Preppers, Chernobyl & Dr Seuss: Finding Hope in the Apocalypse

by Liam Harrison

Mark O’Connell, Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back
Granta, 272pp, ISBN 9781783786374, £12.99

While camping in solitude for 24 hours in the Alladale Wilderness Reserve, surrounded by the glacial valleys and bare mountains of the Scottish Highlands, with nothing to eat except half a packet of Marks & Spencer nut and berry mix, Mark O’Connell thinks about the books of Dr Seuss. Specifically, O’Connell recalls an argument between himself and his young son, with the feud stemming from a bedtime story reading of The Lorax. O’Connell and his son agree that The Lorax is Seuss’s definitive work, with dad going on to read it as a piece of incisive post-apocalyptic non-fiction. In Seuss’s tale, the beautiful Truffula trees are brutally harvested to make the luxury goods ‘Thneeds,’ (‘a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need’). The Once-ler is the mass producer of these Thneeds, and he harvests the Truffula at such a great rate that the local Lorax (who ‘speaks for the trees’) is eventually driven out of his habitat by the desolation of the environment. O’Connell proceeds to illuminate the metaphorical aspects of The Lorax to his son:

‘So maybe a Thneed is basically anything we don’t actually need,’ I say, ‘but really want anyway.’ ‘Like what?’ he says. ‘Like maybe Lego minifigures?’ I suggest. ‘No,’ he says. ‘Minifigures aren’t Thneeds!’

O’Connell’s son proffers a counterpoint, with the ‘shamelessly low blow’ notion that coffee might be a Thneed. He then goes even lower, suggesting that the endless books the postman delivers every week might be considered Thneeds too. The father objects: would that not make the agreed-upon masterpiece The Lorax, also a book, a Thneed as well? The conflict is settled by a staring contest, which in turn allows a ‘refulgence of tenderness,’ as the father gazes at length and leisure into his young son’s eyes.

The moments of tenderness in Notes from an Apocalypse provide brief detours from O’Connell’s series of ‘perverse pilgrimages,’ the longer journeys to places coiled in their anticipation of impending catastrophe, ‘where the shadows of the future fall most darkly across the present.’ O’Connell travels to decommissioned weapons-storage bunkers in the Black Hills of South Dakota, to Peter Thiel’s luxury apocalypse hide-out in New Zealand, he takes a tour-guided trip of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and, as mentioned, goes ‘soloing’ in the Scottish Highlands. (He’s since repeated the solo in Dartmoor). O’Connell’s accumulated travel notes consider the destruction of the planet not as abstract calculations ‘of numbers or projections,’ but through an exploration of ‘landscapes both real and imaginary where the end of the world could be glimpsed.’

O’Connell starts with the ‘preppers,’ a group of mostly white American men awaiting the imminent collapse of the world, ‘obsessively invested in making sufficient preparations (“preps”) for such scenarios.’ Their vocabulary is perniciously entangled with the racism of America’s past and present. Their post-apocalyptic mission objective when shit hits the fan (‘SHTF’) is ‘to do everything one could do to avoid being one of the sufferers oneself, while contributing nothing to the prevention or alleviation of suffering in others.’ One prepper, James Wesley Rawles, recalls in his book the pain and misery of refugees during his military service in Iraq. His response: ‘I vowed never to become a refugee.’

Although the word ‘apocalypse’ tends to conjure a sense of gravitas and magnitude, O’Connell subtitles his story, A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back. The minutiae of the ‘personal’ propels O’Connell’s narrative, as he sketches the quotidian aspects of the apocalypse, how we can witness it in the slow violence of everyday erosions rather than the spectacle of Hollywood finales. Drawing on a wide range of writers, from Hannah Arendt and Elizabeth Hardwick, to Rebecca Solnit and Susan Sontag, O’Connell considers how the world might end, ‘neither with a bang nor with a whimper, but with a push notification.’ As with his last book, To Be a Machine, the blend of personal essay and gonzo journalism allows O’Connell to deftly navigate complicated scientific and philosophical concepts with an infectious inquisitiveness and highly readable lucidity. (You never realise how interested you are in transhumanist cyborgs or Mars exploration enthusiasts until you read O’Connell.)

Despite the brief instance of tenderness following the bedtime argument with his son, O’Connell’s reading of The Lorax leads to a bleak realisation: ‘You are telling the story of the world he has been born into, and his likely future in it.’ This realisation is reminiscent of several epiphanies that recur throughout the book – moments of disenchantment where a curtain is unveiled to disperse one delusion, while we remain unconsoled by the revelation glimpsed through the window. The biblical vocabulary of epiphanies and revelations pepper O’Connell’s pilgrimage, as he excavates postlapsarian questions through a secular mode. O’Connell is well practised in the mode of subtle epiphanies. He has previously written about a Dublin priest’s crisis of faith as he conflictedly leaves the church to become a social worker. And again, when describing the moment in life when you might discover your ‘real name’ (i.e. what shop assistants call you behind your back).

