By random happenstance, I read two fantastic post-apocalyptic, literary fiction adult books this month. I’ll highlight all the important aspects of a post-apocalyptic novel—shall we compare apocalypses (apocalypsi)?
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel ♦
Inciting Apocalyptic Incident: The Georgia Flu, a particularly virulent strain of flu that wipes out 99.9% of the world’s population in a matter of months.
Scene where I wrote, “this is horrible” in the margins: As everyone attempts to get out of the city, there is massive congestion on the highways. Some people sit for something like three plus days in their cars before giving up as people ahead die from the flu while waiting or decide to walk. There is no way to flee, but staying in the city is more or less a death sentence.
Welcome to the new world: Traveling performers in modified pick-up truck/covered wagons roam the country performing Shakespeare and Beethoven for small communities. Close knit communities where multiple families live in a Burger King and everyone is upset when the town leader takes over the best gas station.
Most Missed: Technology. Mandel places a lot of emphasis on the lack of technology: when the lights fail, the last phone call ever made, the loneliness of a world without social media, characters describing the internet to those too young to remember, discarding now useless laptops, etc.
Resembles: Lost in narrative structure. The novel jumps around in time, taking us from the pre-flu days to about 15 years after the flu struck. The different points of view and characters are also loosely connected.
Why it stands out: Mandel’s post-apocalyptic and pre-apocalypse world is full of culture. It opens with a production (pre-collapse) of King Lear, described in lovely detail. She debates the value of celebrity and paparrazi. The Symphony, the traveling performers I mentioned above in the post incident world, practice Shakespeare and Beethoven. They miss Star Trek, scrounge abandoned houses for TV Guides and carry comic books. She recognizes that any world worth having needs more than survival: it needs art, music, culture.
Conclusion: If you follow book media at all (and yes, it’s a thing) then your eyes are probably glazing over at this very moment because you are sick and tired of seeing this book on “best-of” lists. But it really is a wonderful read. It isn’t exceptionally bold or particularly terrifying, so it makes a good, light (for post-apocalyptic lit) adventure into the aftermath of horrible disaster. A good book whether you like post-apocalyptic reads or not.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Inciting Apocalyptic Incident: No idea. The husband suggests some sort of nuclear disaster, but it’s not clear.
Scene where I wrote, “this is horrible” in the margins: Years later he’d stood in the charred ruins of a library where blackened books lay in pools of water. Shelves tipped over. Some rage at the lies arranged in their thousands row on row. He picked up one of the books and thumbed through the heavy bloated pages. He’d not have thought the value of the smallest thing predicated on a world to come. It surprised him. That the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation.
Welcome to the new world: Ash, loneliness, a long road. Cannibals and roaming war parties also make an appearance.
Most Missed: Food. Whatever happened to destroy the world as we know it, it also killed off wildlife and crops. It seems like people have resorted to a nomadic lifestyle because agriculture is no longer possible. The only food that exists is food they can find in abandoned houses and stores. It takes place 8 or so years after the incident, so food is scare.
Why it stands out: First, the writing style is very different. I could write a college essay (thank you, English degree) on why McCarthy chooses to use apostrophes where he does. In fact, if you have a theory, let’s hash it out in the comments because I really like mine. McCarthy’s style is the best example of prose setting a specific tone and mood I’ve ever read. The way he writes creates a feeling of stillness and emptiness. Second, the novel balances bleak, graphic violence with the emotional love of a father and son. I’ve rarely gone from absolute disgust to teary-eyed in a few pages, but I did with this novel.
Resembles: The lonely tone of I Am Legend and the family struggle to survive in Walking Dead.
Zombies?!: Sadly, no.
Conclusion: The Road is an impeccable example of what all literary fiction should be. The writing is king, but McCarthy never gets so wrapped up in being ‘literary’ that he forgets to tell a compelling story. Everyone from the Pulitzer Prize committee to Entertainment Weekly to Oprah loves this book, and I’m no exception. It’s brilliant. Go read it.