.R. Myers, whose article “A Bag of Tired Tricks” appeared in The Atlantic upon the publication of Extremely Loud, my enjoyment of such “spurious playfulness” makes me “easily amused.”
But I don’t see these flourishes as gratuitous examples of “look at me! I’m different and clever!” T.S. makes sense of the world through mapping, and as he deals with the recent death of his younger brother “during an accident with a gun in the barn that no one ever talked about,” the tragedy’s repercussions are fittingly explored in the margins. Christopher’s brain functions in an emotionally detached, logical/mathematical/schematic way that necessitates diagrams. I found Extremely Loud’s backwards-flipbook, in which photos show a leaping body rising upwards alongside one of the twin towers, a moving visualization of Oskar’s biggest wish. Plus, it’s simply fun to turn the page and find a picture. It’s a fitting throwback to children’s books, as well as a nod to the hyperlinked/sidebar-ed/multimedia texts we read, without fuss, online.
The playfulness extends to language. More than any book I can remember, Special Topics delights in inventive, extended description. Listen to Blue riff on a central character:
He was a Goodnight Moon (Brown, 1947). Goodnight Moons had duvet eyes, shadowy eyelids, a smile like a hammock and a silvered, sleepy countenance… Goodnight Moons could be male or female and were universally adored. Even teachers worshipped them. They looked to Goodnight Moons whenever they asked a question and even though they answered with a drowsy, wholly incorrect answer, the teacher would say, ‘Oh, wonderful.’
None of the precocious narrators are Goodnight Moons. In fact, let’s call them The Outsiders (Hinton, 1967), though with less class warfare. They do not fit easily into the world. Aside from Alma’s Russian immigrant pen pal, none of them has a true friend his or her own age; professors, teachers, parents, grandparents and strangers to whom they write letters provide a tenuous social life. They are unpopular at school, lonely, awkward, weird.
I was not a 12-year-old cartography genius or pint-sized private eye, but I was an overachieving kid who took a while to figure out how to be smart without being an annoying show-off—a quality of precocious narrators that often bugs readers. I recently re-read the journal that I kept through high school, which was not all that long ago. The content breakdown is approximately 60% about boys, 30% about how lonely I felt, and 10% about how great I was doing on my AP physics tests. I had forgotten about the time I gossiped about how academically stupid my crush’s girlfriend was, and then he confronted me about it via AIM conversation. Which is to say, I really could have used a bookish friend like Alma or Blue. (And like Blue, whose father quizzes her on vocabulary and makes her perform readings of classic plays during long car trips, I had parent-assigned summer homework. I remember writing short reports about the book Cheaper by the Dozen and the sport of diving; homework earned points, which could be redeemed for sodas and CDs.)
The books also nimbly capture how, when brains trump social skills, you end up feeling both older and younger than everyone around you. Alma and Blue are clueless about boys and have disastrous first kisses, but are ambitious enough to unravel complicated mysteries. And that’s what’s heartbreaking about these books: they put smart kids in the position to feel like they can, and should, come up with answers to some of life’s biggest questions.
Because for all their cuteness, the novels are really about surviving death and loss. Several of the characters assemble literal survival kits, that include items like a telescope, compasses, drafting paper, duct tape, a stuffed animal, a snakebite kit, iodine pills, Swiss Army knives, a copy of Edible Plants and Flowers in North America, and Juicy Juice boxes. But what good is a compass or stuffed animal—where can you go, and what second-rate comfort will you find?—when you are a child whose parent or sibling has died?
As a culture, we have an odd relationship with high-achieving youths. The media scrambles to cover four-year-old abstract artists, 12-year-old fashion bloggers, 13-year-olds who climb Mt. Everest—but we regard the little prodigies with a mix of admiration, disbelief, mistrust and even hostility. (Witness the backlash against some of the precociously talented young novelists themselves, like accusations that Pessl only got a book deal because she’s pretty, and the phenomenon of “Schadenfoer“; note the glee people are taking in mocking Krauss’ recent over-the-top blurb.)
The other day, I overheard a commercial advertising a contest that would reward “the fastest, most accurate texter.” Then I learned that Jersey Shore’s The Situation had inked a book deal.
In an age of shortening attention spans and the glorification of stupidity, I find it comforting and exciting to spend time with young characters for whom books, maps, notebooks, letters, research, drawings, imagined inventions and classic films are central and essential. Precocious narrators, and the ambitious novelists who create them, give me hope that our culture can keep evolving without sliding into Idiocracy, and stand as proof of the power of intelligence, imagination, curiosity, and even “gee-whiz wonderment.”
In The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, T.S. coins the term “Stenpock,” after his science teacher, Mr. Stenpock. A Stenpock is someone “who insists on staying within the confines of his or her job title and harbors no passion for the offbeat or the incredible.” Precocious narrators are anti-Stenpocks, and I’m a sucker for them.
[Image credit: Inna]