When Notes from an apocalypse came out last month, a copy was delivered to the author’s home in Dublin by a key worker wearing latex gloves and a mask. But Mark O’Connell dismisses any flattery of prophetic sensitivity as “pure coincidence.” It’s true, if you look at recent history as something, any book about the end of the world has a pretty good chance of finding a suitable date for it. “Actually, I would like it to be less current,” says O’Connell. “I think it’s too timely; the context in which it comes out is terrible in every way. “
The Kilkenny-born author is best known for 2017’s To Be a Machine: Encounters with a Post-Human Future. Examining this book into the techno-utopian quest to avoid death earned him the Rooney Prize last year for Irish literature and the Wellcome Book Prize a year earlier. Obviously, O’Connell is more concerned with humanity than ever – or, more precisely, with its absence.
Notes from an apocalypse is an apt kind of travelogue. While we are locked in our homes and vacations have been crossed from our calendars for the foreseeable future, O’Connell travels the world to meet people who are in every way different from their unique fixation on Armageddon. The book’s apocalyptic world tour leads from the Scottish Highlands to the foothills of South Dakota, where a community of luxury bunkers emerge from missile silos from grassy hills, and on to New Zealand, the escape pod of choice for Silicon Valley’s multi-million dollar technology. Brothers.
The book is the result of some misunderstood advice from a therapist nearly four years ago. “I had all this floating fear of the future and I had nowhere to put it. ironic, ”says the 41-year-old with a laugh.
“I read as much bad news as I could get my hands on and watched doomsday prepper videos for hours. I let myself be drawn into the horror I felt. In a way, that’s what the book is – I submit to the things I’m most afraid of. ”
O’Connell isn’t the only one. Although we are offended by an endless cycle of bad news, we watch our television screens to learn more about it. The pandemic is a prime example; In March, Contagion, a Steven Soderbergh film about a virus outbreak that is rapidly killing millions of people, jumped 269 places to become the second most watched film by Warner Brothers. Similarly, sales of Albert Camus’ La Peste (The Plague) tripled in Italy and soared in France as well. In the face of a terrible virus, many of us have chosen to stare at the barrel of a gun.
And now thousands upon thousands are joining a previously ridiculed group: preppers. Some of those O’Connell meets in his book are not dissimilar to those made famous on National Geographic’s hit show Doomsday Preppers. In America, there often seems to be a certain type of man who wears Oakley wraparound sunglasses and thinks that white straight men are the haunted victims of the liberal agenda.
“The way people think about the Apocalypse often reflects how they think about the present,” says O’Connell. For these men who store ammunition and discuss the best firearms against a riotous mob, “their projections of this dark future have to do with a feeling that the world is spiraling out of control and their own cultural prestige is waning. The people who invest the most in preparing for the end of the world are often the former beneficiaries of patriarchy. “
As in To Be a Machine, O’Connell plays the role of an attentive spectator; sometimes horrified, amused and often devastated by what he witnessed. Despite his academic background – he holds a PhD in English Literature from Trinity College Dublin – the author is becoming less and less interested in a pose of objectivity or distance. “If I try myself,” he says, “it is of course dishonest. If you delete the ‘I’ from the text, you remove an element of truth, I think. ”
Writing about the end of the world is not a new endeavor, even in the modern context of climate change. Naomi Klein and David Wallace-Wells have both produced seminal works that set out what a future on earth might look like after a climate catastrophe – and that’s pretty apocalyptic. But O’Connell doesn’t care about the scientific details. Instead, he tries to solve the existential question of how one can live with meaning and purpose in the face of the darkness that seems to be on the horizon.
Doomsday capitalism is reaching younger generations, with designer face masks and Kardashian-recommended bug-out bags filled with duct tape, waterproof matches, and a 400-calorie apple-cinnamon bar with a five-year shelf life. “Which Kardashian?” asks O’Connell. “Strangely, I didn’t get any of these ads, even though I wrote an entire book about them.” It’s Kourtney.
Capitalism is Beaten in the book, a criticism filtered through characters like Peter Thiel, the multi-billion dollar venture capitalist who co-founded PayPal and was one of Facebook’s earliest investors. It is enough to look at the ultra-rich through the lens of the crisis to disgust everyone. Amid a pandemic where a lack of PPE is killing people every day, Jeff Bezos is to become the first billionaire in the world. But O’Connell knows that blaming capitalism can be a way out: “My editor suggested reducing the number of times I point out the evils of capitalism, so I went through and removed about 50 Percent of it, ”he says. “It’s a way of pointing out everything that’s wrong with the world, and so it becomes like a simple kind of tick, I suppose.” currently. “With the virus,” he says, “I believe that people are becoming more aware of the enormous inequality of wealth and resources and this structural type of falsehood.”
The irony of flying around the world while he is writing a book about the climate crisis is not lost to the author – nor is the strange situation in which the timely publication of his book has brought him to stir up and benefit from apocalyptic fear ”- regardless whether tourist tours through Chernobyl or people who build apocalyptic luxury timeshares – “and one of the slightly uncomfortable things I’ve noticed is that I’m one of those people in a way now. My book benefited from this so-called apocalyptic moment … I mean, it’s a book, so the profit is small, “he clarifies with a self-deprecating laugh,” but still. “
O’Connell’s confidence is as evident in conversation as it is in his book. For those of us as privileged as O’Connell willingly admits, the feeling of grappling with the increasingly visible cruelty of our systems and the reality of our complicity in maintaining them is familiar. In an attributable reflection in Notes from an Apocalypse, O’Connell writes of thinking about the factory workers “who made the smartphone that I listened to left-wing political podcasts on as I walked and who drank the flat white.”
While O’Connell offers no specific antidote to the poisons of capitalism, his reflections on parenting in the age of climate crisis are more crystallized. The author has two children, ages two and seven, with the youngest born while the book was being written. Much of O’Connell’s cunning musings are framed by parenthood, something that has always been a challenge but has grown even more recently. “You often hear people say, ‘Well, you can’t keep your children safe from the world forever,'” says O’Connell, “but I feel like you have to try.”
“You are creating this world that is magical, good, and safe. My kids believe in the tooth fairy and gnomes and Santa Claus, so am I lying? Objectively speaking, it’s me, but it’s not that simple either. You shape their reality and I think it’s important not to let in too much horror early on, ”he explains. “I suppose the task is to convey reality to children of this age, not to scare them and not to reveal how terrible you find the world to be.”
The prognosis for the world is bleak; an uncertain but likely worse future hits our present, and Notes from an Apocalypse does not purport to provide answers. But it successfully wrestles with the emotions of the apocalypse. The reading experience of the book is framed by two contrasting inscriptions: a quote from Greta Thunberg on the terrifying urgency of change in extraordinary times and a quote from the American author Annie Dillard with the inscription: “These times of us are ordinary times, a piece” of the Life like any other. ”It is certainly pathos to dive headfirst into Armageddon, but there is also some consolation in realizing that this newly discovered feeling that our world is imploding is actually not new. As O’Connell writes, “It was always the end of the world for someone, somewhere.”
It’s not a straightforward conclusion. During our phone call, O’Connell seems to be in endless conversation with himself as well as with me. Arriving on earth like an astronaut, he thinks about the journey to the end of the world and back. “I don’t know if I want to continue this indefinitely,” he says. “It’s a strange thing. Too much reality is a scary thing, but at the same time we have to face it. “He pauses and thinks out loud,” We have no choice. If we don’t face it, what do we learn from it? “
‘Notes from an Apocalypse’ is out now