Michael Kerr reviews Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O'Connell
This review will be overtaken by events. Its bound to be. While I was reading the book, its writer posted a picture on Twitter of the contents of a box he had just opened at home. Who could have predicted, he asked, that these copies of the US edition of my book about apocalyptic anxiety would be delivered by a guy in a face mask, and that I would open the box using plastic gloves? Notme!
Hes being a little hard on himself. He was well ahead of most of us, already up and on the road long before the Four Horsemen appeared on their mounts in the Chinese city of Wuhan. See that title: Notes from an Apocalypse.
Mark OConnell is a journalist and essayist. He won the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize for To Be a Machine, an exploration of transhumanism, a movement that suggests we can and should exploit technology to improve the human body and, ultimately, make ourselves immortal. He is also the father of two young children, and constantly worrying over what sort of world hes brought them into. Its a world where lies as well as germs go viral, where we humans are making the weather, where old alliances and certainties are being overturned, and where the moneyed are readying to leave the rest of us behind, having bought bunkers in the middle of nowhere, bolt-holes on the other side of the world, or tickets to a life on Mars.
The signs of apocalypse, he reckons, are all around, and while hes anxious, hes also intrigued. So off he goes on a series of perverse pilgrimages to the places where the end-times seem closest from South Dakota, with its underground shelters offering turnkey apocalypse solutions, to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where the abandoned city of Pripyat is a fever-dream of a world gone void. In between, he examines the tech billionaires fixation with New Zealand, mixes with the Mars Society in Los Angeles, and joins an environmentalists retreat in the Scottish Highlands. He has sessions with his therapist, and draws on the work of writers as varied as Carl Sagan and Dr Seuss. The result is a book thats fretful, wise and funny, and often all three in the space of a paragraph.
OConnell thoroughly skewers Americas boasting preppers with a story about one who began eating into his freeze-dried rations because his wife was away, he couldnt cook and it didnt occur to him to phone for pizza. Then he tells of a friend of his who works in publishing, who reveals that she has a go-bag, ready to be hauled out from under the bed at a moments notice.
His friend sees something exciting in the prospect of testing herself and her limits. OConnell doesnt: his comfort zone, he says, is one with four walls, good Wi-Fi, and craft beer and a bookshop within walking distance. On his solo in the Alladale Wilderness Reserve, he breaks the spirit of the rules by taking half a packet of nut-and-berry mix with him. His account of eking it out reminded me of the narrator of John Lanchesters novel The Wall, who, while patrolling Britains borders against climate refugees, breaks upthe time between breakfast andlunch into two sections of 90minutes, with an energy bar in themiddle.
OConnells own book is a work of non-fiction peopled by some characters a novelist wouldnt get away with. I thought perhaps hed overplayed the zealotry of those who see Mars as the new frontier and the new destiny for Earthlings. But no. While I was reading his chapter on Chernobyl, I got an email from a PR firm with this heading: To infinity and beyond: conquering the final frontier with Asgardia. It went on: Whilst plans for holidays and trips away have been put on the back-burner, the desire for outer-orbit travel hasntdiminished.
Notes from an Apocalypse is a book in which even the typos seem to be in keeping with the theme (A state stripped down to its bear [sic] right-wing essentials). Its also one that makes reference to center and specter and neighbors and fibers. Have we in the UK been given the UStext?
OConnell sometimes reaches for the fancy (strewn disjecta) over the plain, and occasionally over-explains. In the Highlands, a woman offers to help him put up his tent; she worked in a camping store, she says, and she knows that: Theyre tricky bastards, some of them. OConnell is struck by the empathic skillfulness [sic] of this revelation and then, in a sentence 132 words long, tells us why.
If he reads that, itll bother him, maybe add to his fretting. But it shouldnt: hes doing good work in difficult times. He offers us hope as well as black humour. And we need that now.
Notes from an Apocalypse is published by Granta at 14.99. To order your copy from the Telegraph visit books.telegraph.co.uk
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