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Not-so-light summer reads
The recent LibertyCon featured sessions on “doom.” Current films with apocalyptic overtones include both World War Z and Pacific Rim. Zombies have a special symbolism with regard to the apocalypse: “the dead rise up;” but they are also Gothic constructs connected to voodoo. The question arises: Why all the concern about the world’s end?
A glib answer may be that a dysfunctional culture expects its own end, entertaining itself with possible scenarios. I am reminded of a remark by Tennessee Williams, “The question one hears most frequently about writers of the Gothic school is this little classic, “Why do they write about such dreadful things?’” Williams was writing an introduction for Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye, a novel sufficiently “Gothic” and one focused on endings. One witness to her intensity was John Huston, whose film adaptation featured both Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. I believe Williams suggests that the paths of genre writing and literature intersect in brilliant illumination. The labels have less relevance than does this accomplishment.
Novels about the end of the world are inherently fantastic—after all, the world is still here. It may be that the question about how the world ends relates to the question about how the world persists. Two important novels involved with these questions include John Crowley’s Daemonomanioa and Terry Pratchett’s and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. These novels appeared around ten years apart and relatively on time for the current millennium. Although they are apparently different in tone, they possess significant qualities in common, including some “Gothic” devices, at times with unexpected twists.
While Good Omens satirizes its way through history to approach the dread end—an elegant farce in all the best senses—Daemonomanioa explores the paradox of the marvelous and the mundane in its journey to the turning point. Both novels deeply engage the reader, though Crowley’s book contains about twice as many words.
To return to Williams’ remarks: “The great difficulty of understanding, and communication, lies in the fact that we who are asked this question [see above] and those who ask it do not really inhabit the same universe.”
For example, consider the collaboration that became Stanley Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove. No doubt, this film has lots of satirical humor, but it also explores some very disconcerting subtexts, including “Gothic” overtones, until it reaches its dreadful conclusion. The point here involves artistic evolution. The writer may well be driven to a strange complexity, while readers may seek comfort in the familiar. Defamiliarization has remained a significant modernist’s theme.
Doctor Strangelove has a relevant connection to Good Omens. They both rush through their satirical adventures while casting insight on institutional history. For example, Good Omens brings a casual explanation of the English monetary system that is simply priceless. Also, of much interest, the reader may recognize the seeds of what will eventually become Gaiman’s American Gods.
Both of these novels are driven through unusual narrative structures. Good Omens, though it reaches way back in time, essentially organizes itself around the time when the world ends. Crowley divides Daemonomania into three sections corresponding to astrological houses. His novel extends between Fall Equinox and Winter Solstice, essentially the season of autumn. Crowley also crosscuts between contemporary times and early 17th century Prague. Significantly, at this earlier time in history, many also thought the world was about to end.
Another common dimension of these novels’ structures involves books about the end of the world. In Good Omens, the book is old (17th century?), while the protagonist of Daemonomania composes a book about the end of the world. This shows fine literary expressionism when the subject and the story share an identity.
Some great novels employ a significant literary device that involves a fantastic coincidence leading to recognition. Melville’s Pierre, Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and Flaubert’s Salammbo develop great intensity through such a device. In Crowley’s novel, the contemporary story and the Prague story are quite connected by a physical link. Good Omens develops a fantastic romantic connection.
An important difference between these novels involves levels of literary ambitions. Good Omens as a collaboration—a first collaboration—nails its targets, like institutional religion with an appetite for death and eccentric accuracy. For Crowley, this novel has connections to earlier significant works of his own and, likely, to later ones as well. His novel contains an intense erotic dimension alongside deeply fantastic passages that compare well to the best of fantastic precedents. Crowley also has his satirical turns.
Significantly, both novels shown an inclusiveness of characters, ranging from children to supernatural beings, and this inclusiveness reflects a kind of integrated perspective of this world. The real value of reading these great writers has to do more with the level of insight that they can present. The mode of these novels concerning the end of the world functions as a vehicle for this kind of inclusiveness, for literary integration and perceptive insight.
Readers seeking more of this fare would do well to check out Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003). This satirical dystopic novel brings together a poetic style with mad science and with wild allusive play. By examining eugenics, Atwood shows how paradigms transform our world. When the best writers deploy to approach a similar theme, the world’s end, I do recall a phrase: “Everything that rises must converge,” attributed to Flannery O’Conner. Enjoy reading!