Thursday, April 20, 2017

Three Works of Apocalyptical Fiction

Y: The Last Man, Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra (2002-2008)
The Road (2009)
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

The Road, though darker than most apocalyptic narratives, nevertheless is typical of the genre. This is to say it has all the aspects we expect:


1.     An event occurs that changes the world – notice that for The Road we don’t even find out what this event is.
  
2.     A very small set of characters (father and son) show us how to behave in this post-apocalyptical world: or maybe how not to behave.


3.     The film examines (in this case) not the cause of the event – which we’re told during the conversation between Eli and the father is not relevant – but how to respond to the event: the father responds by drawing a protective circle around the dyad of his surviving family (him and his son) and calling that family holy. Everything within the family is good; everything outside is evil and dangerous. Think of Kirsten’s lines from Station Eleven: “They call themselves the light… if you are the light, if your enemies are the darkness, then there’s nothing you cannot justify…. There’s nothing you will not do” (139).

If everything outside the circle of your family is a violent, savage enemy, then the father is justified in doing anything to protect his family – to protect the boy.

(Mind you, it’s true the narrative of the book and the film supports the father’s interpretation of events. But remember this is a story; remember McCarthy wrote the narrative this way.) The father’s one rule – that they don’t eat people – is an interesting one, and probably worth examining. Why that rule? Why that one line which he won’t cross?

Obviously, this a clear way to show the reader (and the boy) the difference between the “good” people and the “evil” people. Everyone else in the world is evil – not like the father and the boy. Only the father and the boy (and a very few others) are “good,” because everyone else has crossed that one line. So anything else the father does is fine, because at least he hasn’t done that.


4.     Most apocalyptic fiction seeks to show us a way to rebuild. In The Road, the world is bleak and hopeless. The father is taking the boy south, but toward what possible end? There doesn’t seem to be any hope of rebuilding, or any hope of finding a community – everyone outside his dyad (the father, the son) is the enemy, so how can there be? Notice when the boy says he hears or sees another boy, or a dog; or wants to join with someone, the father invariably refuses. This might seem wise (if they join up with other people, they’ll run out of food faster) but is it? When the father is injured, when the boy is sick and has to be left alone, there is no community to give them help.


5.     The Road does give us closure, by having a family show up to save the boy at the end, but that ending has always seemed entirely unconvincing to me. I don’t believe it for a minute.

Other things to note about The Road: Dialogue – such as it is – is sparse. Most of the communication comes from the father’s voice-overs.

Then there’s the color palette of the film – relentlessly monochromatic, greys and blacks and whites. The sole splashes of color (the coke can, the plaid blanket used to cover dad’s corpse) are washed out and muted. Only the fire and the flashbacks are color-rich. It is a bleak, bone-colored world.

Contrast this with Y: The Last Man.  I know we only read the first volume of this, and I know it’s a comic book, and not a movie, but even so: bright colors, lively dialogue, and a wide cast of characters that soon knit into a community. These characters may not know what caused the plague that killed all the men and male mammals, but they are interested in figuring it out, and they work furiously to find a way to create more men – to solve the problem, mend the world, and rebuild – before it is too late.

(1) The Event: In Y: The Last Man, the apocalypse is caused by the instantaneous death of all mammals who have a Y-chromosome. In class, I said that this had been caused by a terrorist act, and I could swear I remember reading that when I read the entire series, but when I researched it, I see that Vaughn says he never made the cause of these deaths specific. L

(2)  How the survivors react to the apocalypse: This, like a great deal of Vaughn’s work, writes “against the grain” – that is, Vaughn has the traditional apocalyptic narrative in mind (something like The Road, in other words) and he is playing against that narrative.

As we follow our band of survivors around, watching them react to the new world – the one without men – Vaughn plays against the grim-dark of the usual apocalyptical tale. We see, for instance, gender-bending, as well as flipping of gender roles – Yorick becomes the protected, guarded sex; Yorick must travel in a kind of burqa; Yorick is threatened with sexual assault and with being murdered because of his gender (in this new world we have misandry instead of misogyny).

Notice, also, how seldom the male gaze is pandered to. 


(See this link to learn more about the male gaze. Fair warning: I may well ask you to explain the male gaze on the final!)

Pay attention to how the women in this comic are dressed and how they stand – how their bodies are shown and posed. Only very rarely do we see women in the typical “male gaze” stance, or women dressed to titillate the male eye. Instead, women wear overalls, heavy sweaters, suits, jeans and jerseys; and they stand like humans, not sex objects.




