The Apocalypse: What's Up With That?
The first of these works of fiction is the new book by one of my favorite writers, Cormac McCarthy. It's called The Road, and from what I can tell so far it's the novel that McCarthy has been hinting at for years in bleak, gore-laden books like his masterpiece Blood Meridian and last year's extremely dark No Country For Old Men, the latter being a book to which this new book could be considered a logical extension, even a sequel of sorts. The second work of fiction that's got me pondering End Times is the television show Jericho, which I caught the second episode of last night (God bless the man who invented the DVR). Such an apocalyptic pop-culture convergence got me thinking: people in this country sure do love themselves some Doomsday.
Both of these bits of popular entertainment--though I shutter just a bit to call a work by a lyrical genius like McCarthy "popular entertainment"--fit into the genre of post-apocalyptic fiction. Entries in this genre range from truly excellent (Nevil Shute's On The Beach was probably the first book to truly scare the living hell out of me) to just plain laughable (e.g. The Postman, a terrifically cornball Kevin Costner movie based on the not-much-better book of the same name). Although it is always with us to some extent, the popularity of this genre waxes and wanes over time: The 1950's and the 1980's seem to have been particularly productive periods, and we seem to be enjoying a resurgence yet again here in the early 21st century, with noteworthy additions to the canon like last year's Stephen King bestseller Cell and the wildly-popular Left Behind series, movies like Spielberg's remake of War of the Worlds or the upcoming Apocalypto, and my personal favorite, the strange resurgence (resurrection, if you will) in recent years of zombie movies. And now we can add to that list Jericho and The Road.
All these works of fiction feature a cataclysmic event that causes a sudden, violent and utter end to the world as we (or the protagonists) know it. Usually this forces the survivors into, well, survival mode, stripping them of the fragile social structure that supports civilized society and forcing them to confront the most basic of human needs--finding food and shelter, utilizing what weapons are available, and fighting off bands of marauding punk rockers on motorcycles and/or jetskis. The nature of the cataclysmic event that brings our heroes to such dire straits varies widely; it can be anything from a plague to an alien invasion to an environmental calamity, but nuclear holocaust is a tried and true favorite, and atomic warfare is (or at least seems to be) the culprit in both Jericho and The Road.
McCarthy's novel is, as far as I've read it, an irredeemably bleak story of an unnamed father and son wandering the blasted, burned-out landscape of what was once the United States. The calamity that brought civilization to an end is (so far) only hinted at, but the results are truly horrifying; the only life-purpose left to father and son seem to be scrounging food, avoiding cannibals and trying to make their way south to a less hostile climate before the coming of winter. This is a long way from All The Pretty Horses. The only light of hope visible seems to be the unwavering love between ever-protective father and worshipful son. Other than that, the world dominated by barely-human predators that McCarthy envisions is as good as dead, perhaps better off dead.
Jericho is not nearly so unrelentingly terse, but it is certainly not without it's horrific elements. It is simultaneously an example of post-apocalyptic fiction and another widely popular television genre, the Lost rip-off. You know, tons of characters with secret, interconnected pasts, a serialized format featuring long story arcs, and an eerie, "what the hell is going on?" kind of atmosphere that invites obsessive fans to pour over and dissect every second for clues in the hope of solving the show's central mystery. (See also: Heroes, Kidnapped, The Nine.) The eponymous Jericho is a small town in Kansas who's residents witness the apparent destruction of Denver via a mushroom cloud seen over the mountains on the horizon--especially strange, since I had no idea there were mountains in Kansas. Communication is cut off, and the town is left to it's own devices for survival, as well as to figure out what has happened to the outside world--was it a terrorist attack? A war? An accident? No one knows yet.
I have to admit, I find this all very interesting and, yes, entertaining. Why can't we seem to get enough of these sorts of stories? What so fascinating about The End of the World? Why is that we are so eager to get our Apocalypse on, at least in terms of popular fiction?
I think that to some extent the answer to that question is partly rooted in the fact that surges of millennialism have washed over the American landscape ever since this country was founded. Americans are a more religious people than much of the rest of the industrialized world, and western religions have always featured a strong eschatological flavor. To be blunt, fire-and-brimstone types have always been with us, interpreting their favored prophecies to fit whatever crises and disasters and enemies currently exist in order to show that, without a shadow of a doubt, The End is obviously near. People who ponder the end of the world in terms of religious revelation almost always seem to do so with a maniacal glee. The fact that millions of people throughout history have spent thousands of years convinced that the end was imminently upon them and that all of these people have obviously thus far been wrong does not deter the enthusiasm one iota. In this sort of cultural environment it's no wonder our popular fiction reflects a fascination with The End. But that only explains part of the story, since most post-apocalyptic fiction is basically secular in flavor.
One could, I suppose, argue that a lot of this sort of fiction is really about the triumph of the indominable human spirit, that we like reassuring ourselves that despite cosmic indifference and our own suicidal tendencies as a species, when the chips are really down the will band together, soldier on, and somehow figure out how to repair a generator and shield ourselves from radiation despite the fact that in real life most of us don't know how to change a tire. That sort of thing might help explain the appeal of a show like Jericho, in which the townsfolk put aside old rivalries--so far, at least--and work together in a time of crisis. But how, then, to explain the unapologetically bleak appeal of something like The Road, a world in which outside the protagonist father and son there exists only bloodthirsty predators and hapless victims, a world in which the closest thing to hope is the vague notion that perhaps further south the winter might not kill?
Maybe it's simple morbid fascination, the same thing that forces us to slow down and stare at a car wreck despite ourselves. And maybe it's a vicarious way of dealing with our own mortality. But in the end, I believe that what these sorts of books and movies and shows are about is a catharsis. It's a chance to pull our deepest fears out of our subconscious and confront them, then put them safely away before calling out for pizza. I think something in us likes to be reminded that no matter what our fears--nuclear war, terrorism, environmental disaster, whatever--we're not there yet, and that as long as we know that a threat exists then there's a pretty decent chance we'll be able to do something about it. Preferably before it comes to fending off Lord Humungus with a flame thrower.