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Solid and Powerful Prose, Great Variance of Subject Matter
on February 2, 2013
Despairing about the proliferation of the generally repetitive short story collection? Fear and tremble not, for After the Apocalypse is here to save the day.
Maureen F. McHugh's collection continually conjured up the word "solid" and not in a patronizing way that one might use that word to politely describe an artistic effort that follows all the rules yet fails to captivate one's attention or stimulate any of the other nerves in want of stimulation from art--but in the sense that it was taken in as a dose of fresh air in comparison to cripplingly overworked prose and/or gimmickry-qua-formal-innovation that functions as a blanket to cover the hollowed out innards of "the story."
As much as I really do love innovative, acrobatic prose--replete with highly varied word choice and a striving for originality at the level of the sentence and the overall tonal vision--I also find myself able to see the value in the simple sentence (when put to good narrative use, of course). This calls to mind something I read recently as part of George Saunders' preface to the latest edition of his debut collection CivilWarLand In Bad Decline:
In grad school I had grown suspicious of conventional literary beauty, wary of what I thought of as, for example, the literary triple descriptor: "Todd sat at the black table, the ebony plane, the dark-hued bearer of various glasses and plates, whose white, disk-shaped, saucer-like presences mocking his futility, his impotence, his inability to act."
Christ, I had come to feel, just say it: "Todd sat at the table."
This book also functions as a shock-to-the-system antidote to the naval-gazing narcissistic focus upon the singular character (often a poorly veiled stand-in for the writer) that is abundant in fiction and not merely in coming-of-age novels et al, but also in "innovative" short story collections. I recently posted a thought about this on a highly trafficked social networking site, which hyperbolically sums up this long-simmering feeling about the need for less singularly focused art:
There is no protagonist in real life. It's an ensemble cast of an immensity beyond practical quantification. Scatter the illusion of the central "I" and open up the floodgates. I'd like art to reflect this more often. Films starring no one. Novels with more POVs than pages.
After the Apocalypse is a heaven-sent answer to this desire for artists to portray a wider spectrum of humanity.
--Violent sociopathic criminals struggle against the elements and each other in a cliché-free and grittily realistic zombie narrative.
--Chinese biotech factory workers dance on street corners to Sri Lankan hip hop and battle their corporate master's cycle of tyrannical debt.
--A woman's internet business branches out from making infant dolls for bereaved parents into more lucrative adult-only goods, while dealing with the struggle between being kind to strangers down on their luck and having to be more suspicious and reserved towards said strangers out of rational self-preservation.
--A journalist seeks answers about a boy who's undergone a radical identity shift after a terrorist act has torn his community and family asunder.
--Computer programmers delve into the possibilities of Artificial Intelligence (and the nature of consciousness) while prodding a virtual medical database during their routine graveyard shifts.
--People contemplate abandoning America...
--A McDonald's employee asserts herself, undergoes the risks of being a guinea pig for medical research, and takes herself on a honeymoon.
--Mad Cow Disease unfolds within an unconventional family unit.
--Society collapses and people react in a multitude of ways--gratitude returns but also morphs into base selfishness. Silver linings are birthed and snuffed out unevenly.
A common theme throughout all of this is a fear of economic and social upheaval. It's currently pretty apt for US fiction to be concerned with such menacing vibrations. McHugh displays a wide reach of knowledge about many subjects and shows a real talent for sculpting vivid characters out of the clay of the wide-angled view as well. The visions are often breathtakingly bleak but there's room to exhale and reflect in the space between fact and fiction, which is a truly vital service for fiction writers to provide.