Book review: Apocalypse for Beginners by Nicolas Dickner
Philip Womack is disappointed by the end of the world
Apocalypse for Beginners by Nicolas Dickner (Portobello)
This novel starts with a bang – at least, conversationally. Young, anodyne Mickey meets a girl who’s sitting by herself in a baseball field. “Last night I dreamt about the bomb at Hiroshima,” she says, prompting Mickey to think: “If I ever had to be vaporized in the company of someone else, I would definitely want it to be her.” So far, so quirky slice of oddball small-townness. We are in Quebec; it is the late 1980s. There is nothing to do except work at the concrete factory or watch third-rate movies on a black and white TV: and, of course, dream about the forthcoming end of everything. Frankly, if I lived in Quebec in the 1980s, I would dream about the end of everything. Sussex was bad enough.
The girl is called Hope. Of course she’s called Hope, and if the reasons are not immediately clear to you from the title of this book, then you should stop reading this magazine and go back to the Ladybird Guide to Naming People Symbolically (available at all good bookstores). Hope comes from a family of professional apocalypse predictors: “at puberty, every Randall was supernaturally made privy to the details of the end of the world.” Although, of course, each one gets a different date, which makes the reader wonder: why on earth have they carried on believing them? Hope finds her notice of impending doom on the back of a packet of noodles (17/07/2001).
She and Mickey (who, incidentally and somewhat inexplicably, has fallen in love with Hope; his feelings are not returned) don’t do a huge amount about this. Hope’s mother becomes an alcoholic; the kids go to school, where a teacher helpfully explains what apocalytic writing is all about: “It was the literature of the downtrodden, of those living in expectation of the Last Judgement ... a source of hope” (my italics).
This novel would like to be a Douglas Coupland novel (in particular, it reminded me of Girlfriend in a Coma). Dickner writes with a keen intelligence and displays admirable wit and erudition – he explains the origin of the word apocalypse (it meant revelation); he discusses what would have happened if the Greeks, instead of finding electricity via amber, had found it through citrus fruits. The chapters are very short – in fact, they felt like sketches for a film. Whilst it might have made an interesting and kooky cinematic piece, on the page it drifts. Things become implausible (which, to be fair to the author, he acknowledges, with a chapter headed “An Increasing Tolerance for the Unlikely”).
But it doesn’t wash. When Hope jets, first to America, then to Japan, where she stays for months, that is unconvincing enough (she’s a teenager!); when her mother doesn’t even notice she’s gone, that takes the biscuit. Fictions like Coupland’s have their own internal logic; this lacks any sense of such a thing. Instead it drifts, aimlessly, tentatively, until it tails off, not with a bang but a whimper.