Writng about Reading: After the Apocalypse

August 15, 2012 § Leave a comment


“The apocalypse is happening. These are the stories.”

That’s the first line of the sell copy on the back of Maureen McHugh’s powerful short story collection, After the Apocalypse, and it perfectly captures what the book contains. There are nine stories collected here, and each one takes place after some kind of apocalypse—zombie, plague, nuclear, economic, etc.

Rather than focus on the apocalypse itself, McHugh’s stories look at the effects of disaster on an individual level. These are character-centered stories with a very visceral, personal feel. “The Naturalist” is the story of an inmate trying to survive in the zombie-filled prison-city of Cleveland. “Special Economics” is the tale of a young Chinese girl trying to eke out a living in a post-plague Beijing. “Useless Things” is about a doll maker living alone in a mostly vacant New Mexico suburb after a catastrophic economic collapse. “The Lost Boy: A Reporter At Large” tells the story of a boy who takes on a completely different personality following a dirty bomb attack on Baltimore.

Some of the stories aren’t about national or global disasters, but individual ones. People suddenly find themselves able to fly and are mysteriously drawn overseas in “Going to France.” A jilted bride picks up the pieces of her life by submitting to medical testing in “Honeymoon.” In “The Effect of Centrifugal Force,” the relatives of a dying woman must come to grips with the new disease that’s killing her—and may be killing them, too. “The Kingdom of the Blind” tells the story of a computer programmer struggling to communicate with what she suspects is the world’s first spontaneous AI before those up the chain of command pull the plug on it.

All are powerful stories and well told, but the best of the lot is the last—the title story—”After the Apocalypse.” In this tale, a woman and her teenage daughter are trying to escape the increasing violence and darkness (both figurative and literal) of a ruined America. They are on foot, carrying a few meager possessions, and facing daily danger from the other refugees they encounter. It’s a gritty, uncomfortable story about what people really do to survive. Forget the heroics of Hollywood; when faced with raw survival, saints are hard to find.

McHugh’s a powerful writer with a knack for creating characters we already know. We’ve met these people—worked with them, talked to them at parties, grew up with them, slept with them. McHugh shows us how they—how we—might act after the apocalypse. What we might do. Who we could become.

It’s clear that McHugh has thought a lot about the ways in which our comfortable world can end. The most frightening thing about the stories in After the Apocalypse is that each one of them could easily come true tomorrow, or in the very near future. Or they could be happening right now.

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