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In a recent interview, Lucy Corin was asked how she feels about endings:
It seems to me that people are mostly at war, and that there are only moments of peace. So I’ve been thinking that it’s actually strange that novels supposedly begin and end with stasis. In this sense, stasis is the artifice, not change, not conflict, drama, or discord. Stories often end with a moment of recognition of the profound discord that might have been there all along, unrecognized, and that seems like a more “realistic” aspect of traditional form than stasis-conflict-stasis.
This quote perfectly captures the success of Corin’s new collection of short stories, A Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses (McSweeney’s). In each of the four stories, Corin manages to avoid stasis entirely, dropping readers into strange worlds without explanation, and pulling them out just as everything seems poised to coalesce. And yet, the reader’s search for an ultimate order and meaning in these stories proves Corin’s point time and again: Humans want answers and we will spend our whole lives denying the unknown just so that we can say we understand.
Apocalypse is speculative fiction, but the stories are deeply rooted in the politics and upheaval of our times. In the first story, “Eyes of Dogs,” a re-telling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Tinder-Box,” a soldier returning from war meets a witch who helps him find a purse that supplies him with a never-ending supply of money. But Corin takes the simplistic morals of the original tale and turns them on their head. The soldier is not a conquering hero, but a broken, violent man, with PTSD flashbacks who kills the witch he keeps mistaking for his mother and rapes the princess he eventually marries. Towards the middle of the story, the narrative branches out into two separate but related plotlines – one on the bulk of the page and one on the right margin – forcing the reader to decide which story to follow first. In one ending, the soldier suffers for his crimes, while in the other he is rewarded. These opposing endings purposely undermine each other, making any sense of justice or injustice seem arbitrary. Here too is a clear parallel to soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and the way some of them continue to fight the war domestically against their wives and children, often without recourse from the police or their community.
In “Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster,” Corin evokes the chaos and senseless of tragedies such as 9/11. The main character, Patrick, is living a normal teenage life in an anonymous town, when suddenly, out of nowhere, California catches fire. The fire can’t be stopped and no one knows who the culprit is. But even though almost everyone in California dies, Patrick can only comment on how safe and insulated he feels in his faraway hometown – illustrating the apathy and disconnect a person who is not directly affected by tragedy may experience. Almost immediately, Patrick returns to focusing on school and the girl he likes.
Though the stories in this collection are dark, they are also very funny. In “Madmen,” Corin creates a society where, upon getting their periods, girls must pick a “mad” person out of an asylum to take care of for the rest of their lives. The narrator, a newly fertile teenager, receives her father’s gift—a leather harness she will use to drag her madman around like a horse—as if she is getting a cool new cellphone. As she walks past the rows of cages where the madmen are kept, her parents read the placards with the madmen’s diagnoses in that loud, embarrassing way parents read descriptions of artifacts in a museum. The reader never learns how doctors define “madness,” or how the madman system came into place, but without these answers, the reader is forced to question not only the arbitrary nature of the madman system but also arbitrary manner in which we define and treat madness in our own society.
The final story is 100 shorts, each only a paragraph to a page long. Though they don’t progress linearly, and the characters and settings don’t seem to overlap, the stories all center on a sense of loss or ending. Whether the thing being lost is a piece of cake at a dinner party or the human race the “survivors” of the loss react by trying to deny its existence. In one story, a woman sits by a campfire, reminiscing about ghost stories even though the people right next to her are literally cannibalizing each other. These final stories show just how stubbornly people will cling to a sense of before, a sense of stasis even when the world is crumbling right before their eyes.
Reading Apocalypses is like walking past a mirror in the dark. You are caught off guard until you realize you are looking at your own reflection, and the longer you look at this shadowy version of yourself, the less you trust what you see. You see yourself in Corin’s characters, yet you don’t want to be like them. Do you really look like that? You walk away, but the question lingers.
One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses
by Lucy Corin
Hardcover, 9781938073335, 192 pp.