This is a worthwhile piece about post-apocalyptic (specifically post-nuclear) novels. It links up Mccarthy's The Road with some recent, lesser, mass-paperback post-nuke books. The piece is both funny and thoughtful (Ron Rosenbaum calls them "nuke-porn" books), and free of the usual snark that tends to hollow out pieces in Slate.

His consideration of McCarthy's book is worthwhile. Rosenbaum would, of course, have no way of knowing that I had discussed the current context of The Road much the same way he did when I gave a brief talk on it to our freshmen class last August...

I think the Road stands as an important and striking book and the quality of its writing makes it stand out from most all the post-apocalyptic works. One aspect of its power is the starkness of the writing. And the lack of politics. McCarthy is not using the apocalypse to flog a current political point, and so little is indicated about the main character that he could, in fact, be anyone. And the specific apocalypse is never made clear--it could well have been a natural extinction event.

Rosenbaum could have included the spate of new books and tv shows about the natural world after people disappear. I would classify some of these works as genocide fantasy, often by left-leaning environmentalists who wish people would just go away so nature could be restored, cities and especially suburbs would disappear, and huge ranges of birds and bison would come back. The tv shows might be a bit less political--my feeling is that they are just looking for an outlet for computer graphics and this pseudo-documentary style doesn't require the narratives a disaster film has.

What makes the 'world without us' crowd especially scary is that the genre never details how or why people disappear, they just do. It is genocide fantasy minus the messy details. Cut to image of trees growing in the middle of city streets...

Of course, there has long been a religiously-based genocide fantasy (or fantasies) in the form of pre-millenialism, but that is worth a discussion at another time (or not).

Speaking of nuke-porn and genocide fantasies on the part of the literati, I have been waiting for a good opportunity to write something duly harsh about World Made by Hand, by James Kunstler, which I had been led to by a New Yorker piece that described him and his blog (Clusterfuck Nation). That blog can be ok reading at times if you like a screed. Yet his novel is, simply, garbage. It veers dangerously close to white supremacist fantasy in seeking to populate a new perfect community in which there is no diversity, only white, Christian small towns modeled on some fictional historical model of homespun salt-of-the-earthiness coupled with rigorously defended purity and homemade style.

The book is formulaic in the way that a decent post-apocalyptic novel should be (right down to the gratuitous tour of the ravaged and returning-to-nature landscape), and the writing is workable even if the story is flat. It ends weirdly with the introduction of a human termite queen with extra-sensory powers?--don't ask.

But what makes this novel really terrible is its thick vein of self-righteousness. The hero takes evident glee in the demise of a lifestyle that was not fulfilling or 'real' a life, if you read it clearly, that the author just considers fundamentally tacky. The pre-collapse world rested on hollow things and meaningless tasks, whereas the truly discerning in the new world get everything they want and everybody is fulfilled because real work is fulfilling. And so on. Old(er) men like the protagonist, virtuous as he is by function of embracing the post-apocalyptic world, is rewarded by having a young beautiful recent widow move in with alacrity (crowding out the see how it functions as fantasy).

The 'world made by hand' that Kunstler creates is an old timey New England town that is wholly white, a town standing as a refuge from the racial apocalypse that seems to be ongoing down in Maryland and points south. (By contrast, race does not appear as a factor at all in McCarthy's book, and in most post-apocalyptic films, society is almost unbelievably well integrated).

It is hard not to read Kunstler's book as tacitly embracing a notion of lily white virtue, the flip side of the current reality of dying, boring small towns in marginal areas being outstripped by vibrant yet often turbulent multiethnic cities. If the book was set in the South it would scream Klan fantasy, putting it in the northeast only obscures this theme a bit. Indeed, the protagonist in the novel finds a sympathetic compadre in the white, violent, sterotypically fundamentalist Virginian, who arrives in town with cult (and muscled enforcers) in tow and helps the town to retain its stability and order. At first you are led to think there is going to be conflict with this auslander, but it is this hand-tooled violence blended with faith (all under the eye of the ESP termite queen) that helps the hero clean up the town and blah blah blah. Boring, actually, but disturbing that a post-apocalyptic fantasy on the anti-development left supposedly heralding a new sense of purpose so prominently lacks a sense of actual community, or humanity.

It can only make matters worse to point out that though Kunstler makes the hero a fiddler, he makes him a contra fiddler. What could be worse in the doom of the future than the survival of the contra?

Me, I want no part of the apocalypse if the soundtrack is contra tunes. Give me the old time Pentecostal songs any day. Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down!


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