After the Disaster: Orwell Sets the Bar Low, So We Still Come Out On Top

Margaret Atwood’s novel, Oryx and Crake, (2005) is generally compared to George Orwell’s 1984, which really doesn’t say much for it, does it? Instead of the bugbear being a vague, encroaching, totalitarianism, spoiling jolly old England, Atwood uses the dystopic Oryx and Crake to screech about all the ills she associates with Americanism. These modern U.S. sins include rampant genetically engineered plant and animal life, porn addiction, desensitization to violence, suburban hermeticism, etc. Personally, I don’t mind the occasional rant about America, but I find that when those rants come from uppity Canadians they somehow lose their “edge.”

For the longest time Atwood stood out along with Fay Weldon in my mind as one of those authors people only read because 70s Feminism brought the concept of the Woman Author back to the forefront of everyone’s attention. When I read them, many of the Naiad Press publications and everything ever written by Doris Lessing fit that bill. At best, I expected to lump her in with Virginia Woolf — the Jacqueline Onasis of literature, who wrote stupid things very beautifully. That lurking prejudice is why I always experience a tiny thrill of contradiction every time I read Atwood and Weldon and realize they are among the best of the best. It’s also why I was so disappointed with Oryx and Crake.

Part of the problem stems from the driving contradiction of the book: writing a novel about desensitization entails largely writing about the absence of desire (this was the problem with the second and third seasons of Veronica Mars. Veronica didn’t want anything). The protagonist, Snowman, doesn’t necessarily live without desire – desire is a factor since his issues with having an activist as a mother are compelling – but long stretches of the novel exist to show how he, and by extension, the World America Made, lives in a constant state of numbness. Poor pacing is the side-effect. Chapters are included that solely drive home the feeling of isolation that presses in on Snowman in the post-Apocalyptic wilderness. This same pacing flaw diminished Atwood’s otherwise fantastic novel, Alias Grace, as well (that book was also too in love with historical recreation). In her masterpiece, The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood conveyed the feeling of crushing loneliness within a social world: it was the smart character interaction which created the feeling of desolation that comes after the catastrophe without her having to spend chapter after chapter describing what was on TV one time a long time ago, or what kind of berries her main character likes to eat, or what kind of extensive bullcrap you can get away with telling primitives.

Post-Apocalyptic fiction is big business these days. See Cormac McCarthy’s big dealio, The Road. I think the reason for that is because our culture no longer has a steady measure of ‘the event.’ In nineteenth century fiction, all you had to do is spend a few chapters hyping up the big Ball Lucy would be attending, and the reader would be prepped to expect a big deal. Nowadays, you have to destroy civilization to get readers to think anything of import is going on. That ties into Atwood’s fascination about our fascination with porn — and the best scene of the novel is when Snowman describes seeing Oryx for the first time on a video where she and other underage girls are licking the porn star. She looks directly at the camera man, and, on the other end of the transmission, breaks the frame for Snowman. Without an event-horizon, even suicide is foreclosed as “killing yourself was something you did for an audience” — without the possibility of an event or a social world even death loses importance.

The sensation that post-Apocalyptic fiction is supposed to give you is not one of desire, but of regret. That doesn’t appeal to me. There’s something prim and proper in writing negatively, even if satirically, about dystopia. It amounts to emotional smut. Nostalgia porn, wallowing in the rightness of one’s beliefs. The Apocalypse is too bleak. I am drawn to life after the ‘Fuck Up.’

Janet Sarbanes’ collection of short stories, Army of One, is more along those lines. Up front, I’ve known Janet for a long time and am always eager to read whatever new thing she turns out. Almost all of these stories is about willfully withdrawing from others — getting unstuck. They’re not about how alienation necessarily makes one a better person. Instead, she drives the point home that some people need to fuck up their lives for a “narrative shift” because they glimpse the lack of scale in them. The story “Bunker Mentality” was published in an earlier form at Plum Ruby Fiction. There’s a nice implicit critique of the kind of thinking that goes into imagining the apocalypse:

She felt sorry for the people who readied for the other catastrophe, the biochemical attack, the ones who had stored away flashlights and three days worth of food and water and lined the baby’s room with duct tape and plastic sheeting. Preparing for the wrong disaster is worse than not preparing at all.

There are other catastrophes than the biochemical ones. In Janet’s stories, they involve sticking with a shitty deal. The title story features a third-person “she” whose life changes at the laundromat when she experiences the rapture watching a commercial on TV:

According to the young woman, going into the Army was no longer about joining a team – a team that went around killing other teams – it was about maximizing your full, individual potential. For instance, this young woman had picked a specific career field in the Army and trained specifically for that.

“They really stress education,” she said. “And there are a lot more females going into the Army than there used to be.”

The ad ends with her waving from a helicopter, and a big booming voice read out the tagline: BECOME AN ARMY OF ONE.

BECOME AN ARMY OF ONE. She looked around the Laundromat to see if the other customers had heard the call – if they were standing frozen in their tracks like her, halfway between terror and ecstasy – but no, they kept right on folding their clothes.

That night she walks out on her girlfriend and moves into a North Hollywood apartment complex. The stories deal with people walking out of, or willfully destroying, relationships and jobs. While Janet is blunt, there’s a strain of almost reflexive mockery in her writing as well as a lightness of tone about the urgent matters that others take seriously. At other times the sentences also contain repressed anger regarding things that don’t seem to bother most people. I don’t mind when she also takes on easy targets because even when being scathing she always leaves you a point of identification. Of these stories, my personal favorite is “Warming the World,” about a group marriage commune in the 1970s. The story told through the commune journal, is a fairly blatant attack on those little “limit societies” that self-create in California; the uptight egos and the weak egos that go into making them. California is fodder for mockery, yet in “Dear Aunt Sophie,” Sophie channels Alison Lurie to explain to her niece “California’s a good place to go, because it signals a definitive break. If you stop at Minnesota- or even Montana – people still think you’re going to return some day, but California says you’ve gone as far as you possible can without falling into the ocean. If you’re that motivated to get away, you’re not coming back.”

I’ll have none of the Atwoodian/Orwellian opining so that a critique against the social order can be mounted. I consider that a waste of energy. If you want to critique the social order, go ahead and critique the social order. Stop pissing around to do it.

Janet’s stories appeal to me. The changes aren’t socially important. I don’t think she cares about that. You don’t need the world to end just to have an event. Not if you can find a way to produce a sense of scale for yourself. You can have one at the laundromat or have one by deciding to get in the car, merge onto the freeway and break off from your life.

You can buy Army of One here.

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