There's a difficult balancing act that happens when a writer produces a narrative in one form based on a monolith text that originated in another. When that source of inspiration is something as daunting as T. S. Eliot's
The Waste Land, the reader unwilling (or unable) to enter that desolate terrain will either stand in awe at the power of the new narrative or quietly dismiss it as a pale imitation. We know Eliot's poem from the cruelness of April, the unforgiving terrain, sections like "Death by Water" and "What the Thunder Said". Eliot wrote about an unreal city with one-eyed merchants, hanged men, throbbing taxis and music that "…crept by me upon the waters." However alienated we might feel after reading Eliot, we know that this poem to end all poems, written in 1922, was resilient enough to be adapted in many ways.
In her "Notes on the Text" that follow the brief Apocalypse, Darling, writer Barrie Jean Borich explains that her connection with Eliot's The Waste Land was less about its language, tone, and structure than it was an interest in the place. She listened to "…digitized tapes of Eliot's spooky voice-as if he were himself one of the quavering dead crossing London Bridge…" Borich cites such other Eliot readers as disparate as Mary Karr, who suggests readers allow the poem to "…spray in your face, then wash over you," and Ralph Ellison, who believed that Eliot's structure and jarring discontinuity was the equivalent of jazz. Borich acknowledges her debt to Eliot when it comes to structure and form, and it is up to the reader to determine how effectively she manages to create something different and unique in Apocalypse, Darling. Part memoir, short story, poem, and reflection, this is a deceptively difficult text that deserves deep consideration.
There are several issues to consider after finishing this story. As conventional narrative, it seems to be conventional. Borich and her spouse Linnea are on a road trip that will end in a visit to the latter's hometown for her father-in-law's wedding. We enter that moment while reflecting on decimated landscapes and lost potential. Timeframes and locations constantly shift. Part I, "Mixing Memory With Desire", goes from Indiana 2008 to Minneapolis 1987 to Chicago 1985 and 2015. Sections are called "Wasteland", "Trouble", and "Annihilation Pending". Barrie and Linnea have been together 22 years. The father has always been in the distance but now contact with him in unavoidable. Barrie thinks about how she and Linnea might appear to the outside world:
"….if they go with the version that makes them most comfortable, me the daughter, Linnea my boyfriend… or that I was simply Linnea's friend…"
Deeper in Part I, with location and time again seemingly assigned at random, Barrie reflects on image and appearance:
"I used to tell Linnea-let's take one of the Sears portraits and paste it over a photo of a mushroom cloud. Let's add a dialogue bubble.
Is that the apocalypse, Darling, or are you just happy to see me?
By Part II , "In Which Sad Light", there are more reflections on wastelands, on "…seeing and not seeing, the awareness cloaked in the refusal to see… the experience of memory where there is no memory…" The reader needs to be invested here in the puzzle construction Borich presents, and its effectiveness depends as always on reader tolerance. There are passages that surface in various sections ("What's Present in Time Future") that might make better sense read as a chain. In "The Violet Hour", Borich writes that "all family constellations change". This is what happens in Apocalypse, Darling. Toxic landscapes intermingle with poisonous families, and above it all are the constellations of families refusing to stand still.
In Part III, "Nothing With Nothing", we see recurring images of "…bared torsos of goddesses." Borich considers that the "…attraction might be the eternal youth of upright breasts… ownership of the classic curve." It's one of the more striking passages in a collection filled with them as she concludes that this was the "…chapel of the land that made us, a land we left in search of another body, where there are breasts but also baseball, where there is no baseball but also breasts." It's the comfort of the familiar mixed with the shock of the new. Barrie and Linnea are not the couple that is out of place and time but rather the couple that is born from this place and time. What's strongest about this story and the way Borich tells it is that she resists the usual tactic of a stranger in a strange land. They are from this land and of this land and it is not their obligation to appease and accommodate others so that their union might be accepted.
While self-empowerment and understanding are visible and strong in Apocalypse, Darling, the reader still understands the difficulty in full assimilation. Another beautiful passage, "The Tattoo Merchant", ends with a scene where Barrie and Linea are chatting with a random uncle, who punches the latter on her shoulder in a way best known to guys sharing a male-bonding moment. Barrie is "…a blond with visible boobs and tattoos…" while Linnea's represents something else. Borich reflects about "…his nothing touching nothing of me, my real body, Linnea's body, not to them what our bodies are to us, made of fragments of a language still, here, unheard." It's a remarkably potent moment in a volume filled with them. No matter how ideologically advanced the others might seem themselves, the language of full understanding still has not reached their terrain. They live in rocky landscapes, wastelands where nothing new grows. The world outside might advance, but their land is filled with ghosts.
In Part V, "Fragments Against Ruins", Borich reflects on the world "Post-Nuptial". She writes: "After all this, I sit upon the shoreline… enjoying the benefits of the unacknowledged." Later, she makes this observation: "If falling in love is an arrangement with hope, living with love is something again…" A man tells our heroine that her turn might be next, her chance at this conventionally-sanctioned acknowledgment of "love", but she turns it down. " No thank you, I tell him. I will stay here in the margins. I will not step over. No thank you, the torso chorus titters and repeats." These are the moments (and there are many) when Apocalypse, Darling soars and seems to live as a new form altogether. It's poetry, a meditation on life as "the other", creative non-fiction, and abstract art. More than anything, there are many moments like this in Apocalypse, Darling that make it soar in stunning clarity.
In "Post Mortem: Re-Migrations 2008", Borich reflects on our connections with these dangerous terrains, literal and figurative. "We don't need our wastelands, but sometimes, still, we want something back… We want love to mean the dead lands re-blooming, the hyacinths come back to life. We all want more than we will get." Again, these moments are many through the course of Apocalypse, Darling, passages that seem to sneak up on a reader who might not be prepared for their strength. Take this one: "What is that sound? Apocalypse, Darling? Or our living bodies singing against these necessary ruins?" We survive no matter what. We persevere, our bodies scarred by damage inherited or inflicted, connected with land that embraces or denies us depending on how we treat it. We sing no matter the tune and our abilities to find the melody or sustain the most dramatic notes.
Finally, in another beautiful sweep that Borich seems to effortlessly sprinkle throughout Apocalypse, Darling, Borich reflects on the experience of being united in the eyes of society: "Weddings claim to be promises but can never be more than prayers." The same can probably be said for the once thriving industrial lands and haunted American landscapes that serve as the physical setting for this book. No matter our origin stories, we know Barrie and Linnea. We have been on the outskirts, wandering through landscapes we might have thought were understandable but instead proved otherwise.
There's a sweeping, gorgeous sense of urgency in these pages as Borich reflects on the physical and psychic deterioration of lands and their people. We are the same. Rather than being hopeless and bitter, though, which this could have easily become, Apocalypse, Darling, is a stunning testament to the power of prayer and testimony to tell the tale and move on. There is no linear complacency here, no standard beginning, middle, and end, but it's not replaced by chaos for the sake of art. By the time it's over, Apocalypse, Darling proves an admirable balance of doom and grace in a world where darkness seems eternal if we stop reading, stop searching, stop believing.