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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Book Review: After the Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh

Collections of short stories are still the hardest thing for me to review, which invariably means the following review will be flawed both methodologically and stylistically.  But perhaps I can move past this by way of the  interconnected-ness of the stories in Maureen F. McHugh's After the Apocalypse.  Unlike most collections, McHugh's stories revolve around the same premise in the same world:  something has gone terribly wrong with our world; the nine stories in After the Apocalypse are about those who have survived, or are surviving.

That's essentially what this collection is about:  how human beings respond to catastrophe.  But, mostly, the collection about survival, without all the exotic images our post-apocalyptic movies show us.  There are no grand heroes here, nor an assurance that "things are turning around."  These are stories caught in the middle between the moment of catastrophe, the moment
immediately after, and the intermediate moments between "the world as it was" and "the better world to come."  And it's that focus which makes After the Apocalypse one of the most beautiful literary feats of 2011.
Despite following a similar theme, each of McHugh's stories is distinct in vision and voice, from a young man imprisoned in a city compound infested with zombies in "The Naturalist" to a woman trying to make a living in the wastelands along the U.S. border with Mexico in "Useless Things"; from Chinese women trying to free themselves from indentured labor to Chinese corporations in "Special Economics" to a magazine-style article about a young man who survived a dirty bomb attack, but lost his identity in "The Lost Boy:  A Reporter At Large"; from two computer programmings debating whether their AI is trying to communicate in "The Kingdom of the Blind" to the sudden and strange shared desire for travel to France in "Going to France"; from a young woman's attempts to make something of her life after a failed marriage in "Honeymoon" to a family struggling through the after-effects of a time-dilated disease spread through food in "The Effect of Centrifugal Forces" to, finally, a woman and her young daughter struggling their way north after America's economy and borders collapse, and also struggling with themselves in "After the Apocalypse."  The variety of perspectives and content produces a palimpsest of narrative; in other words, each story seems to layer on top of the one that proceeded it, turning what in other collections would be a disparate set of worlds viewed through a particular gaze into a set of stories that feel inherently collaborative.  What one story cannot do due to the limits of space, the next might.

Paul Kincaid has argued that "McHugh's approach to the apocalypse is oblique, a concern with the personal, the individual or family unit, rather than the devastation that surrounds them" (from Strange Horizons).  He's right.  The palimpsest that is McHugh's collection is perhaps driven by the intense personal nature of her narratives.  No story in this collection is about the apocalypse-that-was.  We never see the events that led McHugh's characters to a relatively solitary life along the border ("Useless Things") or to make a break for the city to make something of herself ("Special Economics").  We only learn about the catastrophes in retrospect, often through the eyes of characters who no more know what happened than any of us can say, with any certainty, what exactly happened on 9/11.  Complex events are compressed into single-strain narratives.  The effect is wondrous, if not because it's refreshing to see a different approach to catastrophe/apocalypse, then certainly because McHugh's stories, by and large, are beautiful.

That's not to suggest that every story in this collection succeeds in what I've interpreted as a narratory path.  "Honeymoon" leaves something to be desired, though the only reason I can muster is that the story never felt like it belonged in the collection, and, perhaps, in comparison to stories like "Special Economics," "Useless Things," or "The Effect of Centrifugal Forces," it falls short of the mark, both on a personal and narrative level.  Similarly, "The Kingdom of the Blind" and "Going to France," while interesting enough, don't quite approach the grim personal nature of the other stories in the collection.  The personal, I think, is where McHugh shines, as demonstrated by "The Naturalist" (the criminal), "Special Economics" (the exploited), "Useless Things" (the struggling), "The Lost Boy:  A Reporter at Large" (the broken survivor), "The Effect of Centrifugal Forces" (those who survive the dead or dying), and "After the Apocalypse" (the disconnected).  These stories provide a kind of funhouse mirror in which to examine humanity, distorted through a world that just might be.  The effect is chilling and humbling, because McHugh shows us how fragile, and yet beautiful and unique, human beings really.

After the Apocalypse is a thorough, if not unsettling, journey into the human psyche after catastrophe, at once thrilling, compelling, and disturbing.  This collection alone proves that McHugh is a force to be reckoned with in the world of genre, for her simple-but-beautiful prose, evocative imagery, and raw human explorations make After the Apocalypse one of the best works of SF of this decade.  You can expect to see this book appear in my WISB Awards in February.

If you'd like to learn more about Maureen McHugh, check out her website.  You can find more information about After the Apocalypse at Small Beer Press.

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