So the apocalypse happened. An avian disease crossed over to humans due to unsanitary conditions in our factory farms. Or a computer was built so sophisticated and powerful it accidentally became sentient. Or the zombies showed up. Whatever it was, civilization as we know it has ceased to exist. And yet here we are, some of us, and life is less like The Hunger Games and more like any other regular day, with rent to pay and a family to take care of, except with less access to clean water. And now there are zombies.
Read the last Bookslut on modern culture's demise in 'Karaoke Culture.'
In Maureen McHugh’s After the Apocalypse, she ends the world again and again, only to find that our humanity stays intact throughout. And by humanity, I mean the more banal parts of human existence, not that inherent heroic nature that comes out in times of crisis, at least in the movies. McHugh imagines a world where corporations take their employees as slaves, prisoners are sent to live in the zombie colonies, and a brain-eating virus kills us through our fast food.
Then there are the inexplicable apocalypses, where things just slowly decay until her characters start packing the car. Her stories are equal parts funny and unsettling, recognizable and extraordinary. She’s been one of my favorite short story writers since her collection Mothers and Other Monsters, which also has a lot of bad things happening to her characters.
I talked to McHugh about why life after the world ends seems so familiar, and whether killing everyone off in her books is an act of catharsis or just plain fun.
It's not difficult to figure out why we might be apocalyptically minded these days—one just has to watch the news. But many of your stories that deal with the aftermath have less to do with usual tales of surviving and battling, and more to do with work, figuring out a way to pay taxes...Why take a, let's say, quieter approach to the apocalypse?
Apocalypses are fun thought experiments because we envision them wiping the slate clean. Then we get to start over with just the pieces we want. But disasters happen all the time, like the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster. People died. The area was scrubbed to a debris field by the tsunami.
But people didn’t stop being people. They didn’t descend into looting and battling each other. Workers at the Daiichi plant did their jobs as best they could. Executives worried about profits. We have a lot of social inertia, I think. We keep worrying about who we are and how we should act and what people will think of us and what is the right thing to do, even standing in hip boots in radioactive water. That’s heroic, I think, that stubbornness.
Right, because when you "wipe the slate clean," you don't really get to choose what goes and what stays. You have a story where, OK, the worst happened and your teenage daughter is still a pain in the ass, now it's just harder to find clean water.
That is a story that goes to one of my deepest worries. What if I failed a child? It has taken me almost 20 years to get to the point where I could even allow myself to imagine how someone makes the kinds of choices the protagonist of “After the Apocalypse” makes.
I was raised Catholic, and one of the things I was taught was that there are no sins that we are not capable of. I don’t know if that’s true, but I can imagine circumstances where I am capable of most sins. When bad things happen to people, it doesn’t make them better people, it makes them the victim of bad events. Maybe some of them make choices that make them better people. But I am often irritable if I get in my car and I’m supposed to be somewhere in 20 minutes, but I realize I have to stop for gas which will make me late. I can see where my behavior might actually get worse.
On the other hand, I have noticed that life keeps happening even when I would like it to take a few minutes off. Humans have a tendency to keep dealing, no matter how ineptly, for as long as we can.
Zombies do not seem like ideal literary figures, and yet you've written about zombies before, and people keep throwing them into classic works of literature these days. What are the literary qualities of zombies as you see them?
I love the way Kelly Link uses zombies. In her work, “zombie” slides from meaning to meaning. But “The Naturalist” is the first time I’ve ever written a story using an American style zombie. Before, when I wrote about zombies, I was interested in Haitian, possession-style zombies, living people deprived of their personalities by spell-casting vodou practitioners. I keep trying to find a way to write about vodou possession. The idea that things possess us seems rich today—we are possessed by our possessions, they create and change our identity, we are possessed by our gadgets, they extend our senses.
Vampires seem to me to be exotic. I was talking to a friend, and he described Anne Rice’s use of vampires as a kind of “orientalism,” that they were gay, gorgeous and other. I keep thinking about my current not-so-great haircut and my broken fingernail and thinking that if I were made into a vampire tonight, I’d be stuck with that broken fingernail for hundreds of years.
Zombies, of course, are the opposite. They lack individuality. They are mindless, ugly, hungry. In a world where everything is ecologically interconnected they are outside nature, and therefore something that we can kill without concern or discrimination. And yet they are us, transformed into trash. Zombies, in one sense, are the ultimate ecological disaster.
Was it fun to imagine what will be the end of us, or are these fears you have about where we are heading?
Oh, this is all just working out my own fears. In some very vague sense almost every one of these stories is autobiographical. Perhaps “Useless Things” is the one that feels as if I am writing about myself even though I am happily married, financially comfortable, don’t make things and hate to garden. OK, “The Naturalist” is not autobiographical. It might also be the only story I have ever written without a female character in it.
People tell writers to write what they know. But it has always been more valuable for me to write to try to explore the things I don’t know the answers to but that matter to me a lot.
Have any money on how we'll all go down? Or do you think we're too resilient in real life?
I vacillate between optimism and terror. Historically the world has always been just about to end for one damn reason or another and so far it hasn’t. But acidification of the oceans really does keep me up at night.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.