MAY 20, 2020
“ANTICIPATING THE END of the world is humanity’s oldest pastime,” observes a character in David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas. Our current coronavirus moment (I am typing this review while under a “stay-at-home” directive from the governor of Nevada), is not exceptionally apocalyptic; doomsday declarations have persisted across recorded history. And yet even the most historically informed among us can’t help but suspect that the signs of the times have become scarier than ever. “It has always been the end of the world,” Mark O’Connell acknowledges in Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back, but “what if now it’s especially the end of the world”?
Are we living in the End Times? The frequency with which apocalyptic books, movies, television shows, songs, video games, and memes now appear is dizzying. While recent titles include both earnest religious tracts and serious literary fiction, they also feature a high volume of parody and humor. In the summer of 2013 alone, three different feature-length films were released in the narrow genre of “apocalyptic comedy”: This Is the End, Rapture-Palooza, and The World’s End. Light-hearted pop songs on the theme include David Byrne’s “Tiny Apocalypse” (2004; rereleased in 2019) and Janelle Monáe’s “Dance Apocalyptic” (2013). The apocalypse, in other words, is not a forthcoming flood that will destroy the world; it is the sea in which we swim.
This is a major takeaway from O’Connell’s brilliant book: modern apocalypse is a general anxiety rather than a specific anticipation. It can be terrifying, or funny, or even dull. Gesturing occasionally to his own therapy sessions, O’Connell finds his subject not in popular predictive accounts of global warming or world war but in the pervasive “prepper” mentality — a background anxiety that toggles between pragmatism and alarmism. He frames the book with his role as a parent to a young son and daughter, beginning with his worry about bringing new life into this crumbling world and concluding with a consideration over how he might explain to them the grim prospects for their future. So while he has little to say about the detailed circumstances of a pandemic (or any other worldwide disaster, for that matter), his focus on “the psychology of apocalypse” speaks directly to our present moment.
As its subtitle suggests, O’Connell’s book is a work of travel writing. Its chapters are structured around “perverse pilgrimages,” journeys that take the author to survivalist bunkers in South Dakota, billionaire panic properties in New Zealand, a Mars colonization conference in Los Angeles, and a tour of the Chernobyl site in Ukraine. But the chief journey is the “personal” one O’Connell takes to understand how best to orient himself to the end of the world. He thereby takes apocalypse in its literal meaning — as an “unveiling” or revelation about the present.
I found particularly intriguing a point O’Connell makes in his introduction regarding apocalypticism’s generational differences. In the 1950s and 1960s, global catastrophe was strongly connected to the prospect of nuclear war. Like the biblical Armageddon, atomic annihilation promised to be swift and total. But specters of planetary obliteration today tend to be linked to climate change, which will likely take centuries to wipe out the human species. We might say, along the lines of Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, that we are living through a slow apocalypse.
O’Connell also explores this generational shift by pointing to the 1986 Challenger explosion, which he recalls watching on television when he was six years old. What the 1969 Apollo moon landing was for his parents’ generation, the Challenger explosion has been for his: “an image in which the future itself was fixed.” Whereas the former was a pioneering technological achievement broadcast to the whole world, the latter was an ominous annihilation replayed ad nauseam. (Ben Lerner, who is roughly the same age as O’Connell, similarly discusses this point in his 2014 novel 10:04, observing that the 1986 shuttle disaster is “consistently noted as the dawning of our era of live disasters and simulcast wars.”) For O’Connell’s generation, the Jetsons have been replaced by Mad Max. Instead of “the space age,” we get “the sky is on fire,” as Marc Maron puts it in his 2020 stand-up comedy special, End Times Fun.
At the end of his longest chapter, O’Connell sits alone at dawn near a remote river in the Scottish Highlands, completing a solo camping expedition as part of a back-to-nature retreat (ideal for those preparing for the collapse of civilization). Denied his laptop, his smartphone, or even a paperback book, he struggles for 24 hours to find some spiritual connection with the wilderness. As he meditates in front of his tent and finally begins to feel an oceanic expansion of being, a fighter jet tears across the sky and threatens to annihilate him far more completely than his outdoors reverie.
The jet, from a nearby RAF base, was on a bombing mission to Syria. O’Connell’s attempt to flee from apocalypse had instead placed him squarely within its militaristic midst. Noting the irony of this war-faring interruption of his wilderness solitude, he remarks parenthetically that he was “[a]ttempting to follow in the footsteps of Emerson” but “had come face-to-face with Pynchon.”
This rude awakening in the Caledonian Forest is an example of what the critic Leo Marx famously called “the machine in the garden.” At the heart of American literature and culture, Marx saw a bizarre combination of classical pastoralism and industrial progress. Americans, he thought, pursue both a prelapsarian paradise and a technological utopia — both a return to a golden age and the advent of a superior world. So even as our machines destroy the environment, they promise a new and improved garden. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Marx’s landmark 1964 study was spurred by his horror at the effects of nuclear weapons testing. “If America seemed to promise everything that men always had wanted,” he wrote, “it also threatened to obliterate much of what they already had achieved.”
Notes from an Apocalypse similarly explains how America’s frontier-industrial ideology creates the conditions both for an apocalyptic destruction of the planet and for a perversely optimistic sense that global catastrophe can be survived by a small number of wise investors. O’Connell hails from Dublin, and his travels take him around the world, but the United States remains at the center of his thinking. He traces the “chaos and upheaval and entropy of our time” to an American ailment: “a rapidly metastasizing tumor of inequality, hyper-militarism, racism, surveillance, and fear that we might as well go ahead and diagnose as terminal-stage capitalism.”