O’Connell finds an analogy for his obsession with the end of the world in the boy from James Joyce’s short story ‘The Sisters.’ In the story, the boy dreams of a priest who is slowly dying from a stroke, and he repeats in his half-sleep the word paralysis, over and over again. The boy dwells on his refrain, ‘It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.’ O’Connell notices his own impulse to repeat one word while scrolling through an endless newsfeed of existential dread on his phone, fixating instead on the word collapse, ‘It had a dark glamour to it, this word, and in its repetition there was a stern and oceanic comfort, like a perverse mantra.’ This ‘oceanic feeling’ re-emerges throughout O’Connell’s pilgrimage, often filtered through brief moments of music, dancing, and rapture. O’Connell is less interested in envisioning what an apocalypse may empirically encompass, and more concerned with figuring out feelings towards apocalyptic dread, boredom, and, occasionally, wonder.

Reading Notes from an Apocalypse during the Covid-19 global pandemic has been a strange experience, as ‘situations are so Ballardian as to be in the realm of copyright infringement.’ Each day more alarms resound, the mercury of anxiety grows higher, and we are confronted with mortality rates transcribed into rising graphs and numbers. Sally Rooney writes on the back cover, ‘Notes from an Apocalypse could hardly be more incisive or more timely.’ On the contrary, the sense of timeliness seems to be increasing every day. I have resisted writing about O’Connell’s book ‘in the wake of Covid-19,’ as doing so risks conflating the escalating suffering caused by the virus, and the emotional specificity of O’Connell’s ‘personal journey.’ But I am not suggesting that it is wrong to draw on the countless parallels. Reading Notes from an Apocalypse not only resonates with, but may actually help to ameliorate, current feelings of anxiety and isolation. Writing in the New York Times, O’Connell has tried to assuage our fears that we are all becoming preppers: ‘If and when we get through this, it will be because we came together for the collective good by staying away from each other. Because if there is one thing a viral pandemic reveals, it is that it’s not in our nature to be separate.’

O’Connell builds character through accretive details. Rather than reducing individuals to hard-line polemics and God-given beliefs, he allows ideas to coalesce slowly, often describing opinions that appear oppositional to his own with an unusual amount of kindness. The rare moments of dialogue are sharply detailed, as O’Connell’s wry humour teases out laughs from the reader. Consider the exchange with fellow camper Amelia in the Scottish Highlands:

‘I asked Amelia whether snakes were a particular concern in Melbourne, and she said that she did from time to time come across them in her work as a fire department volunteer.

“Now and then,” she said, “you’ll get a situation where you’re dealing with a bush fire, and there are snakes in the bush, and the snakes are leaping out of the bush towards you.” “You mean, like, right at you?” I said. “Yeah,” she replied, in a tone that sounded to me almost apologetic. “At your face?” “More or less, yeah. Not deliberately, but you’re in their path. And they’re on fire, of course, when they’re leaping at you, which is not great.” “So this is something that has happened to you, in your own life, as a person? Actual snakes that are on fire have leapt towards you from vegetation that is also on fire.” “Yeah,” she said, and chuckled happily. “I would not enjoy that at all,” I said. “Yeah it’s not great, as I said.”’

Some of the characters O’Connell meets are so pronounced he cannot help sending them up. Take Robert Vicino – a six-foot-eight, 310 pounds ‘distinctly Mephistophelian figure’ who shows him around the post-apocalyptic real estate bunkers in the Black Hills of South Dakota. O’Connell half-apologises for his caricature of a man who is such an emphatic caricature of himself. Despite O’Connell’s inclination towards empathy, his descriptions of the preppers reminded me of a line from Nicole Flattery’s story, ‘Show Them a Good Time’: ‘I saw in that gesture her former life as a farmhand, the crazy ease with which she sent animals off to be slaughtered.’ Notes from an Apocalypse also shares something (beyond a publisher, Granta) with Ben Lerner’s auto-fiction – a self-deprecating humour which is hyper-aware of the hubris in self-deprecation. O’Connell channels Lerner’s Adam Gordon as he writes, ‘I always understood my irony to be also a pose, also a kind of defensive crouch.’ O’Connell, like Gordon, is very self-conscious about the self-consciousness of his privilege and despair.

