July 2007

Andrea Chmielewski

fiction

The Apocalypse Reader edited by Justin Taylor

The Apocalypse Reader, edited by Justin Taylor, is a collection of 34 short stories that takes the term apocalypse as its theme, and it succeeds because the selected works discuss not only the end of the world, but also the more traditional sense of apocalypse: revelation or ending. In fact, the beauty of the collection in general is in the variety of stories it anthologizes: dramatic and humorous, old and new, personal and universal. When the contributor’s list runs the gamut from classic writers like Edgar Allan Poe and H.G. Wells to modern day heavy-hitters like Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates it’s easy to see that this will not be 34 retellings of celestial bodies falling from the sky while a family of survivors fends off insanity and thirst in a make-shift shelter.

There certainly are traditional apocalypse stories, of course, including one by Jared Hohl that turned me off eating jam for a good week after reading it, and a short work by Jeff Goldberg that pokes fun at the slew of zombie movies that use the creatures as heavy-handed metaphors for everything from capitalism to cultural apathy (the title of this story: “These Zombies Are Not a Metaphor”). The real heart of the collection, though, is in the tales of personal apocalypse, the ones where the reader connects deeply with the character and the stories unfold gradually to reveal their endings without the glitz and drama of a summer blockbuster. Rick Moody’s “The Apocalypse Commentary of Bob Paisner,” for example, is a whip-smart story disguised as a college student’s term paper in which the narrator compares the events of his own life to the Biblical book of Revelations, complete with footnotes.

Each of the collected stories strives to reveal some small truth about the world through tales of its end, and most succeed at coming off as relevant and meaningful for the reader. Some of the stories are clearly written in a post-September 11 frame of mind, but even the oldest of the works have a certain weight to the modern world. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, “Earth’s Holocaust,” for example, the citizens of the world elect to burn everything that causes evil in a giant bonfire. As people come to dump all of their worldly possessions in the fire, it becomes more and more clear that the bonfire is in vain; no matter how hard they try, there is no way to stop the evil inside a human being. There seems something more than a little political in this tale, and not only because of the vast procession of characters who come bearing the trappings of religion, politics, and personal power.

While I appreciated how inclusive the collection was, I found myself questioning why certain stories had been selected -- what some of the pieces had to do with apocalypse, even by the loosest of standards. Stories such as Stacey Levine’s “Sweethearts” were, despite their haunting beauty, a little off target. The original appeal of the collection -- its large scope -- also seemed to be its one weakness. After all, if an apocalypse is just an ending, then couldn’t most stories fit the bill; what is a story but the telling of the end of one thing and, perhaps, the beginning of another? Still, these little thematic tangents were few and far between and were forgivable due to the overall quality of the selected pieces, and I still enjoyed reading each tale of wayward comets, earthquakes, and trips to the end of the world.

The Apocalypse Reader edited by Justin Taylor
Thunder's Mouth Press
ISBN: 1560259590
318 Pages