April 14, 2020

“It was the end of the world,” begins Notes From An Apocalypse with a knowingly stylish flourish, “and I was watching cartoons with my son.” He’s quite the worry-wart, is Mark O’Connell — at least by the account of himself he gives in his new book. He leads a relatively comfortable life as a writer in Dublin, never too far from a flat white or a craft beer. His last book, To Be A Machine, was widely feted and occasioned a good deal of guiltily undertaken air travel on the promotional tour. He has a wife and two young children, whom he clearly adores.

Yet he can’t stop panicking about the end of the world. He is terrified of (ahem) pandemics, nuclear holocaust, cascading ecological catastrophe, asteroid impact, societal breakdown and moths. And he — I don’t quite want to say cheerfully, but nearly cheerfully — indulges this terror in himself.

“For close to a year my online homepage was set to r/collapse, a subreddit entirely devoted to news links and discussions pertaining to civilisational collapse and adjacent concerns. I would open my browser and would immediately be greeted by a crowd-curated selection of signs and portents, apocalyptic apocrypha. Black snow falling on Siberia. An iceberg twice the size of New York City that was breaking off from Antarctica. Business Insider’s top ten major cities that could be unlivable within eighty years. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”

Most of us — even the pessimists — tend for convenience alone to set our homepages to, say, our Gmail inboxes. But O’Connell is made of sterner, or less stern, stuff. Oh, and the moths! He mentions, just in passing, that of all his “quite intense nature-based phobias”, “I was, most pressingly, terrified of moths.” Having one brush his face is “a prospect beyond the realm of the thinkable”.

He explores this terror with his therapist, mentioning that he links it to his increasingly fragile sleep. The therapist notices that he uses the word “fragile” a lot, and asks him: “What comes to mind for you when you say this word?”

I said nothing for what seemed a very long time, attended to a couple of seagulls screeching at each-other, the desolate staccato of a can being punted along the street by a gust of wind.
“Do you really want to know?” I said, straightening myself up on the couch.
“Of course I really want to know,” she said, smiling.
“Death,” I said. I was smiling back, but I was surprised to hear myself say it, and strangely chastened.

The fine, well-written, and fiercely entertaining book in which he explores his interest in all things apocalyptic is in some ways, as that little exchange suggests, a nonfiction novel in which O’Connell appears as an essentially comic protagonist.

But it’s also a serious, or semi-serious, piece of reportage — in which O’Connell variously meets the vendors of mid-range apocalypse real-estate (a guy selling decommissioned concrete weapons bunkers in a vast ranch in South Dakota); investigates the tech billionaires planning, when the Big One arrives, to do a bunk to New Zealand to set up an Ayn-Rand-style post-democratic society; meets the Elon Musk fanboys (they are usually boys) who think the human race’s best chance of survival is colonising Mars; spends 24 hours communing with nature among pessimistic ecologists in the Scottish highlands; and takes a package tour of Chernobyl.

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And it’s an essay, in which he investigates his own phobias and Left-liberal anxieties, and his sense of complicity and hypocrisy. He brings the findings of his reporting and reading — everyone from Hannah Arendt and Schopenhauer to Dr Seuss (there’s a fine and feeling mini-essay on The Lorax) — to interrogate the meaning of the apocalypse.

As he argues early on — contemplating the culture of “preppers” who fantasise about taking to the woods with a “bug-out bag” when SHTF (shit hits the fan) — the expectation of catastrophe is as much fantasy as fear. And it is ideological: fantasies of self-reliance after the breakdown of society play as much into myths of the American past as visions of its future. Preppers fetishise a notion of frontier masculinity in which the white prepper, a Mad Max Davy Crockett, is freed from the reciprocal obligations of “civilisation” to fend for himself.

O’Connell finds equally problematic the rhetoric around “colonising” Mars, and the more or less naked way in which private property secured by main force, and the idea of every man for himself, underpins all these dark visions of the future.

And the apocalypse is not just ideological: it’s an aesthetic and a commercial commodity. It’s MarsCoin entrepreneurs, sales pitches for post-Apocalyptic gated communities, and versions of the same proleptic Ruinenlust that drove the Grand Tour.

As O’Connell tours Pripiyat, enduring the wearisome banter of his tour guide, he finds himself reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices From Chernobyl, and comes on her quotation of an ad for a version of just the tour he’s on: “Life gets boring, and people want a frisson of something eternal… Visit the atomic Mecca. Affordable prices.”

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O’Connell is, as I say, a good writer, though he does like to let you know it. And he does have a way — though he’s wanly aware of it, which is part of the joke — of turning anything he sees into a symbol of something else. Signs and portents. Donald Trump isn’t just a silly-haired pillock. He’s “only the most visible symptom of a disease that has long been sickening the country’s blood — a rapidly metastasising tumour of inequality, hyper-militarism, racism, surveillance and fear that we might as well go ahead and diagnose as terminal-stage capitalism.”

Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley tycoon who has bought a New Zealand bolt-hole, is described as “pure symbol: less an actual person than a shell company for a diversified portfolio of anxieties about the future, a human emblem of the moral vortex at the centre of the market”. Later the real Thiel is glimpsed: “an actual human, goofily got up in polo shirt and shorts, sweating in the heat”.

Then there’s O’Connell himself, who declares early on: “My days are a procession of last things, seals opened. I myself am the apocalypse of which I speak. That is the prophecy of this book”. Later on, we meet him failing to put up a tent. A nice woman in the next-door tent offers to help.

“I will not pretend that accepting her offer did not involve a certain measure of masculinity-related discomfort, but it seemed to me that the embarrassment of politely declining, only to then continue foundering in tent-purgatory, would be exponentially more severe than the comparatively benign embarrassment of accepting.”

He tells us this before musing on the “paradoxical poeticism” of her second name.

O’Connell’s book, in this way, deftly walks the line between pomposity and self-satire. You read on for the laughs, and stay for the serious thinking that it smuggles in. He recognises that in thinking about last things we are thinking, inescapably, of ourselves: it’s a canvas on which we paint our fears and our fantasies.

So his conclusion, such as it is, is that he needs to get over himself — which is to say, get over the apocalypse. He ends back in Dublin, blowing a raspberry at his newborn daughter. And — who knows? — perhaps he now has his home page set to Gmail.

Notes From An Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back, by Mark O’Connell is published by Granta this week.

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