After the plague

I have to preface this essay by making one thing clear: I have to great love for dystopian visions, or narratives of the apocalypse.

As a much younger man, I reveled in tales of the end of the world, or of the world gone wrong. Nineteen Eighty-four was my lodestar. Brave New World possessed a strange allure, as I in my hubris knew I’d be born as an Alpha. Alas, Babylon was a seminal work in my adolescence. And, of course, who can forget A Canticle for Leibowitz, whose central theme is that the problem is with humanity, regardless of how many chances it gets to get things right.

Now that I’m a man of a certain age, I look askance at these artistic endeavors. Now that I have a wife, a home, a remunerative and satisfying job, friends and family, I don’t particularly like end-of-the-world scenarios or dystopian fantasies. I don’t necessarily wish to imagine the end of a world I mostly cherish. You can keep your gauzy visions of heaven to yourself; I want an orange LA sunset, or the stereoscopic view of the world from the observation deck of the Empire State Building. I want to listen to a sonata by Mozart, or to Bono sing “With or Without You”, surrounded by 50,000 other people. I want to make love to my wife and drink with my friends. I have a good life, and I want to enjoy it as much as I can.

We are living through a dystopian moment, with the very worst that this country can produce seeming to have ascendancy. But it’s a temporary one. I have faith that we will come out of this at the other end a better and stronger race. But, I can’t help but feel a little twinge of anxiety, worrying that the dystopia is at long last here.

So, no, I don’t like dystopias or apocalypses. I’ve grown out of a need to thrill to the world’s destruction.

However, there is always an exception.

If I were to be asked for a piece of dystopian or apocalyptic art which I could absolutely not do without, I wouldn’t turn to Orwell or Huxley. No. It would be to that Bard of the Southland, Santa Barbara’s own T. Coraghessan Boyle.

TC Boyle is, currently, the greatest American practitioner of the short story. He has two massive collections of his extant short fiction, and it would behoove you to thumb through them.

But there’s one story he wrote which is just stunning in the way it overturns all the usual apocalyptic tropes: “After the Plague”.

The short synopsis is that upon a day, a plague germinates and spreads all over the world, killing 99.9% of humanity (while leaving other fauna free). The story’s protagonist was secluded in a mountain cabin working on a novel, only to descend some time later to discover that the world had ended. He finds a survivor, a woman, who is to say the least a very desultory Eve to his Adam. She refuses to believe that the world has ended, even as evidence of death surrounds her. They make their way out of the mountains and back towards the Southern California coast.

I won’t go more into the story’s plot. I do urge all of you to go out and read it. Why? Because it is the most beautiful apocalyptic story ever written. It depicts a world where the old order has been torn away, and the survivors have a chance to make things anew, and hopefully better. The protagonist eventually extricates himself from his first partner, and finds a new woman who is far more amenable to forming a union, and soon, it being Southern California, they decide that clothes are no longer necessary.

This is, of course, an image of humanity newborn and naked, coming out of the violence of childbirth. And this is why it’s such a striking story.

Most apocalyptic art is, for obvious reasons, concerned with survival, with brutality, with a longing for a lost world to the current horror. “After the Plague” turns that around. It was the past world which was a horror, and this new world a chance at a new Eden. Hell is other people. Without the fixing gaze of others, the characters in the story are finally free to be what they want to be, not trapped by the expectations of the old world.

Of course, the fact is that the world does end. Billions are dead. Oddly, though, the insinuation is that this was bound to happen. Humans were going to cock it up eventually. If that were the case, then this, as an outcome, would be the best possible one.

I still stand by my general rejections of dystopia and apocalypse. But, as with most things, you can sometimes find exquisite beauty in the dark.

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