Vaughn’s post-apocalyptic world is threatening, but it’s threatening due to specific women who are making terrible choices. When other women make better choices, the world gets better. His message is not – as Cormac McCarthy’s is – that the world is a hostile, violent, corrupt place, and everyone not you is a threat to you.





(3)  Cause/Rebuilding: We didn’t read this far, but as the graphic novel progresses, Y: The Last Man does begin to grapple with what happened, why it happened, and what might have been done to have prevented it happening. We can see some of this even in the early pages, when the women begin to struggle to make sense of what has caused the plague. We also see the early stages of women beginning to fight over what the new world – the one where men are scarce or non-existent – will look like.


(4)  Closure: Again, we didn’t get this far, but the novel does achieve closure. A way is found to inoculate against the plague, and little Yoricks are cloned; also, Yorick himself begins reproducing, as do the other few surviving males (some others do survive). The lack of missing mammals worldwide isn’t sufficiently dealt with, but oh well.




Station Eleven is an unusual apocalyptic narrative in some ways, though we can notice that it fits the apocalyptic pattern almost perfectly.

(1) Event: The flu hits, killing 99% of the population. In the aftermath of the flu, more people die in the breakdown of civilization. Technology collapses, as does the social web. Much is made of these two facts in the book – no more internet, no more phones, no more trucks or ships or airplanes (this airplane becomes a motif in the book) bringing in food, no more National Guard, and so on. What cultural anxiety is being played upon here?

Think about the cultural desire or fantasy that seems to follow many apocalyptical tales (though none we’re looking at in this class, I’ll admit): Civilization falls and then our plucky heroes band together and rebuild in the new Eden, without all the annoyances and problems of the world before – no need to go to high school, to work nine to five, to struggle to find meaning in life, to pay taxes, to follow laws, and so on.

Here, perhaps, Mandel is speaking to the anxiety many people in the 21st century seem to feel over technology – that rather than improving our culture and bringing us closer together, it is dividing us and isolating us. Notice, for instance, that the flu is spread via air travel – without the swift connections that are possible with airplanes, the flu could not have spread so easily and so rapidly around the world.

On the other hand, Mandel goes through a great deal of trouble to show us everything that is lost when we lose technology – antibiotics, the internet, instant communication, the ability to keep one’s disabled brother alive. Also Star Trek (both the show and the dream). As far as addressing the cultural anxiety, in other words, Mandel doesn’t so much address it as ask us to think about it.

(2) Survivors react: The narrative follows three main survivors – Kirsten, Jeevan, and Clarke – who all survive in slightly different ways. But there is a similar theme to their method of survival, in that they all form or join up with a benevolent community, and that community is what ensures their survival. Kirsten joins the Traveling Symphony; Jeevan finds a small farming community where his medical skills are useful; and Clarke is one of the founders of the Severn City Airport community, as well as the curator of the Museum of Civilization.

Note that all of these survivors, in their own ways, practice an art (acting, medicine, curating a museum). This is a thread that runs through the book, the motif that art is why we live. Survival is insufficient, the motto tattooed on Kristen’s arm says, and a great deal of Station Eleven (both the graphic novel and our novel) explore that idea. Dieter at one point asks Kirsten if she ever thinks about settling down somewhere, which would – after all – be easier and much safer. (Remember Dieter will die at least in part because he is traveling with the Symphony.) Sure, Kirsten says, but where else would I be able to act Shakespeare?

The other survivor the book focuses on, the Prophet, is also not interested in simple survival. But he looks for meaning in another direction. Rather than building an art, he chooses religion, and a particularly destructive form of religion as well: a doomsday cult.



(3) The Cause: Note that our three survivors don’t spend much time thinking about what cause their apocalypse. They know what it was – the flu – and they figure it was just the flu. What can you do about the flu? It’s a disease.

But we do have The Prophet, who spends all of his time thinking about what caused the flu, and thinks he has the answer – the flu was sent to cleanse the world, to rid the world of those who are not of the light. Anyone the flu missed, the Prophet figures he can take care of.  He’ll finish purifying the world.

(4) Rebuild: Hence, we have two different ideas about how to rebuild the world. The Prophet wants to finish the purification process, to slaughter anyone that isn’t fit to live in his world.

In contrast, Kirsten, Jeevan, and Clarke – and their communities – want to build a world that is not just safe but more than that. Survival is not sufficient. Kirsten has this tattooed on her arm; it is painted on the lead truck of the Traveling Symphony; and it is a motif that floats through the book. What does it mean?

