Last Week's Apocalypse by Douglas Lain
Reviewed by Matthew Cheney
20 February 2006
Last Week's Apocalypse is less a collection of stories than a book of shreds and fractals. Over and over again the world dissassembles before the eyes of a bewildered man, over and over again fragments of pop culture and historical factoids scar the lives of people in Portland, Oregon. It might be better to consider this book a loose sort of novel: the tone from story to story never changes from a laconic Hemingway-meets-Vonnegut style, all but one of the stories are related by a first-person narrator remarkably similar in circumstance to the previous story's first-person narrator, and details occur and reoccur in a feedback loop of contemporary junk and rubble, until, in the final story, it all gets blasted into outer space. Yet unlike most novels or even most short story collections, nearly any section from nearly any story in the book could be cut and pasted into nearly any other story without causing too much damage to either the meaning or style of the writing. Douglas Lain's work brings writerly obsession to a new level—most writers (and perhaps all great writers) have a limited range of subject matter and styles, a certain tendency to revisit favorite themes and motifs, but we'd have to invoke the ghost of Samuel Beckett to find another writer of such single-mindedness, of such habitual reiteration. The difference between truly great work and all the rest, though, depends upon the choice of obsession, because there is a difference between the writer who returns again and again to a subject of infinite depth and the writer who mines a void. Lain falls somewhere in between, but that's no insult—this collection, considered as a whole, may fall short of the highest levels of achievement, but that simply means it rises beyond the vast majority of what is written and published today.
The effect of reading Last Week's Apocalypse from cover to cover is more monotonous than reading page after page of Beckett, not only because Lain doesn't have Beckett's linguistic range, but because the subject matter of these stories is closer to that of writers like Don DeLillo who are obsessed with the way the physical detritus of American life alienates people from meaningful existence. For Beckett, existence itself was the subject; for Lain, it is the representation of existence, the inability of our computers and televisions and advertisements to make our lives fulfilling, and Last Week's Apocalypse shows how limiting such a subject can become, because the added level of abstraction from real life—the focus on mediation more than what is mediated—moves our focus off of the richness of human tragedy to the comparatively superficial tragedy of fetishized commodities and molehills made of mountainous spectacles. Instead of emotion, there is ennui; instead of action, there is disaffection. The effect is paradoxical: each story separately is at the very least skillful, and quite a few seem to me to be minor masterpieces, yet they become numbing when read one after another, leaving us with a book that is better read in small doses than devoured complete.
In "The Word 'Mermaid' Written on an Index Card," a woman eats a beer bottle. "She told me she was a mermaid," the narrator says, "a Siren, and that she could taste people's souls when she ate their garbage.
"'That's where you keep it, your soul. You keep it in your stuff—mostly in the stuff you throw away,' Annie said." Here we have what could be an epigraph for the entire book, a statement of purpose, even. Entire continents of souls and stuff suffer earthquakes in these stories. The most wrenching tales here are the shortest ones, because the longer stories give too much room for us to become impatient with the deadpan, disinterested tone of each hollowed out narrator, each unsuccessful attempt at communication, each hint of a whine at the way of the world. Souls grow thin when caged in stuff, and that thinness becomes contagious when it is spread through the stuff of every story, the narrow focus transforming it from a symptom being criticized to a problem at the heart of the fiction itself.
Nonetheless, Douglas Lain is a remarkable writer—he wrings as much from this material as is imaginable, and he does so with panache and power. He has an extraordinary skill with dialogue, propelling entire scenes with conversations so banal and discursive they feel like they must have actually been spoken somewhere by someone. It is also refreshing to find a writer marketed within the SF genre who is so willing to try out different structures for his stories, to let the narrative become fragmented, even collage-like, so that the form of the tales reflects the subject matter, and the reader is forced to be aware of not just the what of all that happens, but the how.
I said there are masterpieces here. Along with "The Word 'Mermaid' Written on an Index Card," "Shopping at the End of the World" seems to me to accomplish the most, telling the story of a paper shredder that can shred reality itself, because reality has become so closely bound to magazine advertisements. These are haunting, unsettling stories, stories with a dark and absurd humor to them that undercuts the malaise at their core, the disappointment with life in a world of commerce and spectacle. Both achieve the kind of exciting/terrifying slippage of reality that Philip K. Dick did so well when at his best.
Most of the other stories in the collection are nearly as good, though a few are too long, or seem not to end so much as peter out. Only one, "I Read the News Today," is truly tedious, and it may only be because it is placed toward the end of the book and, for a reader who reads the stories in order, offers nothing particularly different from what has come before.
At the close of "Shopping at the End of the World," as the narrator argues about whether the shredding of reality can change the world, he says, "We have to do more than shred things. We have to find the right promise before we act again." The last line is particularly apt: "We have to know what it is that we want to keep." The stories in Last Week's Apocalypse exist in the limbo between those options, after the shredding has begun, but before any of the characters have learned what to keep. Perhaps Lain's next collection will offer a few characters who figure this out, who learn to feel and care, and whose tales explore new tones and styles, ones that offer readers a way to feel and care in return. A collection not of shreds, but of things to keep.