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Boom times for the end of the world

Novelists have been feeling downright apocalyptic -- what's behind all the gloom?

March 25, 2007|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

IN one, a thick layer of ash covers everything as a nameless man and his son push their cart through a shattered 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 mysteriously 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. Long the province of the paranoid left and Christian right, 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 "class" 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 the attacks of 9/11 and the Iraq war have brought a sense of unease and vulnerability to both artists and audiences. Growing worries about global warming and the greater visibility of the Christian right -- Protestant fundamentalists, for whom the apocalypse is not metaphor, are thought to have swung the last two presidential elections -- have brought the end of the world in from the shadows.

See, whose 2006 novel, "There Will Never Be Another You," centers on chemical warfare, said that even more important was the fearmongering that followed 9/11. 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 Cal 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."

One of those writers is Matthew Sharpe, 44, whose second novel, "Jamestown," comes out next week and has been getting strong early reviews.

His uncomfortably funny book was written from Wesleyan University, where he teaches, out of anxiety for the future as well as what he calls "frustration and rage" about recent U.S. policy, he said. His bumbling settlers look for oil, food and water in scenes meant to highlight our current short-sightedness. "One item in the writers toolkit I draw on a lot," he said, "is hyperbole, to intensify and exaggerate the situation."

His exaggerations come from historical models. When Sharpe 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."

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