The trip to Chernobyl forms the narrative’s most affectively sinister chapter. We witness the paradoxical landscape of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. It is the site of a devastating ecological catastrophe, devoid of human life, and simultaneously Europe’s largest nature preserve, ‘To enter the Zone is to have one foot in a prelapsarian paradise and the other in a postapocalyptic wasteland.’ The journey confronts disaster tourism (including his own participation in Ruinenlust – taking pleasure in ruins), illustrated acutely by searching for ‘Pripyat’ and ‘Chernobyl’ pictures on Instagram. As Svetlana Alexievich writes in Chernobyl Prayer: ‘Visit the atomic Mecca. Affordable prices.’

O’Connell is attuned to the contradictions, both large and small, that recur on his travels. He traces the neo-colonialist vision of the would-be Mars explorers like Elon Musk, the layers of historical ethno-nationalism contained in preppers’ rhetoric, the tech billionaires’ disregard for indigenous cultures in New Zealand, the absence of diversity in the audiences of space travel conferences, and the middle-class inflections of wilderness solo camping. Despite the subtle critiques of power relations that O’Connell performs so dextrously, we rarely hear from the voices that are most at risk from the late capitalist neo-colonialists that O’Connell exposes, or get a sense of where alternative futures might be possible.

The notes of hope that O’Connell lands on – the rapture of a random man dancing to music, the faith in his nuclear family – might have been counterpointed by a different rendition of how hope looks to many others. O’Connell’s narrative could have included some mention of Kathryn Yusoff’s critique of the Anthropocene, or Lee Edelman’s vision of a queer future that is not completely dependent on the symbol of ‘the Child.’ To have engaged with similar ideas may have fragmented O’Connell’s own personal journey, shifted the axis, and sunk the narrative under the weight of arguments that are, as often caveated, beyond the confines of this study. Another response to my reservations is that O’Connell, like David Wallace-Wells, is less interested in solutions than understanding the structures of feeling around his chosen subject.

Yet I still felt the absences. For all my enjoyment of the book, I missed a sense of being affronted, provoked (which may of course say more about my own complacencies). Still, there is a subterranean, shadow version of this book, that may have formed a riskier, and perhaps more flawed rendition of O’Connell’s journey. It feels unfair to ask someone who has travelled to the ‘end of the world,’ from military bunkers to nuclear disaster zones, who has exposed himself so vulnerably through family insights and therapy sessions, to creep a bit further out from his comfort zone. Finishing Notes from an Apocalypse I couldn’t shake the feeling – despite having enjoyed it immensely – that there’s something more, formally and thematically, to come from O’Connell.

The Joyce story ‘The Sisters,’ which provides O’Connell with a framework for his own refrain, opens with the line ‘there was no hope for him this time’. The absence of hope re-emerges in another of the writers O’Connell briefly touches on, Franz Kafka, who famously said there is ‘an infinite amount of hope, only not for us.’ O’Connell, while considering the feelings and responsibilities of parenthood in a world that is perennially on the cusp of ending, subverts Kafka’s allocation of hope:

‘I wondered, in fact, whether there was not some deep selfishness in operation here, some covert mechanism of human delusion, whereby the very fact of having brought a child into a world on the verge of darkness was what had forced me to have hope. And so maybe my own increased sense of optimism about the future had been acquired at the expense of my son, who would now, having been born, have to live in that future.’

Rather than despairing for the future of his children, O’Connell declares he has been ‘radicalized by parenthood’: ‘having children had brought into horribly lurid focus the predatory face of contemporary capitalism.’ The narrative ends in an uneasy yet hard-earned affirmation of a shared hope, of a politics of care to be extended outwards. On an unseasonably warm day in Dublin, (‘maybe it was the end of the world, or maybe it was just a nice day, or maybe it was both’) he indulges in his family – messing about with his son in the playground greenery of Arbor Hill Cemetery, blowing raspberries at the fuzzy blonde head of his baby daughter – all of which feels a million miles away from, and strangely entangled with, the prophets and monuments of doom.

O’Connell describes the ending of The Lorax as a ‘terrible gesture of hope,’ but in this gesture contains the transformation he undertakes on his journey through the infernal circles of the apocalypse, substituting the paralysis of perennial ‘collapse,’ for the possibilities of The Lorax’s last word, ‘UNLESS.’ Rather than settling on hope as the word to tip the scales of unlessness towards a more positive future, O’Connell, dwelling on his daughter’s joy for life, his son’s wondrous eyes, offers another word, refulgence. I had to look it up: shining with, or reflecting, a brilliant light; radiant, resplendent; gleaming, lustrous.