The Empty Apocalypse of Style

Muslim's short story collection, Age of Blight, is conceptually interesting but stylistically and thematically shallow.

Age of Blight’s evocative title and the eerie cover art (the smudgy charcoal silhouette of a person against a gray and seemingly infinite expanse, proportions and perspective so skewed that it may be only inches away or lurking somewhere at the very horizon of sight) promise an anthology full of moody pieces about a world diseased. A world wherein not only the people and the wildlife are stricken, but the planet itself is sick onto death, perhaps not unlike the one McCarthy explored in The Road or, God willing, a world even less recognizable.

Post-apocalyptic fiction is a dull genre, nearly as lifeless and uninteresting as the million bombed out Earths it has shown us: authors seem to have grown less interested in exploring the kind of existential horror that such a state would symbolize — the terror of oblivion transformed from a private, escapable horror to an undeniable global truth — than in parading a carnival of grotesqueries and brutalities in front of us. If they were at least something more dreadful and weird than marauding bands of cannibals or mutated animal life, that might be acceptable: there is more to the uncanny than simply transforming the mundane into the ugly or reminding us that in the most dire of scenarios our need to survive can and will overwrite our better natures. Too many authors bank on implicating the reader in their fears by presenting the most obvious, most easily digested horrors.

To her credit, Kristine Ong Muslim does try to engage stranger ideas in her chronicles of a world circa 2115 that has barely staggered alive through some oft alluded to but never explained conflagration. Nuclear radiation is morphing the world but the mutations are as much social as they are biological: aggression is in such short-supply (and seems to be connected to a vestigial new organ called the “tentacle”) that the next president of the United States will be a ten-year old child who has proven her bloodlust insatiable. Zombies are present, but they’re a far cry from the brain munching swarms seen in The Walking Dead or any Romero movie. Their personalities remain intact even as their bodies and mental faculties decay; they’re more like invalid grandparents that must be cared for than rabid pets to be euthanized (as the narrator of “Zombie Sister” explains,“Every family has one.”). If one does have pets, best to put them down before they walk through the front door on their hind legs and replace you, as in the collection’s stand-out piece, “Pet”, a slow-burn horror story about how a man’s guilt and grief and self-loathing gradually reduce him to something less than human.

Meanwhile, “fluctuations in the quantum level” have rendered light unstable, and with it reality. The fabric of existence has begun to fray at the seams. A creeping waste called “the Empty” begins as a small spot of “nothing” on a person before slowly growing to consume them whole. Children plant their nail clippings and hair trimmings in the ground and from these grow doppelgangers waiting to ripen and take their place. Here and there one finds small pockets of the world where there is no wind at all and yet there is still movement, playgrounds where the seesaw tips back and forth of its own volition and the swings sway empty, where the steel slides remain forever gleaming and clean. Muslim’s creation exists in a nervous condition where the horror is not derived from the certainty of bloody death or protracted torture, but from the uncertainty that even the most basic rules will maintain from second to second.

The problem is that Muslim’s style and voice fall far short of her ideas. No matter whether she’s writing from the position of the omniscient narrator or from the first person, she assigns every one of her characters the same erudite, aloof diction. A near feral child describes the look on his face as the “squelched look of an ancient creature that believed itself to be dangerous but had no faculties to behave as such”, while an emissary from one of the primitive tribes that’s emerged in the wake of apocalypse talks of mourning anthropologists as a poet might. “Oh, they were beautiful in their desolation in this alien territory, in their shared grief,” he opines, but the language as well as the sentiment ring false. (This “Oh!” construction, simultaneously wistful and lofty, is a favorite construction of hers, used by everyone from Laika, the first dog in space, to brutal children to mutating adults).

Such are the words of the curious scientist and the thoughts of the lofty observer far above the fray; even on death’s door these people seem barely concerned with the things happening to them. If there were some variation, maybe, if Muslim were willing to contrast these aloof watchers with characters actually concerned with their fates — perhaps in those few stories that do not take place in the post-apocalyptic future — it might be possible to excuse this stylistic tic as thematic. A look, maybe, at the way such a warped life would necessitate the adoption of a disaffected psychology. But the voice remains uniform throughout. As a result, the characters are only capable of regarding their lives as abstractions, and so, too, are we.

Perhaps this is an artifact of Muslim’s own worldview. Like her characters, she seems pathologically adverse to observe what is before her from anything other than a wry remove that reduces the terror of her world and the emotions of her characters to exhibits in a gallery of quirky curiosities. She may cast a glance at an idea for a moment but she never takes the time to stare at it, to burn a hole in it with her glare, to get so close that she can see the finest hairs on it. She’s made her judgments in that one quick glance.

