A new literary sub-genre is being born today, while you nap at your desk. It features larger-than-life, and often comical, characters having bizarro adventures after the end of the world.
Call it "post-apocalyptic picaresque." Two of the most intriguing fall books fall into this category: Brian Slattery's Liberation, and Nick Harkaway's The Gone Away World. We talked to Slattery and Harkaway about putting the fun back into the post-apocalypse.
To be sure, there have been funny books about the apocalypse forever. Just look at Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Or the zombie/robot survival guides. Slattery also cites A Boy And His Dog, and the movie Hell Comes To Frogtown. Harkaway cites Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash: "That's definitely one. Post-collapse and funny as hell, just a little scary because it seems too plausible for comfort." Harkaway also mentions Don DeLillo's White Noise.
I was pretty inspired by the Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Men in Black take on apocalypses — that even though the very fate of the world hangs in the balance, they're sort of a dime a dozen and nothing to get all that upset about. And both of those were pretty mainstream things.
But with novels like The Road achieving mainstream acceptance, it definitely seems as though post-apocalyptic novels have room to expand and create some new niches for themselves, including comical ones. "I'm not sure that post-apocalyptic is a genre, exactly. It would be a very, very broad one," Harkaway says. But he does agree that that type of story has gotten more acceptance lately. "Perhaps it's more that the reaction to this kind of story is less knee-jerk now, and more people are taking them seriously since Cormac McCarthy wrote The Road."
And once you start writing more silly books about the apocalypse, it opens the door to satire. You can use the end of the world to poke fun at the ways the world is messed up today. Says Harkaway:
In The Gone-Away World, I was definitely taking a few swings at the world we live in now. Not so much saying it's absurd as using absurdity to point out how awful it is, and how stupid. We really could make ourselves an apocalypse the way we're going, and we need to get it together. I believe our only hope is in being more human, in finding points of commonality and not, ever, allowing ourselves to be lazy. Peace is not a state of being, it's a constant action - like love.
Slattery says he set out to satirize the ridiculousness of our present-day world when he wrote Liberation, which portrays a massive economic collapse leading to the fall of the United States. It was just his weird luck that the events of his novel started appearing more realistic after it was published.
I'm not in the prediction business at all—that current events and the publication of Liberation converged as they did is really creepy and weird to me. When I wrote Liberation, economic collapse wasn't nearly as immediate a threat as it is now, and my intention was entirely to use it more as a tool for satire—to hold up a funhouse mirror to some of our more serious problems.
The other thing that jumps out at me about both Liberation and TGAW is that they're ultimately sort of hopeful stories. Not everybody dies in the apocalypse, because that wouldn't be much of a story. And they both end with a glimmer of hope that the survivors will be able to create some kind of a just society.
It's like I wrote ages ago: we don't consume post-apocalyptic stories to think about the end of everything. We consume them because we want to imagine surviving the worst disaster imaginable, both because that's intrinsically hopeful, and also because it would mean a simpler life.
I agree entirely that post-apocalyptic stories can be hopeful - some of them aren't, because they're really about how the last of the population dies - and I think they're also attractive because they often promise a simpler life - one without mortgages or difficult choices about environment vs. consumerism. Mine, of course, isn't simpler; the people in TGAW are up against many of the same choices we are - including whether to sacrifice their fellows for their own convenience.
In both Liberation and TGAW, our heroes are rogues, rather than paragons of virtue. In Liberation, the story follows the members of the Slick Six, a colorful group of criminals (sort of) led by Marco, a ruthless killer. And in TGAW, the main survivors are a group of oddballs, including the somewhat demented Gonzo Lubitsch. Why is it more hopeful, or more interesting, to imagine such flawed characters surviving the end of the world?
"Everybody loves a rogue," says Harkaway. "They bring colour to otherwise very bleak situations. They return the human to a world which is otherwise alarmingly stark and humourless... Rogues offer hope - not just of survival, but of fun; the beginning of a new life, rather than just an endless series of hunter-gatherer actions to satisfy basic needs." But of course, Harkaway's characters become less rogueish and more heroic as the story goes on, in a progression he compares to Han Solo going from "smuggler to lover to general."
Also, Slattery says it was important to him to avoid any kind of utopianism or survival of the fittest in Liberation's post-collapse storyline:
A postapocalyptic story in which only the "best" people survive strikes me as kind of misanthropic and even carries the whiff of eugenics and genocide. (Thanks to Orwell and Huxley, who I read as an impressionable kid, I have a serious distrust of utopias because I always end up asking "Utopia for whom?") Because I really like people, I couldn't resist writing about as diverse a group of characters as I could.