A reading list for your nuclear bunker

18 April 2017

Is it the end of the world as we know it? With increased sales of The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, it looks like we’re turning to literature to help make sense of the mad situation. But when you’re hunkered down in your nuclear bunker, two books aren’t going to cut it: here’s an ultimate post-apocalyptic reading list brought to you by editor Nick Sheerin.

In David Gates’s novel Jernigan, Peter Jernigan is busy wisecracking and drinking his way towards personal Armageddon. Jernigan’s girlfriend Martha, though, is better prepared for the end of the world than she is for Jernigan’s self-destructive streak: she breeds rabbits in the basement and takes tips from Suburban Survivalist. Survivalism has been an American past-time for decades: think of Ted Kaczynski abandoning what he saw as an increasingly dystopian society for the call of the wild, or the many Americans who built domestic fallout shelters in their back gardens. More recently, Britain has seen a huge increase in demand from British ‘preppers’ for survivalist products. But writers have been preparing for the apocalypse for years. If we know anything about what the end of the world might look like, it’s thanks to writers like Cormac McCarthy, Nevil Shute and J.G. Ballard.

The modern post-apocalyptic survival thriller

Heinz Helle’s Euphoria follows five friends as they struggle to make sense of their freshly devastated world. Gruber, Drygalski, Fürst, Golde and the unnamed narrator have spent a few days together in an isolated cabin, a typical lads’ retreat from the realities of mid-thirties life. When they come down from the cabin, they find what looks like the charred aftermath of war, or some other kind of near-instant collapse of society in their immediate vicinity.

Like McCarthy, Helle is less concerned with what happened to the world than what happens to the people left. In this sense, Euphoria, like The Road, has elements of the modern post-apocalyptic survival thriller whose most common incarnation is now found in zombie movies, video games and novels. In the long-running Resident Evil series of video games, the player takes on hordes of zombies while trying to stop the viral outbreak that has created them. The protagonist as the lone hope for humanity is the standard at the pulpier end of the post-apocalyptic survival thriller genre (see the film adaptions of I Am Legend, Max Brooks’s World War Z, and PD James’s The Children of Men).

Do no evil

At the more literary end of the spectrum, though, there is rarely any hope of returning the world to its pre-apocalyptic state. Helle’s five young men wander the ruined landscape of Euphoria and attempt merely to survive. McCarthy’s The Road ultimately offers a sliver of hope, having offered exactly its opposite for most of its course – hope not of a return to normality, but that humanity can survive in the face of brutality.

Helle’s vision of human nature is perhaps darker. Is there a place for humanity when we are reduced to animal survival? In common with much of McCarthy’s work, the world of The Road is divided between people who do evil and people to whom evil is done. In the murderous character of Judge Holden, McCarthy’s equally apocalyptic western Blood Meridian features one of the most purely evil characters in fiction. In Heinz Helle’s fictional world, meanwhile, evil is not so much an essence as a habit. In Helle’s previous novel, Superabundance, the narrator was a young man struggling with bad impulses, cheating on his girlfriend in spite of himself. Euphoria’s five young men are in much worse circumstances – and so they do much worse too.

But Euphoria, as with most post-apocalyptic novels, is as much about the world before as the world afterward. As they make their way through the pointless ruins of their world, the narrator takes longer and longer to make sense of what he sees:

In the distance, at the head of this endless line of stationary vehicles, something emerges from the fog: something compact, thick, chaotic. A big pile. Or a small mountain. We draw nearer. A multicoloured mountain. We draw nearer still. A multicoloured mountain of metal. We draw even nearer.

The image slowly coalesces:

Crushed cars, overturned cars, cars that have been pressed together, wedged together, bumpers tangled in wheel wells, bumpers tangled in engine bonnets, in dented driver’s side doors, in severely dented passenger side doors, bumpers in bumpers in twisted boot lids upon torn-off car doors and on top of that rusty undercarriages, exhaust systems, wheels thrusting skyward and cracks, fissures and rifts in the crimson red, racing green, pearl white or obsidian black or in cheaper colours without trademarked names, dirty wounds that reveal that even the most dynamic SUV is really nothing more than a hunk of metal driven by fire.

Pieces of broken safety glass everywhere, astonishingly evenly distributed, like sharp, bright-sounding snow. The mind’s childish hope that staring for longer will offer answers.

A whole new world

The world these men find themselves is no longer the world of just a few weeks earlier. The things that had meaning before are reduced to disembodied lists of objects. Cars become ‘hunks of metal driven by fire’. In an earlier scene, the five men realise that for days they have been carrying around their lifeless smartphones in their jeans pockets. They throw them into a lake filled with animal carcasses. Their world is gone, and with it something of themselves.

This is where some of the best post-apocalyptic writing finds its subject: what we stand to lose in the face of environmental catastrophe, war, zombie invasion, whatever means we find to destroy ourselves – and what we want to preserve of this world. Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven follows a wandering theatre troupe as they attempt to preserve the thing most precious to them. In The Chinese Room’s recent video game Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, the player explores the fictional Shropshire village of Yaughton in the aftermath of a mysterious catastrophe in which all the villagers have ‘gone to the rapture’. This lovingly imagined town – part Ambridge, part Twin Peaks, allows the player to wander through a lost world and uncover the small dramas at the heart of life in an English village in the 1980s. Denis Johnson’s novel Fiskadoro shows us an irradiated Florida Keys where cults and myths have flowered in the aftermath of a nuclear war, and where people cling to what they’ve salvaged of the world that went before.

Euphoria’s characters find nothing to preserve of the material world, or even the world of ideas. Helle –  like Johnson, The Chinese Room and Mandel – finds the essence of our humanity not in the individual human animal, but in the safety net of human society, and the means it affords us to do more than just survive: the collapse of society is the collapse of humanity.

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