Maureen F. McHugh, After the Apocalypse. Small Beer Press, 2011. Pp. 200. ISBN 978-1-931520-29-4. $16.00.Reviewed by Georgina Bruce
Small Beer Press have made a name for themselves by steadily putting out titles by talented and original authors, on the literary side of genre writing. The latest collection by Hugo and Tiptree winning author Maureen McHugh is no exception. The short stories in After the Apocalypse range from the surreal to the nightmarish, but are united by the theme of what happens afterwards. What happens after the story climaxes—after the economy collapses, the world explodes, the epidemic gets out of control, the zombies walk? What is life about, when the world has ended? Some of the apocalypses here are personal ones, a few are global, one inevitably involves zombies. Their settings range from urban America to plague-devastated China, from the ‘Cleveland Zombie Preserve’ to the post-apocalyptic road. What they have in common is the fact that the crucial moments are already done and over with before the story starts. It is left for the writer, and readers, to pick through the remains. This makes After the Apocalypse an intriguing but bleak read.
If the stories here are anything to go by, author Maureen McHugh thinks we should be very afraid of the future. What awaits us is desolation, meaninglessness, and an abnegation of all progressive values. There is no more hope, no more possibility. Nothing major is going to change; there will be no more fighting for the big prizes, no more beautiful transformations, no more prayers. All that is left, in the wreckage, is the blind need to go on. The characters in these stories are not even desperate, for to be desperate means that you must have a sliver of hope that you can achieve what you are desperate for. Now it is just about survival, at it’s most basic level. These stories are about the life that continues when everything is over.
McHugh is a writer of great sensitivity, who refuses to make easy choices with her characters. Often they are morally ambivalent, unsympathetic, even unlikeable. In the opening story, ‘The Naturalist’, criminals are imprisoned in an abandoned city, where zombies roam the streets, looking for flesh. Cahill breaks away from an alliance in order to strike out on his own, yet despite this independence he is ultimately just as soulless as any zombie, and harder to sympathise with. Despite the familiar territory, there are no heroes in this story, no one whose side you feel comfortable taking. In the main, McHugh’s characters lack self-awareness and insight, perhaps because they are living from hand to mouth, merely surviving. They do not inspire love, awe, or wonder. There is no emotional pull from the characters; rather, you are galvanised by the direness of their circumstances.
Likewise, the structure of McHugh’s writing is not simple—there is no ‘good versus evil’ or redemptive three-act story here. She lays out complex, intimate details on the page, but never attempts to give moral guidance to the reader. Things are what they are, in all their many aspects. The reader is given a lot of imaginative space, a lot of space in which to question and judge, but the stories themselves give few values with which the reader can anchor herself, and as a result there is a sense of formlessness, a looseness of narrative that is almost post-modern.
‘Post-modern’ might be a good word to sum up this collection in general. The humanist, progressive ideologies spawned by the European Enlightenment meet their final demise here. Humanity has no potential, no redeeming features. There is no battle for our souls, no grand narrative, no historical drive towards greatness. In the end, McHugh renders us all separate, unmoored, brutal, and headed for oblivion.
A few of the stories are have a lighter touch. ‘The Kingdom of the Blind’ is exceptional here, in that it takes us to a world where possibility still exists, and choices still matter, although we sense that it is already too late to make a difference. In ‘The Lost Boy,’ a young man suffering from memory loss has found a way to live with the trauma of his experience, although it compromises his very identity. ‘Going to France’ is a surreal tale, in which the characters are overcome with the compulsion to travel abroad, though to what purpose and with what meaning, they do not know. Yet even these stories manage to convey the bleakness of a world where people act without knowledge, and live without meaning.
Society persists in these stories. Even in the most desolate of landscapes there are other people, other travellers on the road. Yet, despite the persistence of society, there is no friendship. Even where interests and feelings are in concert, there is no community. There is no protection, no goodness, no small enclave of hospitality, only unrelenting misery. In the least grim of these stories, ‘Special Economics’, two young women escape wage-slavery and work to free others from the same fate. Working together, they overcome their circumstances and create something better for themselves—the progressive project humans have been undertaking throughout history. Yet even this outcome is undermined in a scenario where freedom is a dubious good, and wage-slavery promises a nice home, plentiful food, and companionship. Freedom is very much a minority pursuit, perhaps even an eccentric one.
But in a world without freedom, love, kindness, creativity, passion, faith, or history, I was left wondering where the urge for survival comes from, and where it might lead us. Is it only self-interest—greed, fear, addiction—that will keep us alive? McHugh seems to think that this is, at our core, all we have.
In the final story of the book, the title story, a mother and daughter walk the road through the post-apocalyptic landscape, seeking refuge and a return. The love between them becomes eroded and finally destroyed by the pressures of the journey, and their story ends the collection on a decidedly pessimistic note. It is a culmination of the themes that run through the book: a sense that humans lack the ability to keep loving one another; that family is weak; that hope is foolish; that we are all separate, alone and struggling. Reading this collection is like experiencing a small apocalypse of your own hopes and dreams. I came away hoping that my essential faith in humanity could still be salvaged from the wreckage.
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