Think about The Road. The father in The Road says to his son, “I will kill anyone that touches you. That’s my job.”

Well, okay. That’s an understandable primal impulse, I suppose. But as the guiding principle of his world – which is what it becomes – it lacks something. To live just to protect his son, just to keep his son alive by killing anyone who comes near him, is to doom his son. That creates a world where everyone is the enemy except the dyad of him and his son – everyone they meet is either a real enemy (who he must kill) or a potential enemy (who he must drive away, since they might become an enemy). There is no chance for the son to have a community; no chance to rebuild a world.

Thus, when the father dies – as eventually he must, since no one is immortal – the son will be left alone. Alone, unprotected, he too will die. (Which is why the movie should have ended with his death.

Granted, The Road is a more realistic look at what might happen if (say) a nuclear war ever happens (except for the part where the family was keeping people in their basement, which is just stupid), but remember we’re not looking at journalism. These aren’t factual stories. Just as with zombies and vampires, these are not stories about actual apocalypses. These are metaphors of popular culture, meant to teach us something about our current world.

So too with the Prophet and the people of the Traveling Symphony, as well as the other survivors in Mandel’s book.

Which is to say, what is wrong with the way the Prophet reacts to the apocalypse? Why are we meant to dislike it? To see it as wrong?

How is the reaction of the Traveling Symphony, and Jeevan, and all the other survivors we meet, better?

The comparison to the father in The Road is instructive here. Like the father, the Prophet is not seeking to rebuild, or to form a community. Survival is insufficient, says the Symphony; but the Prophet isn’t really even trying to survive. What does he mean by cleanse? He means slaughter. And he doesn’t just mean slaughter anyone who hurts me or my friends, or slaughter anyone I don’t agree with. He means – eventually – slaughter everyone.

This is why neither the father nor the Prophet are acceptable, ethically. Both think they are speaking of love; both think they are speaking of love – even God’s love. But both are, in fact, are creating a world that leads only to death.

In contrast, the Traveling Symphony, those who live at the Severn City Airport, Jeevan’s community, and others we see, are trying to rebuild. We watch them try to take care of one another, to establish customs and laws, to care for the sick and weak. They do fight and kill, yes – but they do this only to defend the community; and Mandel makes it clear to us how much this killing bothers them.


(5) Closure: At the end of the book, the Prophet has been defeated, and his worldview along with him. Kirsten, standing at the top of the Severn City Airport tower, sees a city in the distance that has electric light – this is our assurance that seeking to rebuild as a community, seeking to do more than survive, is the correct path. Furthermore, we’re told that the Traveling Symphony will travel on: this assures us that art is essential to this new world (as it is to ours).

So the narrative fits the five-point apocalyptic narrative. But notice that the book is also different in many respects from the typical apocalyptic narrative. For instance, we have all the many flashbacks to the time before the plague. What are we to make of these? How do they work in the apocalyptical narrative?

In a real sense, these flashbacks tie the apocalyptic world -- the world of the survivors -- to the world pre-apocalyptical world. There isn't a "clean slate," in other words. What happened in the past affects and influences what is happening in this "new" world; and that serves to tie both of these worlds to the future world, the one that we see rising up on the horizon at the end of the book.

And for that, Mandel uses (throughout the book) her motif of art. "Survival is insufficient," her traveling actors and musicians say; and both Kirsten and the Prophet carry with them, like religious texts, copies of the comic book, Station Eleven, which Miranda spent her life creating. (Notice that Miranda is named for Prospero's daughter in Shakespeare's The Tempest -- Miranda is the character who speaks the famous lines, "Oh brave new world, that has such people in it!")  It is by quoting from this comic book that Kirsten saves her life, there on the road when the Prophet is about to shoot her:

The prophet says: "We are the light moving over the surface of the waters, over the darkness of the undersea."

And Kirsten recognizes this -- know his text, in other words -- and responds: "The Undersea?" she whispered. "'We long only to go home.... We have been lost for so long. We long only for the world we were born into'" (302).

The prophet is not swayed by her knowledge and understanding of his text -- he does not use art as a vehicle of community and culture, but as a weapon. But the boy who is with him, who also knows the text of Station Eleven, also recognizes this text, and he is moved to act. He is able to save Kirsten, and (really) the world; though not himself.

This is the power of art, Emily St. John Mandel is telling us. Yes, as Maslow's hierarchy tells us, we need food and shelter and safety first; but none of that is sufficient. Beyond all that, we need more, or we cannot remain a human community.










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