'One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses' Will Engage the Head, but not the Heart
Sometimes, cleverness isn't enough.
One Hundred Apocalypses and Other ApocalypsesPublisher: McSweeney's
Length: 181 pages
Author: Lucy Corin
Publication date: 2013-08
Lucy Corin’s One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses is an quirky little book, as evidenced by the self-consciously awkward title. A collection of a novella and three short stories, the tales trade in weirdness aplenty, with lots of oddball elements to confuse the reader, or if not confuse, then at least to keep the reader off-balance. That goal is certainly achieved, but is the strangeness in service to a larger goal? or is it just weirdness for its own sake? Well now, that's another question.
Opening story "Eyes of Dogs" is the shortest, but Corin packs plenty of bewildering incident into its nine pages. Structured like a fable, the story sees an unnamed soldier protagonist undergoing a series of life-threatening tasks in service to a witch, involving great dangers and a number of devilish hounds, all for the purpose of… well, I'm not sure what purpose, actually. With its meta-textual sidebars and symbolic subterranean journey, the whole thing reads like a grad student's wet dream. This is not a compliment. Oftentimes the best way to tell a story is, y'know, to tell the damn story already. Especially when it's the first story in the book.
Corin does get around to telling the story in follow-up tale "Madmen”, but readers expecting clarity should probably approach this one with caution, too. The narrator here is a 13-year-old girl who has just gotten her first period, and so undergoes her rightful journey to the insane asylum to choose the lunatic who will accompany her for the rest of her life. Yeah you read that right. Go back and read it again.
Unlike "Eyes of Dogs", "Madmen" feels grounded in ordinary reality, and there are enough quotidian elements here—the carping parents, the sulky girl, the grimy details of the asylum—that the reader will just about go along with it. If you can get past the idea that this is a story about a little girl picking out her madman—or even if you can't—the sentences' strong images and powerful cadences are likely to sweep you along: "It was dark and we were near the window, face to face with our legs over opposite arms of a giant overstuffed chair, with the black sky surrounding us and everyone's sleeping bags covering the living room floor. It was like we were on a rowboat, bobbing in a sea made of our sleeping friends." This is good stuff, and it's a big reason why "Madmen" is the strongest story in the collection.
Conversely, "Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster" is perhaps the most forgettable, despite its hokey pop-culture title and more conventional subject matter. It's almost as if, having set up the reader to expect strangeness, its absence renders Corin's material even more inconsequential. Maybe this should have been the first story in the book. Then again maybe not.
Finally, the novella "A Hundred Apocalypses" delivers the main course, for which these other offerings were merely appetizers. Told in one hundred (I counted!) brief segments, ranging from a single line to a couple of pages, the story is structured more like a collage than anything else. There are one-liners and lists, shifting fonts and shifts in voice and many, many brief anecdotal fragments. Many of these fragments are well written and engaging as far as they go, but they don't go very far.
To call these many bits and pieces "loosely connected" is an overstatement. Connection is pretty well in the mind of the beholder in this case. Sure, there are thematic links, most obviously the idea of the apocalypse, which is more or less what all of these fragments address, either directly or obliquely. But, beyond that? There's no clear narrative. This isn't necessarily a criticism, but the absence of a linear structure (or any structure at all, apart from the most vaguely suggestive) will leave many readers (ahem) floundering.
The absence of any clear protagonist, or any characters at all, adds to the confusion. Perhaps some of the many first- and third-person characters here are meant to reflect on one another into a coherent story—in other words, maybe the narrator of "Cake" on page 75 is the same person unpacking her shopping in "What I Got" on page 145. There's no reason to think so, though, and in the absence of clues from the writer, the reader will try to fill in the associative gaps on his/her own. If such puzzles sound rewarding to you, then man, you're gonna love this book.
You'll also love it if you’re a fan of juvenile cleverness like "Questions in Significantly Smaller Font", a chapter from "A Hundred Apocalypses" which is written in, yes, smaller font than the rest of the story. Aweome, huh? It's amazing what writers can do with Microsoft Word these days. This kind of metafictional silliness—and other bits like it—should have been long since edited out, but then again, doing so would have left the book even slighter than it already is.
In brief, this is a story—and anthology—to engage the head, rather than the heart. That's the book in a nutshell: all cleverness, no guts. There are some finely-wrought phrases here, some engaging moments and intriguing situations skillfully delineated with a fine eye for detail. There is, however, virtually nothing here that will evoke an emotional response. Some readers won't mind, but this one does. ne Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses reduces the art of storytelling to a clever set of intellectualized fragments masquerading as literature.