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Book Review

The Pinch by Steve Stern (Graywolf Press, 2016)

This Is Why I Came by Mary Rakow (Counterpoint Press, 2015)

When the English Fall by David Williams (Algonquin Books, 2017)

The word apocalypse does not mean destruction. ἀποκάλυψις means, in the Greek from which we received that word, an “unveiling,” a “making clear.” Apocalypses, as a genre, are about stripping away all of the fluff and pretense and getting down to what matters.

                                        —David Williams, “The Root of Apocalypse”

 

THE DOOMSDAY CLOCK WAS CREATED by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947, when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh enough that children feared the bomb. The clock was a tool intended to “warn the public about how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making,” and its hands ticked towards or away from midnight—doomsday—depending on the immediacy of nuclear war. France and China develop nuclear weapons: seven minutes to midnight. Cold War ends: seventeen minutes to midnight. In the 2000s, climate change was added as an influencer of the time. New nuclear testing plus polar ice melt: five minutes to midnight.

In January of 2017, the hands crept forward to two and a half minutes before midnight. The hour hasn’t been this late since the early 1950s, when the US and Soviet Union tested their first thermonuclear weapons.

 

When perplexed, writers write; when ecstatic, miserable, or lustful, writers write; and so, when flooded with dread, writers write. The Economist noted recently that the movements of the Doomsday Clock also tend to predict waves in the publication of apocalyptic fiction. Most likely, it’s not so much the clock spurring literary trends as the fact that scientists and storytellers and readers are all watching the same world events unfold.

Publishing trends may seem trivial next to the crises wracking Syria, North Korea, and earth’s very climate. On the other hand, our words matter. The books we write in response to crisis can spark awakening, or they can spark panic and division. Y2K anxiety arguably fueled the commercial success of the Left Behind series, which managed to marry our culture’s two main definitions of apocalypse—devastating disaster and the end times—into one horrific action movie with God at the helm. Surely this shouldn’t prejudice me against all fiction about apocalypse, but once you’ve heard the phrase “rapture porn,” it’s really hard to forget.

When I went on a quest, then, for some great new novels, the thought of reading apocalypse fiction held all the appeal of eating a Chernobyl tangelo. I wanted something quiet. Something honest. An antidote to all the political rodomontade about bigness and winning. With so many mergers in book publishing these past few years, it also seemed like the right moment to seek out books from independent publishers—the wonderful novels that weren’t making the new releases table at the big chain bookstore. I began to sift through the catalogues of small and indie presses. Maybe I would find something thoughtful and lovely and unsung.

And lo, they appeared. I came across three novels from respected independent publishers (Graywolf, Counterpoint, Algonquin). They differed in religious vantage point (Jewish, Catholic, Amish) and voice (psychedelic, poetic, plainspoken). Not one of their stories, based on the jacket copy, sounded quite like anything I’d read before. I hunkered down.

It turned out they all had to do with apocalypse.

I didn’t flee, and this is why. What I want from novels right now is what I always want from novels: good storytelling; well-made language; something to surprise me; and, if I’m lucky, some glint of wisdom about how best to live our numbered days. All three had all of this. Not one of them is didactic, but let’s call them accidentally instructive—meaningful—even comforting—for those of us living at two and a half minutes to midnight.

 

The Jewish Skeptic with the Mystical History Book

 

Our common usage of “apocalypse” rarely hints at the word’s original meanings: unveiling, as in God drawing back the veil, revealing something to humans. Unveiling is also, when you think about it, a wedding word, and wedding is one of the Bible’s richest metaphors for heaven meeting earth. Steve Stern’s The Pinch imagines a foretaste of that wedding. It is the story of a good old-fashioned heaven-meets-earth apocalypse, except that it stays in the bounds of one Memphis neighborhood—a sort of supernatural block party.

The novel begins in the late 1960s, when a twenty-something used-bookshop employee named Lenny Sklarew comes across an old book called The Pinch: A History. Lenny flips to the back and discovers with terror that he is a character in it. The bookstore owner, Avrom, is unruffled, replying:

“So nu?”

“So what does it mean?”

[Avrom] pulled his Old Testament expression, the one where the wrinkles in his brow made a V like sergeant’s stripes. “If you knew what means these things,” he intoned, “you would rip down to the pupik your clothes for the grief of having lost in the first place this wisdom.”

I gaped at him. “Oh, very helpful.”

Avrom relaxed. “Boychik, you ain’t in your farblundjit life doing squat.”

Avrom speaks the truth. While Memphis churns with the civil rights struggle and citywide labor disputes, Lenny has spent much of his time dealing drugs at a local bar, unaware he lives in a neighborhood rich with history: the Pinch, just north of Beale Street, once a Jewish ghetto. The novel alternates Lenny’s chapters with stories from The Pinch: A History, which calls itself a factual account yet reads like magical realism.

That book-within-a-book is written by one of the neighborhood’s residents, Muni Pinsker. As a teenager in Russia, Muni was once a devout Jew, “girded in the sanctity of his studies” at a yeshiva; through pogroms and prison, his faith fell away, and by the time we meet him, he has escaped Russia to live in the Pinch with his uncle, Pinchas Pin. Uncle Pinchas, like Muni, has lost interest in observant Judaism, but agnosticism isn’t the neighborhood norm. Most residents of the Pinch attend a conventional synagogue. And then there are the Shpinker Hasids.

The Shpinkers are the disciples of a local mystic named Rabbi Eliakum ben Yahya, who not only engage in ecstatic worship but regularly “monkey with the fabric of time,” to the annoyance of Uncle Pinchas. “They have calculated,” Pinchas says, “that this will be the dead center, the city of Memphis, of the coming apocalypse.”

The calculations of the Shpinker mystics are correct. An apocalypse arrives in the form of an earthquake, transforming the Pinch. Its denizens cease to die. Miracles occur. Time blurs, with figures from the past and future loitering in the neighborhood. Most of the Pinch’s residents were comfortable with the daily duties of their faith, keeping kosher, observing the law. When the supernatural is unveiled among them, they reel.

Sterns has a talent for spinning yarns, a kaleidoscopic prose style, and a professional background in folklore. He has miles of material to work with, and the novel can drag a bit here and there; on the other hand, if any story can charm with excess, it’s one like this. The Pinch teems with creatures like shretelekh (“a largely innocuous class of Jewish elemental”), and the devotions of the Rabbi Eliakum ben Yahya’s disciples push toward the fringes until they are a jumble of mystical and possibly heretical.

It’s never quite clear to the reader—as it isn’t quite clear to the characters—what the nature of this apocalypse is. Is it divine? Is it sorcery? Muni’s uncle does not much care.

“They did it,” he declared, pointing in the direction of the clustered Hasids. “The knucklehead Shpinkers, they finally did it.”

“Did what, Uncle?”

“They engineered from heaven and earth the nuptials.”

“Nupshals?” Muni understood the word if not its context. How did that old Talmudic adage go? “The world is a wedding.” