Notes from the Apocalypse, a review by Mark O’Connell – how to survive the End

The apocalypse needs to end. Anyone who writes about apocalypse today is bound to acknowledge that humans have worried and theorised about it for as long as they have worried and theorised about anything; at some point, the writer is guaranteed to employ the word “eschatological” as a nod to the fact that apocalypse is an essential principle of major and minor religions. Yet for a foundational concept it’s quite hard to pin down. Just as “reality” is elusive in a once-fragmented world that has (very creatively) reassembled itself online, the apocalypse can apply to whatever you want it to: the Greek root means to uncover or reveal, hence the Book of Revelation, hence the hard truths we learn about humanity’s consequential inaction in every apocalypse story. Marxist revolution can be an apocalypse; relationship experts speak about the “Four Horsemen” of divorce. Apocalypse is a shifting abstraction, a deceptively neat encapsulation of cascading associations and ideas. The End is endlessly debatable, everywhere and nowhere, relative, adaptable, accommodating to many levels of interpretation. As the funny refrain in Bong Joon-ho’s apocalyptic film Parasite goes, it’s “so metaphorical”.

This is not how many people see it. Along with evangelical Christians, doomsday preppers, and bored Silicon Valley billionaires scheming to colonise Mars or flee to New Zealand, the popular imagination has a pretty intuitive grasp of the apocalypse: it refers to the end of the world, or at least human civilisation. The destruction of everything, or enough of everything that it is impossible to rebuild anything good. According to a YouGov poll conducted in February of this year, 29% of Americans believe an “apocalyptic disaster” will occur at some point during their lifetime; given Greta Thunberg’s popularity, it’s fair to say that many more believe one will take place within their children’s lifetimes. (A majority of those polled by YouGov believed they could survive a week or less after apocalyptic disaster, a self-awareness I find heartening.)

Even lovers of hermeneutics will hedge their bets. After all, a non-metaphorical apocalypse could result from a few types of disaster, arriving suddenly or accumulating gradually over time: climate catastrophe; a nuclear war; an unlikely asteroid; a pandemic – likely not the current one – that can’t be contained. While most stories that imagine the apocalypse are not realistic (zombies are another metaphor, the rapid-onset ice age depicted in The Day After Tomorrow a misguided extrapolation, and the Bible not in fact meant to be taken literally) the anxiety that surrounds them comes from a deep sense of pragmatism. Prevailing opinion these days is that the apocalypse is not only going to take place, it’s more likely to take place than ever, especially if you plot the rate of its increasing likelihood on a logarithmic scale very few people know how to read. Plots of all kinds tend to make people very excited. If the worst could happen, it only makes sense that you should act as if it will. Especially if you have children.

Here lies the conflict at the centre of Mark O’Connell’s new book, Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back. The indefinite article, “an” apocalypse, provides a clue to his inclinations. He has a PhD in English literature and notes that “throughout my 20s and into my 30s, the writers who seemed to me to possess the truest vision of the world … were those who rejected most thoroughly the idea that life might be on aggregate a good thing”. Yet we encounter him hovering uneasily in the space between theory and reality, existing in the break of WB Yeats’s line, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity”. The merely intellectual approach, untested by actually pressing circumstances, has lately been failing him. On-the-nose signs of impending doom are all around, bombarding him with images of contemporary discord, and they’re really freaking him out.

Given its publication date in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, critics are calling this book timely, appropriate and prescient. Though the possibility of a pandemic only comes up occasionally in the book, as one option in a series of hypothetical catastrophes, current events generally support O’Connell’s attitude, which is that any collapse will be the result of a complicated system of effects from which a single cause cannot be determined. (If he had to say, though, he would likely reply: “Because capitalism”.) “It was the end of the world, and I was sitting on the couch watching cartoons with my son,” O’Connell writes. As his son giggles at the show, about a little girl and “the comic scrapes she gets embroiled in with her long-suffering bear companion”, dad holds his phone – “my eschatology handset, my streaming service of last things” – above his child’s head, scrolling through Twitter. He stumbles on a video advertised as “soul-crushing” and “heart-wrenching”; naturally, he clicks. Set to a “slow and mournful glissando” played by a cello, the video warns of the effects of climate change and features an “emaciated polar bear dragging itself across a rocky terrain” in search of a morsel of sustenance. It gives O’Connell “moral vertigo, resulting from the fact that the very technology that allowed me to witness the final pathetic tribulations of this emaciated beast was in fact a cause of the animal’s suffering in the first place”. The “absurd juxtaposition” of cartoon and real bear makes him feel “a surge of shame and sadness at the world my son would be forced to live in, a shame and sadness that I in turn was passing on to him”.