Like most lazy sci-fi writers Muslim mistakes obvious symbolism and glib observations on a topic for a thorough exploration. “Animals” makes much of how sadism and a kind of anthropocentric narcissism drive scientific study more than any curiosity, but it’s a point clumsily made. If she’s not shamelessly plucking at the heartstrings with sentimental depictions of animals she’s hammering home heavy-handed metaphors about the ways in which we replace the beauty of the natural world with ugly, mechanical proxies that comfort us only because they affirm our ego: there is a joke about “isolation kits”, how they’re “sold in all the same stores as smart phones and wearable computing devices”, that would be right at home in a smarmy college freshman’s presentation on the evils of technology.

“Dominic and Dominic” is a dig at the stultifying conservatism of suburban living in the tradition of Invasion of the Body Snatchers that stays entirely at the surface. There are halfhearted and dishonest jabs made at people “snoring, snoring away” their “suburban lives with so much to do and so much to become” and a few digs at the myopia of a professional businesswoman so preoccupied with her work that she doesn’t notice the clone of her son growing in her backyard or even when it’s replaced the genuine article, but these attempts are as lazy as the characters Muslim criticizes, the themes as uncritical and unexamined as these poor bastards’ lives. The author seems more concerned that the reader walk away with the impression that something insightful has been said than that they actually arrive at some new insight.

None of this is to say that Muslim is without talent. There are stories here, such as the aforementioned “Pet”, which hint at an ability to unsettle not only through ghastly imagery but by carefully chosen depictions of these sights. When the titular pet — which until this moment has only been heard scratching at the door or seen as a shadow slinking around the perimeter of the house on all fours — finally walks in the front door, the effect is truly eerie. But this is not because Muslim has a capped off the moment with any gratuitous description, nor because she has indulged any hysterical examination of the narrator’s frayed psyche. Rather, the moment as described is painfully quotidian: “It turned the knob of the front door…i t knew its way around the house. It switched on the television, started the percolator and hummed to itself while it chopped vegetables.” There;s no need to linger on a gratuitous description of the creature or meditate on the narrator’s own terror, because the work has been building up to this moment so carefully as to make it seem inevitable and, so, deeply upsetting.

Muslim is likewise a careful observer of how a character’s physical tics betray elements of themselves they were unaware of; her sight is particularly keen when it comes to children. A whole story’s worth of verbiage says less about the narrator of “Jude and the Moonman” than his own admission that he likes to “follow the (baseball’s) course through the sky although the sun hurts (his) eyes” because he “feels like a real man” when he does so. These moments may not be immediately grand — there’s certainly little spectacle to them — but they impress because they are sensitive to character and time.

If only she weren’t so concerned with seeming clever. Muslim wants you to marvel at the eloquence of her sentences, to nod your head knowingly at the sweep of her vocabulary, to collect her clever similes. But this ambition always leads her to overreach. Would a child describe the blotches on a man’s skin as “hateful?” Would anyone? The word is used correctly but it’s an overly dramatic description unfit for the character and tone. Is it possible to “almost reverently disturb” something? Never mind the unnecessary “almost”; there seems an evident disagreement between verb and adverb, and not one chosen to make a point about paradox.

In an especially clumsy sentence a narrator suggests that “they weren’t surprised, or even pretended to act surprised”, inadvertently linking “weren’t” and “even pretended to act surprised” into the impossibly strange sounding “they weren’t even pretended to act surprised”. If such complaints seem niggling, realize that imprecision at this small level is constant, and that it is not isolated but structural. All such instances can’t help but sabotage those moments when Muslim reaches for profundity or even achieves real elegance because she is not a keen enough observer of her own language to say exactly what she means to say.

For example, the image of light taking on physical form is promising and it seems fitting that it should manifest as “liquefying… spattering droplets”, but the sentence that precedes it (“the early light struck opaque surfaces… by producing oily specks”) confuses cause and effect. Though she means to say that the light striking the surfaces creates the oily specks, she makes it so that the oily specks are the medium by which the light actually travels. Elsewhere, a line as evocative as “happy endings are just curses told evasively” may sound insightful, but on further consideration is so vague as to be useless. Perhaps it’s suggesting that all endings are, by their very nature, unhappy — since they entail finality and the destruction of an older order — or that happy endings are not really endings, that the only true ending is death (preceding lines do mention the impending apocalypse), but in either case the current construction is so clumsy that it borders on the nonsensical.

That desperate desire to seem profound is not enough to actually be profound. Precision of thought is necessary, and precision almost always demands extensive consideration; anything less quickly betrays itself as founded on grounds too shaky to maintain. Similarly, Muslim’s stories may seem immediately appealing, but they don’t hold up to deeper scrutiny; the pleasures they afford are shallow, as is the language these tricks are built upon. The result leaves her work impoverished, a curio of freakishness rather than a parade of grotesqueries.

RATING 4 / 10