Apocalyptic Planet/The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person (Books Acquired, 9.14.2012)
Two new review copies from the good people at Pantheon.
First, Apocalyptic Planet, which looks pretty cool. Pub copy:
The earth has died many times, and it always comes back looking different. In an exhilarating, surprising exploration of our planet, Craig Childs takes readers on a firsthand journey through apocalypse, touching the truth behind the speculation.Apocalyptic Planet is a combination of science and adventure that reveals the ways in which our world is constantly moving toward its end and how we can change our place within the cycles and episodes that rule it.
In this riveting narrative, Childs makes clear that ours is not a stable planet, that it is prone to sudden, violent natural disasters and extremes of climate. Alternate futures, many not so pretty, are constantly waiting in the wings. Childs refutes the idea of an apocalyptic end to the earth and finds clues to its more inevitable end in some of the most physically challenging places on the globe. He travels from the deserts of Chile, the driest in the world, to the genetic wasteland of central Iowa to the site of the drowned land bridge of the Bering Sea, uncovering the micro-cataclysms that predict the macro: forthcoming ice ages, super-volcanoes, and the conclusion of planetary life cycles. Childs delivers a sensual feast in his descriptions of the natural world and a bounty of unequivocal science that provides us with an unprecedented understanding of our future.
I suppose I’m less enthusiastic about Harold Kushner’s take on The Book of Job—
Here’s the pub copy:
From one of our most trusted spiritual advisers, a thoughtful, illuminating guide to that most fascinating of biblical texts, the book of Job, and what it can teach us about living in a troubled world.
The story of Job is one of unjust things happening to a good man. Yet after losing everything, Job—though confused, angry, and questioning God—refuses to reject his faith, although he challenges some central aspects of it. Rabbi Harold S. Kushner examines the questions raised by Job’s experience, questions that have challenged wisdom seekers and worshippers for centuries. What kind of God permits such bad things to happen to good people? Why does God test loyal followers? Can a truly good God be all-powerful?
Rooted in the text, the critical tradition that surrounds it, and the author’s own profoundly moral thinking, Kushner’s study gives us the book of Job as a touchstone for our time. Taking lessons from historical and personal tragedy, Kushner teaches us about what can and cannot be controlled, about the power of faith when all seems dark, and about our ability to find God.
Rigorous and insightful yet deeply affecting, The Book of Job is balm for a distressed age—and Rabbi Kushner’s most important book since When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
Each of the twenty-six short pieces that comprise Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby offers a different take on family life after the apocalypse. The opening paragraphs of “Abelard, Abraham, Absalom”—the first tale in the collection—offers an overview of Cataclysm Baby’s program:
The smoldered cigar, last of a box of twenty, bought to celebrate happier times, now smoked to keep away the smell of our unwashed skin, of our slipping flesh, of our baby grown in my wife’s belly, the submerged sign of a prophecy burning, stretching taut her hard bulge: All hair, just like the others, gone wrong again.
Fists of black hail fall from the cloudless sky and spatter the house, streak the skin of our walls, break windows above broken beds. The birth-room fills with air the texture of mud, with black birds forgetting how to fly, these crows and vultures waiting to make a nest of our child, and still I I focus, keep my eyes on shattered glass, on my wife’s pelvis tilting toward sunlight, toward sun turned the color of baby’s first stool, then the color blood.
We see here the vestiges of civilization, emblematic in the narrator’s cigar smoking down to ash; we see the mutated child, another hirsute monster “just like the others, gone wrong again”; we see the backdrop of ecological disaster, of carrion birds that can no longer fly yet nevertheless maintain a brutal Darwinian competition with humanity; we see a deathly world that seems to all but occlude birth. These motifs—the end of social order, the species-transformation of new children, the utter collapse of ecological norms—run throughout Cataclysm Baby, telegraphed in Bell’s precise, concrete style.
