Review of Undead Ends: Stories of Apocalypse
Sarah Trimble. Undead Ends: Stories of Apocalypse. Rutgers University Press, 2019. Paperback. 210 pg. $29.95. ISBN 9780813593647.
As I am writing this review in June 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing, face masks, and travel restrictions have become the new normal. At times, the line between fiction and real life has seemed eerily blurry; if headlines and news clips from the past few months were edited into a minute-long video, it could easily be mistaken for the opening scenes of an apocalypse film. For this reason, and for the fact that we do not know when and how this pandemic is going to end, it is more important than ever to examine the apocalypse narratives that circulate in film and literature. Which narratives are we enacting in our responses to COVID-19? How do we imagine life after the crisis? And who are “we”?
In her book Undead Ends: Stories of Apocalypse, Sarah Trimble examines popular Anglo-American apocalypse films of the past two decades. Her arguments illuminate the entire genre, but she singles out six films for closer analysis: The Road (2009), I Am Legend (2007), 28 Days Later (2002), 28 Weeks Later (2007), Children of Men (2006), and Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). Though highly relevant also before COVID-19—anthropogenic climate change, the rise of right-wing populism, and the persistence of neoliberal capitalism being three important reasons—Undead Ends has taken on another level of relevance in this unprecedented global pandemic.
Trimble argues that the prevalence of high-visibility apocalypse films should be read in the context of a particular kind of capitalism that has gained influence in recent decades. She invokes cultural critics and theorists, including David Harvey and Naomi Klein, who characterize this version of capitalism as “creative destruction” (Harvey, cited on page 2) and “disaster capitalism” (Klein, cited on page 2): when disaster strikes or is induced, as the case may be, policy makers and investors arrive at the scene to privatize resources and reconstruct society in ways that will benefit them. Apocalypse films neatly parallel this process of destruction and reconstruction: the old order collapses, and a group of survivors struggle to create a new order. And since, according to Trimble, stories are incredibly powerful—she borrows Sylvia Wynter’s term homo narrans to characterize humans as “a species of storytellers” (9)—it becomes crucially important to critically analyze the identities, behavior, and aspirations of the survivors in apocalypse films. Do they reproduce Western colonialism and neoliberal capitalism? Or do they let other voices in, offering alternative visions of culture and society? In Trimble’s words: “In Undead Ends, I argue that contemporary apocalypse films offer an occasion to intervene in neoliberal storytelling. At the heart of this claim is the conviction that stories make and remake the world” (3).
The historical roots of Trimble’s arguments extend further than the last few decades, however. She builds on Wynter, who traces the “invention of Man” to the Renaissance, when “the Christian tale of humanness gave way first to a vision of the human as rational (Man1) and then to a ‘biocentric’ vision of the human as a living organism imperiled by natural scarcity (Man2),” a vision that “took shape in relation to Others imagined as exploitable and/or killable” (3). Closer to our time, Trimble argues, Man2 can be identified with homo oeconomicus, or the “economic Man,” who “defines good humanness in terms of economic productivity and security” (3). Borrowing the title of Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man (1826), Trimble then defines “the Last Man” as “the protagonist who exemplifies the norms of humanness established by Man’s story” (153, n8). For Trimble, “the Last Man” thus signifies both a survivor of the standard apocalypse narrative and an embodiment of the Western, neoliberal “economic Man.”
Except for 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later, which she discusses in the same chapter, Trimble devotes a chapter each to the films listed above. But rather than ordering the films chronologically, she creates a kind of narrative of her own through the order in which she discusses them. Very simply and roughly, the films increasingly problematize the story of the Last Man and, in different ways, let other voices in. In Trimble’s reading, The Road reinforces the current economic order. For example, the unnamed father explains to his unnamed son that they are “the good guys” and that they are “carrying the fire.” They are distinguished as such in the plot of the film too, both through the contrast with the unnamed mother—who has committed suicide—and through the contrast with a group of cannibals—a trope which evokes the old Western binary of “the savage” versus “the civilized” (29–30).
In subsequent chapters in Undead Ends, the Last Man is still present, but his hegemony becomes undermined and other perspectives and voices gain in strength. The last film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, sees a very different protagonist from The Road: not a white man trying to rekindle “civilization,” but a young, black girl, called Hushpuppy, living with an abusive father in precarious circumstances. However, Trimble does not simply praise Beasts for challenging the status quo; she quotes and discusses a number of critics who have argued that Beasts amounts to “a romanticization of racialized poverty” and reinforces “tired tropes of primitivism and black familial dysfunction” (119). But Trimble also sees an opportunity for challenging the hegemonic “we” in our renderings of history. For example, in a key scene early in the film, Hushpuppy “accidentally-intentionally sets her house on fire” (119). While hiding from both the flames and her father in a cardboard box, she draws pictures on the walls of the box and explains: “If daddy gonna kill me, I ain’t gonna be forgotten. I’m recording my story for the scientists in the future” (quoted on page 119).
Undead Ends is a valuable and timely addition to the literature on climate fiction and apocalypse narratives. Through her well-written and nuanced readings of Anglo-American apocalypse films, Trimble illuminates and problematizes the “we” of widespread apocalypse narratives by relating the films’ plots and perspectives both to 500 years of colonial history and to the “disaster capitalism” of recent decades. We will be better off if we read Undead Ends—with regard to everyday life as well as to COVID-19 and other potentially apocalyptic hazards down the road.
Daniel Helsing received his PhD in literature from Lund University in 2019, and he currently teaches at the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies in the Liberal Arts at California Polytechnic State University. His research centers on representations of science and the universe in texts of various kinds, including fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and science communication.