February 2004

Sara Pfannkuche

fiction

Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson

To call the series of worlds in Kate Atkinson's Not The End Of The World stories doesn't do her justice. The collection of twelve tales, ten of which initially seem unconnected, begins and ends with Trudi and Charlene, two best friends in apocalyptic London. The two Trudi and Charlene stories are the foundation of the book and constitute an invisible thread that ties everything together. This thread isn't revealed until the end of the book; in the meantime, the reader enjoys each narrative on its own merit.

The first story, entitled "Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping," finds the two characters in a London where earthquakes, plagues and machine gun toting receptionists are the norm. Zoos have been liberated and wild animals roam the streets. Museums have been looted for their treasures and the television stations have been destroyed. The situation worsens from the beginning of the book, where one can still have tea at a restaurant and taxis are available, to the end where bottled water is unavailable and the two women must gather rainwater in a looted Serves bowl. Atkinson presents the crumbling world of Trudi and Charlene very matter-of-factly and to great comic effect. In one scene Charlene, who is a journalist for a bridal magazine, must take shelter from a sniper in a doorway of a bank. On the phone with Trudi while she waits for the sniper fire to end, she discusses the wedding fair she attended earlier and the samples of bonbonnieres intended for the happy couple, Mark and Rachel, whom Charlene suspects of being fabricated for the wedding fair. The juxtaposition of an anarchistic world void of the usual rules and mores of society with the leftover customs of wedding pageantry is brilliant. Apparently, it is bridal magazines and the people who read and write them that will survive the end of the world. Perhaps the cockroaches can keep them company.

The other thread connecting Atkinson's world(s) is mythology. Like the popular television program Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is mentioned several times throughout the book, Atkinson combines allusions and references to ancient myths and updates them to contemporary settings. In "Temporal Anomaly," for instance, a middle-aged mother and housewife is taken over by Hades's chariot while speeding down the M9 in her Volvo. Though never stated explicitly, the story appears to be a re-telling of the Persephone and Demeter myth. Other stories are entirely of Atkinson 's invention. In "The Cat Lover," the main character of the story wishes for a baby and ends up taking in a stray tomcat. The cat soon grows into a tiger -- a tiger as big as a man, to be exact -- that wears men's clothing and shares a bed with her. The ending, though fantastic, doesn't come as a complete surprise, but rather fits in with the thematic structure of the other stories.

Though Atkinson may experiment with mythological elements to tell a story, the myths are, in the end, just a tool to explore her central theme of the book: longing. Sometimes the longing is for mundane items out of the past, as when Trudi and Charlene desire apples and sourdough bread and other goods they knew before the end of the world. Other times the longing is for something incredible that will occur in the future. In "Tunnel of Fish," Eddie is an awkward pre-adolescent with bulging eyes and scaly skin whose only friends are the other geeks at his school -- some of whom call themselves Geek Gods. His mother assumes her youthful memory of being dragged to the bottom of the Aegean Sea to be raped by Poseidon was the product of an acid trip -- even though she doesn't recall taking any acid prior to the incident. Yet no matter how deplorable Eddie's life might be, he is still happy since he knows his destiny is to become Eddie the Fish King, at least according to the carp that revealed the secret to him.

Not the End of the World is a rare find. It is clever without being cutesy and wry without being caustic. Too often an interesting idea goes astray by an author more interested in cleverness than in a cohesive story line. This is not the case with Atkinson, who doesn't sacrifice her readers ultimate satisfaction to satisfy her vanity. Atkinson, a droll and gifted writer, uses a complex structure to her advantage. Main characters in one story show up as peripheral figures in other stories, and yet the reader isn't sure what connects the stories and how they overlap until the very end. And even though the twist at the end is not necessarily innovative, it is used to great advantage to effectively and satisfactorily connect the dots of Atkinson 's worlds to produce a single story where nothing is coincidental and everything has a purpose. Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown
ISBN 0316614300
244 pages