Review of The Contemporary Post-Apocalyptic Novel
Nathaniel P. Doherty
Rachel Swirsky. January Fifteenth. Tordotcom, 2022. Paperback. 239 pg. $15.99. ISBN 978-1-250-19894-6.
The Contemporary Post-Apocalyptic Novel: Critical Temporalities and the End Times, by Diletta De Cristofaro, is encyclopedic in its approach to contemporary Anglophone literature. At its center of critical focus is the engagement of contemporary Anglophone fiction of the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain with the logic of apocalypse. De Cristofaro traces this oppressive logic deftly from Biblical roots to every bud of current dominant power structures. This book is the author’s first monograph in an otherwise extensive body of work, and she uses this opportunity to cast a wide, interdisciplinary net of referenced fiction around the foci of each chapter. Each chapter focuses on one high profile novel and one that is under-recognized, according to De Cristofaro.
The novel theoretical insight offered by De Cristofaro is “critical temporality” (De Cristofraro 1). In short, critical temporality is a feature whereby texts contradict or otherwise undermine apocalyptic conceptions of time. De Cristofaro identifies this critical mode as a resistance to, or commentary upon, legacies of traditional Christian apocalypticism, especially as it has been appropriated by a range of oppressive and/or exploitative systems dominating global policy and popular ways of knowing. The introduction sketches out critical temporality and establishes the monograph’s critical underpinning. It also provides a brief but useful introduction to the history of apocalyptic narratives in Western culture.
Chapter One focuses on Sam Taylor’s The Island at the End of the World (2009) and The Book of Dave (2006), by Will Self. In both texts, apocalypse functions to justify, after the fact, theocratic systems that are both misogynist and sexist. In both texts, in different ways, the theocracies are all but immune to reform or escape because of their deployment of sanctity as a means to control both public narrative and history. The novels’ critical temporality undermines these systems with parody. De Cristofaro’s critical lens is primarily occupied with a critique of oppressive, overt, Christian power structures.
Chapter Two focuses on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and The Pesthouse (2007),by Jim Crace. De Cristofaro analyzes what she refers to as “American ideologies,” specifically Manifest Destiny and American exceptionalism, within these two novels’ narratives (14). Specifically, she identifies how these narratives invert the traditional mythology of the American ‘open road’ and the related narratives of limitless self-reinvention as their critical temporalities. The chapter also notes critiques of the ‘creative’ destruction inherent in the U.S.’s claims to correct and perfect European civilization.
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) and Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods (2007) form the core of Chapter Three’s analysis. De Cristofaro focuses on the role played by apocalyptic logic in the post-facto justification and sustenance of exploitative colonialism and neo-colonialism. Both novels cover vast spans of fictional history. Linear narrative is associated in the chapter with Biblical, “Revelation”-style apocalypticism, and thus De Cristofaro focuses on non-linear narratives as the ‘critical temporalities’ of both novels. In both cases, narrative time becomes critical via textual reflections of nonfictional capitalist, (neo)colonial structures and histories. This chapter also contains the monograph’s closest consideration of eco-critical themes.
Chapter Four centers on variations of denarration in novels critiquing stagnation in neoliberalism’s framing of history. The central texts are Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014)and Douglas Coupland’s Player One (2010). De Cristofaro reads denarration and monotony in both as associating the apocalypse with symbols of global capitalism. More specifically, the chapter takes aim at claims that neoliberalism represents the ‘end of history.’ De Cristofaro spends more time on the initial contextual interpretations, which includes Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011) and Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles (2012). The modes of rendering temporality in the novels of this chapter are characterized by slowing, monotony, and variations of denarration that parody neoliberalism’s perpetual, changeless present.
The Contemporary Post-Apocalyptic Novel’s conclusion focuses on Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan (2017) and the employment of the body as a vehicle for historical narrative resisting official archives. The temporal dimension of this embodied archive constitutes this section’s approach to critical temporality through its opposition to the apocalyptic chronology of the official archive. De Cristofaro revises Derrida’s “Archive Fever” as a drive within post-apocalyptic fiction to imagine the preservation of narratives through the apocalypse (1995). She interprets these archives as evidence of the novelists’ faith in the power of narrative to resist contemporary tendencies driving towards global catastrophe, an implicit nod to speculative fiction’s preoccupation with extrapolation.
The critical lenses employed by De Cristofaro are feminist as well as postmodernist and post-structuralist. Further, a Marxist-inflected critique of global capitalism undergirds most of her interventions. Religious, or pseudo-religious, support for misogyny and sexism is a focus of the first chapter, and high-profile postmodernists or post-structuralists (there’s some debate about who counts as what) are cited directly in the introduction and referenced throughout. This grouping includes Baudrillard, Derrida, Haraway, Lyotard, and Linda Hutcheon, among others. Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects (2013) also makes an appearance when De Cristofaro turns towards eco-critical considerations. As a result, there is a case for identifying a post-humanist facet to De Cristofaro’s work as well.
This monograph is a valuable interdisciplinary intervention that provides a convincing and timely approach as well as detailed references to many texts capable of supporting a broad range of scholarship. The Contemporary Post-Apocalyptic Novel has the potential to be a resource for scholars working on contemporary literature, posthumanism, gender studies, and eco-criticism, at least. Its contents are especially relevant to contemporary SF studies. De Cristofaro’s thorough catalogue of related texts in each chapter means the book itself functions like an archive. Thus, it has the potential to support a range of contemporary literature courses, given that most of the texts referenced transcend the dubious distinction between literary and speculative fiction. The Pesthouse section of Chapter Two is particularly notable for making extensive and interesting use of research into Crace’s personal papers stored at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austen. The use of the Crace papers provides an example of archival scholarship applicable to both undergraduate and graduate students. De Cristofaro has given us that rare work that functions on an advanced theoretical level while also nonetheless being applicable to many classroom contexts.
Nathaniel Doherty has worked as a writer, instructor, and etc. in many capacities throughout post-secondary education. Currently he works in instructional design at Chadron State College, in Chadron, NE. Technically, it’s still the frontier out here. Besides advocacy for learner-centered teaching, his professional focus is late-20th and 21st-century U.S. fiction and gender studies. He has a predilection for genre writing.