“I, for one, am sick to death of the end of days.”
That’s a line from early in Mark O’Connell’s “Notes From an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back.” As you might expect with the combination of that title and these times, the book is chockful of this sort of rueful wit.
In this funny and sometimes enraging tour of people and places preparing for the End, pandemics are mentioned only in passing. The specter of worldwide illness lingers in the background. O’Connell’s time working on this book comprised “a long run of very bad days: I couldn’t sneeze without thinking it was a portent of the end times.”
Sounds familiar, yeah?
O’Connell is uninterested in the precise apocalyptic specs, the accuracy of the book of Revelations, the exact date of Ragnarok. He’s interested in anxiety — his, yours, mine — about the end times and what those anxieties say about him, you, and me.
O’Connell, a witty and perceptive critic and contributor to The New York Times Magazine, is a good friend to have at the end of the world. In mostly standalone chapters he offers everything from a critical appraisal of online “preppers” to a slick salesman of survival bunkers in South Dakota, from Peter Thiel’s New Zealand getaway to the Mars Society’s plans for an extraplanetary escape. Throughout, O’Connell is a wry and skeptical stand-in for the reader. There is a comfort in his prose. You get the sense this writer is taking time to order his experience, to bring coherence to his anxieties — and, by extension, to some of mine.
O’Connell’s son sits on his lap, watching a cartoon bear. O’Connell himself views footage on his phone of a real polar bear “hauling its tufted carcass onward toward a cluster of rusting metal barrels half-filled with trash.” It’s an easy juxtaposition, but it’s also part of O’Connell’s point: The end of the world is too much with us, so much so that we risk taking it for granted.
Part of the problem, in his diagnosis, is narrative: Global warming has little plot. “Nuclear war, for all its considerable flaws, you at least have to admit was gripping.”
“Is it possible to be terrified and bored at the same time?” Though O’Connell asks this about that anticlimactic climate problem, I’m confident he has in a sense answered it with respect to COVID-19.
That’s the odd thing about reading this book during the Era of Triple-Arm’s-Length Interactions: A version of the fears O’Connell and his subjects obsess over has come to pass and … it’s not exactly as expected. So far — and knock wood — for most of us, the grid is still up, water still comes out of the tap, the heat comes on. The preppers hoarding chlorine tablets for water purification and shelf-stable “pasta primavera mix with freeze-dried chicken chunks” have misplaced their energies. There’s a certain satisfaction — go ahead and call it schadenfreude — in this little bit of comedy.
O’Connell resists ridiculing the preppers. Instead he levels a weightier charge. He finds in them a moral and empathic failure, a logical outgrowth of the prosperity gospel that would lead a self-professed Christian to say that the one thing he learned from his time in Iraq is that refugees have it the worst — and so he’s determined not to be a refugee.
This attitude disgusts O’Connell, as it does me, as it should you. An Irishman and a socialist, O’Connell is morbidly fascinated by the people and institutions bent on exits. In his first book, “To Be a Machine,” he introduces us to people in the transhumanist movement, who wanted to hasten the Singularity and exit the human condition. In this book, we meet people who want to exit society, or even the planet.
This fascination may be at the root of O’Connell’s obsession with Thiel, the PayPal billionaire and amoral cur who appears in both books. (Thiel has wished for a chess-playing robot with whom he can discuss Tolkien. His interest in humanity, as in so many things, is purely extractive.) Instead of directing his considerable resources to help mitigate climate change, he has purchased a spread and citizenship in New Zealand in order to wait out the civil unrest that’s sure to follow.
O’Connell travels to New Zealand, and from there to the site of Thiel’s compound. While swimming in an adjacent lake O’Connell takes huge gulps, making himself almost sick in a symbolic effort to deplete Thiel’s reserve. This is an almost too-handy metaphor for what it’s like to position yourself against an indifferent billionaire. You are glutted to distraction; the billionaire hasn’t noticed a thing.
The preppers, the would-be Mars-goers, and Thiel are all interested in getting themselves out of the mess they’ve helped make, rather than helping us fix it. These low-taxation government skeptics create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Starve the coffers long enough and make everything up to and including health care subject to market forces, we get what we’ve got now: ineffective government response, a slew of needless deaths. Upon recovery the exiteers will point to the needless deaths as evidence that government should be starved further.
The Mars people do talk about the future of the species — albeit on a planet that is currently less hospitable than Earth will be even after severe warming.
With this book, in these times, it could not be clearer: Efforts to help a future, capital-H “Humanity” avoid extinction are vanity projects that let funders feel good. They don’t have to think about or try to ameliorate the brute facts of life for millions of humans who face the prospect of personal apocalypse every day.
NOTES FROM AN APOCALYPSE: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back
By Mark O’Connell
Doubleday, 272 pp., $27.95
Sebastian Stockman is director of the writing minor and an associate teaching professor at Northeastern University.