I’m not sure if I’ve ever read a story collection as strange, transportive, and challenging as Lucy Corin’s One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses. In addition to three stories of traditional length, the end-piece, One Hundred Apocalypses, is a series of (very) short stories, some only two sentences, many about death, rape, destruction, and redemption. Some reviewers might consider the collection, both in scope and sequence, uniquely suited to our times: we live, after all, in a world dominated by Twitter, in which short impressions trump deeper dives and the threat of apocalypse is making us all insane. But what times aren’t uneasy? The dreamy, fairy-tale qualities and allegorical ambitions of these stories are tempered with sophistication and terror, making One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses ageless.
It’s impossible not to invoke the grandmaster of vaguely terrifying, often futuristic storytelling, George Saunders. Balancing implausibility with believability, Saunders stakes out terrain between the bizarre and the normal world as evidenced in stories such as “Escape From Spiderhead,” “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” and “Joysticks.” His success lies in an almost unparalleled ear for dialog. No matter how bizarre his protagonist’s profession — maybe, as in “Joysticks,” he works at a restaurant/strip club in some horrible dystopian America, where waiters wear gigantic fake penises? — the man or woman will sound very much like a real, fragile, and incredibly sympathetic character. It’s hard not to like Saunders’ people. You root for them and imagine waiting in line with them at the grocery store. They might live in some vision of America in which we purchase slaves to hang by the heads in our front yards, but they feel like one of us.
Corin is participating in the same tradition. And when she writes long, as she does in the first few stories of the collection, her writing is every bit as powerful as the best Saunders. She nails dialog. As strange as her characters may be, and as twisted a world they may inhabit, the people Corin makes are still nuanced and fragile, with sharp edges and peculiar details, such that — despite all the ambition and risks the writer has taken — her inventions in the end feel as real as just about any other in literature. The stories, with scenarios as wild and diverse as a woman’s right to adopt an insane person, the state of California disappearing into flame, or a soldier back from the war, grapple with humanity at its best and worst. And there’s enough sparkling, frightening imagination in each piece to make us fear Corin might know something we don’t.
A word about humility: One of the strongest moves a nonfiction writer can make is self-deprecation. John Jeremiah Sullivan is a genius at this. But fiction writers do it, too; there’s a hefty portion of aw-shucks in even the most staggeringly intelligent Saunders story, for instance.
I admire Corin’s own gestures toward humility. In her story, “Madmen,” one of the long ones I just can’t stop thinking about, the narrator says this: “I know it sounds stupid, but this was a big day for me, and everything felt like it might be important at any second.” There is such a lovely, disarming authenticity to this declaration. But it’s also a kind of mission statement: that important things exist, and that — hoo boy! — they are coming.
The writer is at her fearsome best — in the case of both her long pieces or the staggering number of sometimes very short pieces that follow — with her opening sentences and her startling transitions. Allow me to share:
First, there’s the way in which Corin can deliver a killer opener, such as this controlled explosion of information:
Patrick is fourteen, this is earth, it’s dark, it’s cold out, he’s American, he’s white, straight, not everyone has cell phones, he’s sitting on the carpet of the TV room on the third floor holding the remote in both hands in his lap.
Others are simpler, yet just as deadly: “My father got really into UFOs.” And: “At the buffet I responded in the way I thought this guy wanted me to respond.” Or: “Boats are in trees. Photocopiers are on the beach.”
She’s always ready to uncork an image, in such a way that a whole story can be contained in a single line: “No one saw her jump from the city’s tallest luxury rental apartment building.” Or this one: “Postapocalypse, we were all still racist and clamoring for scraps of gold.”
Maybe you call them transitions, maybe you call them collisions, but in the same way Saunders’ work is often a response to a media-saturated world, where high and low comingle so garishly, Corin can also write a paragraph that makes your head spin:
Who has a cookie jar? No one ever again, you can bet on it. So there we were, all fucking and eating each other by the fire, and I kept having all these apocalypse stories from my childhood right there on the tip of my tongue, but for everyone’s sake, I head back.
The effect of this tightly coiled writing toward the end of the book is that a world is being created, bit by bit: “Not long after the mad cows,” Corin writes, “they started recalling pistachios. […] So many things had been recalled […]. People gathered in the fields to remember the food that fed them and killed them. They sang of the salads, the fruits, and the meats.”
By this point in the book, not only am I prepared to imagine myself singing of salads, fruits and meats, I feel a great empathy for the people in the story who already have: “I never want the apocalypse to happen,” she writes elsewhere; “Polar bears clinging to ice, all that shit.” As the paragraph continues, we return to a fragile place. “My worst nightmare. Being separated. I am so afraid of not being together.”
It can be hard work reading Corin. Some readers will find themselves needing to go to autopilot to make it through various inscrutable sections; others may have trouble suspending their desire for plot or character long enough to get hooked.
Because of this, I suppose I would have preferred the whole collection be written at a length and with a familiar sense of pacing, of a kind that hooked me as fully as opening stories like “Madmen,” which should probably should have won a National Magazine Award. But without all the jumps and feints and stops and starts — the meat and reality of all the very short stories that conclude the book — I’m not sure I’d be left as exhausted and challenged.
I’m frightened by Corin. I’m dazzled by her writing. I won’t forget lines like this: “She took a piece of ice into her mouth and let it hurt, perhaps the last ice on earth.” I think I mainly want more. But for its commitment to our dark corners, for the bravery of sticking to its sharp-edged format, and for all it promises for Corin’s future writing. One Hundred Apocalypses is the maybe most titillating short story collection since Wells Tower’s debut. “Some of the things we knew were true,” the book concludes. “I’d only wanted to keep the bells ringing.”
Nathan Deuel has contributed to Harper’s, GQ, The New York Times, and many others. His debut collection of essays, Friday Was the Bomb, will be published by Dzanc in May 2014. He lives in Los Angeles.