This critique is fleshed out in excellent early chapter on “prepping.” O’Connell becomes obsessed with websites and YouTube videos, created almost exclusively by white American men, that strategize the best preparation methods for surviving the collapse of civilization:
It was all there in strange microcosm: the frontier mythos of freedom and self-sufficiency, the overwrought performance of masculinity that utterly failed to conceal the cringing terror from which it proceeded, the sad and fetishistic relationship to consumer goods, the hatred and mistrust of outsiders. Lurking on the forums and blogs and Facebook groups of these preppers — reading their literature and even listening to the occasional podcast — I came to see their movement as a hysterical symptom of America itself.
The average prepper, O’Connell points out, doesn’t fantasize about waking up all alone on the earth. Rather, he imagines a postapocalyptic world in which he needs to protect himself (and perhaps his immediate family) from hordes of new barbarians. In the wake of a catastrophe, these preppers view their neighbors as threats; they are not interested in providing relief to the victims of disaster or in rebuilding struggling communities.
The logical terminus of the prepping mentality takes place both on the other side of the globe and in outer space. O’Connell flies to New Zealand to explore the controversial land acquisitions by Silicon Valley billionaires who view the country as an untouched natural preserve ideal for riding out the apocalypse, and he attends a conference in Los Angeles devoted to plans for the private colonization of Mars. Tech giants Peter Thiel and Elon Musk are the respective targets here. Rather than working to improve the global conditions trending toward cataclysm, these figures will spend vast resources to isolate and protect themselves.
In his first book, To Be a Machine (2017), O’Connell had examined the vogue, among Silicon Valley elites including Thiel and Musk, of transhumanism — a movement to digitize the human mind in such a way as to preserve individual consciousness forever, thereby “solving the modest problem of death.” This sort of thinking beyond the extinction of the human species has obvious apocalyptic overtones, and just as he had found transhumanism to be an “intensification” of capitalism, O’Connell now finds apocalypticism to be an outgrowth of market ideology run rampant. This especially selfish, anti-communitarian death drive — what Dan Sinykin, in his book American Literature and the Long Downturn, labels “neoliberal apocalypse” — can manifest itself in affordable underground bunkers (for the “postapocalyptic petit bourgeoisie”), antipodean pastoral compounds, and Martian colonies. It boils down to the conviction that even though capitalism got us into this mess, only thinking like a capitalist will get you through it.
While this phenomenon can be deeply depressing, it can also suggest a theater of the absurd, and O’Connell excels at portraying the colorful characters who shine on an apocalyptic stage. Robert Vicino, “a real estate magnate for the end of days,” shows him around the South Dakota bunker neighborhood (formerly an army munitions facility) that he developed. Standing six feet, eight inches tall and weighing over 300 pounds, Vicino is an imposing, “distinctly Mephistophelian figure” who made his fortune in advertising in the 1980s by designing large inflatable attractions. He enjoys aggressively approaching bikers at gas stations and half-joking about strip clubs, mud wrestling, and international conspiracies. Igor, O’Connell’s Ukrainian tour guide at Chernobyl, similarly displays an “inscrutable jocularity,” driving his bus down the road with a clipboard in one hand and a smartphone in the other and laughing about the hundreds of years during which aftereffects will continue to plague the site. By contrast, Peter Thiel is both “a figure of almost cartoonishly outsized villainy” and “less an actual person than a shell company for a diversified portfolio of anxieties about the future, a human emblem of the moral vortex at the center of the market.”
The chapters in Notes from an Apocalypse are arranged according to travel destinations, but they are essentially personal essays; O’Connell is chiefly examining his own evolving attitudes and anxieties. He usually begins a chapter by taking an ironic distance from his subjects, poking fun at the figures seriously preparing for a global apocalypse. But by a chapter’s end he often concedes that he is closer to these characters than he initially wanted to admit. After all, he is himself obsessed with apocalypse, even if from the aesthetic distance of the interested writer of literary nonfiction. So his field notes on the doomsday industry always circle back to personal revelations about what it means to live with apocalyptic anxieties.
This intensely self-reflective style is similar to that of Leslie Jamison or Jia Tolentino — authors suspicious of authorial authority. The foregrounding of ignorance and insecurity can be risky for nonfiction prose, but here it works especially well because no one can truly have expert knowledge of the end of the world. O’Connell’s consistent attention to his own limited perspective encourages a very modern form of “negative capability,” what John Keats defined as the power to persist “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Apocalypticism is popular because it offers certainty and closure. It insists that the end is coming soon no matter what we do, and it thus encourages a narrow focus on short-term individual problems rather than a wider view of long-term social and environmental issues. The best way to combat such thinking is to learn to appreciate the mysteries surrounding us. For O’Connell, this appreciation comes through parenthood because the doubts and uncertainties he feels in raising his children are inextricable from the love he feels for them.
O’Connell concludes that if the apocalypse is understood as the dismantling of a system of haves and have-nots into a resulting world consisting solely of have-nots (the “collapse of civilization”), then it has already arrived for most people in the world. Apocalyptic anxiety is a bourgeois problem: “Wasn’t the impulse to catastrophize, to imagine the collapse of one’s world, only the pursuit of a mind shaped by leisure and economic comfort?” Rather than fantasizing about personal prosperity in postapocalyptic scenarios, we would be better off making everyone else’s world today a little less apocalyptic.