These short fables are also united by the alphabet: “Abelard, Abraham, Absalom” gives way to “Beatrice, Bella, Blaise,” and so on until “Zachary, Zahir, Zedekiah.” However, Bell’s apocalypse is discontinuous; each tale evokes its own paradigm, its own idiom of grief. He’s less interested in the invention and world-building that marks so much of sci-fi and fantasy than he is in tapping into the mythological undercurrents of end-of-the-world narratives. The short pieces in Cataclysm Baby unfold (or burst, or twist) like strange, dark fairy tales, each proposing another vision of collapse.
Even in these collapses, Bell hints at some sense of social order, suggesting the occasional dystopia, as in “Fawn, Fiona, Fjola,” where forced breeders exchange their child for a basement with an oxygen supply and the occasional shower, or “Grayson, Griffin, Guillermo,” where the narrator-father’s awful offspring dooms the rest of the town:
How many babies are born before we realize that all their children are boys? That our town’s women are the past, thanks to my one-note issue, to their deadly sperm making deathly pregnancies, taking each of their partners the way of their own mother: the blood-wet, breath-gasped, split-wombed, at best to linger, never to recover from the makings of their children?
Elsewhere, there’s pure horror, like in “Svara, Sveta, Sylvana,” a riff on parenting-as-grave-digging, or “Prescott, Presley, Preston,” where precognitive children sound out their own infanticidal doom. Horror generally pervades Bell’s language, as in the opening paragraph of “Isaac, Isaiah, Ishmael”:
Even at birth they were already damaged, their brittle bones opened and crushed, powdered by their mother’s powerful organs, her pressing canal: All those thin ribs snapped and splintered upon the stainless steel of the operating room. All those skulls crooked and cracked, all those twisted greenstick limbs. We lifted each child out from the mother’s body and into surgeries of its own, did our best to splint and screw our prides together.
Despite its horrors, there are occasional moments of (very) dark humor in Cataclysm Baby, absurd comic eruptions, like these lines from “Domina, Doreen, Dorma”:
A chrysalis? I ask my wife. A cocoon?
What’s the difference, she says, when it’s your child inside, when it’s your caterpillar?
I’m tempted to offer more examples, but I fear that I’m approaching over-paraphrasing here when much of the pleasure (is this the right noun?) of Cataclysm Baby comes from its strange familiarity, its uncanny contours, its ugly surprises. Bell’s cryptic details—shaved heads, missing mothers, night soot—allow the reader’s imagination do much of the work. This trust pays off; Bell is aware of the tradition he taps into and equally aware of reader awareness.
The apocalyptic tradition evinces in the two epigraphs Cataclysm Baby bears. The first, from the King James bible version of Noah’s apocalypse, notes “the creeping thing” — a bizarre expression, frightening, frustrating, and intriguing in its vivid vagueness. (Bell appropriates the expression later in one of his narratives). The other epigraph comes fromThe Road, Cormac McCarthy’s sad apocalypse story about a father and son who are “carrying the fire.” There’s little room for other characters in The Road and in a sense, Cataclysm Baby offers variations on the characters who might lurk in the margins of McCarthy’s story, or the edges of the other end-of-the-world stories we know. These parents simultaneously fear and fear for their children, harbingers of a world they will not survive. Recommended.
Cataclysm Baby is new from Mud Luscious Press.
D.H. Lawrence in his long essay Apocalypse:
Now a book lives as long as it is unfathomed. Once it is fathomed, it dies at once. It is an amazing thing, how utterly different a book will be, if I read it again after five years. Some books gain immensely, they are a new thing. They are so astonishingly different, they make a man question his own identity. Again, other books lose immensely. I read War and Peace once more, and was amazed to find how little it moved me, I was almost aghast to think of the raptures I had once felt, and now felt no more.
I need another book like I need a hole in the head, but, when I’ve had a stressful day at work, I like to browse the huge, labyrinthine used bookstore conveniently located just over a mile from my house. I don’t know how I wound up browsing D.H. Lawrence books, but Apocalypse stood out—first for its name, and second because, in a section of literally hundreds and hundreds of Lawrence volumes, it seemed to be the only one. Five minutes with the thing and I knew I was going to pick it up. It’s essentially a long essay on the Book of Revelation—and the concept of apocalypse and end-of-the-world in general.
Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature is a seminal volume for me, one I return to repeatedly—but I’ve never made it through one of his novels; I even found his short fiction tedious. Anyway, read a huge chunk of this last night. More to come.
In the future Dash Shaw proposes in his graphic novel BodyWorld, the Second Civil War and rapid industrial growth have left most of America a concrete sprawl by 2060. An exception is Boney Borough, a (literal) green zone somewhere on the Atlantic seaboard. This small secluded town is a new Eden in an otherwise gray world. Enter Professor Paulie Panther, a fuck-up par excellence. He goes to Boney Borough as part of a freelance mission to find out about a new, strange plant he’s found there via the internet. Professor Panther, you see, is a botanist and poet, a would-be scientist who finds out about the psychopharmacological properties of plants by smoking them up in big fat joints (when he’s not too busy trying to commit suicide or stumbling around on one or more of the various drugs to which he’s addicted). Professor Panther is the perfect acerbic foil to the homogeneous folk of Boney Borough. He gets hot for teacher Jem Jewel, turns-on Peach Pearl, the small town girl who wants to go to the big city, and pisses off and confuses her dumb jock boyfriend Billy-Bob Borg. The alliterative names (along with Shaw’s sharp, cartoonish style) recall–and subvert–the classic all-Americanism of Archie comics. Professor Panther soon discovers that the mystery plant, when smoked, grants the user strange telepathic abilities–namely, users sense the “body-mind” of the bodies of others around them.
The plant’s telepathic effects allow Shaw to explore what happens within a literalized I-see-you-seeing-me-seeing-you-seeing-me (seeing-y0u-seeing-me . . .) structure. His bright Pop Art goes Cubist in psychedelic trip scenes, superimposing images to show a surreal conflation of not just the melding of two people’s pasts and presents, but those people’s perceptions of past and present. Very heady stuff–but seeing Shaw’s work is superior to my description, of course. Observe, as Panther sees Pearl seeing Panther seeing Pearl idealizing their attempt at romance:
BodyWorld is sardonically humorous in its psychoanalytic visions, guided in no small part by Professor Panther’s hilarious outsider perspective, but also tempered by Shaw’s larger project, a sci-fi satire of American exurbanist insularity. We wrote earlier this month about science fiction’s tendency to work within the dichotomy of wastelands and green zones, and Shaw’s work is no exception. His marvelous trick is to keep us within the green zone of Boney Borough the whole time and to make us identify with a waster, Panther. The greatest irony is that in this futurist vision, the zombies are the ones in the green zone.
Not everyone’s a conformist though. There are exceptions, of course, especially in the seedy Outer Rim where Panther takes up transient residence. We meet a psychotic latter-day Johnny Appleseed who certainly shares Panther’s weirdo proclivities. The episode is a marvelous spoof on the corny “origin stories” standard in Golden and Silver Age comics, with Shaw’s treatment more loving than mocking. To tell more about this weirdo might spoil the climax of Shaw’s graphic novel, and we don’t want to do that, of course, because you’re going to want to read it, aren’t you? Suffice to say that it’s part and parcel of Shaw’s program, a sweet and sour subversion of the 1950s comics and contemporary conformist groupthink politics. Shaw owes some debt to the neat precision, spacing, and rhythm of Chris Ware, as well as the haunting inks and sharp wit of Charles Burns but it would be a mistake to see this young talent as anything but original. Still, while we’re making comparisons: Richard Kelly could make a messy, sprawling treasure of a film out of BodyWorld.
You can read all of BodyWorld now at Shaw’s website, or you can do what I did and read Pantheon’s new graphic novel version (Pantheon, you will remember, brought us the David Mazzucchelli’s outstanding graphic novel Asterios Polyp). Either way, you should read it. Highly recommended.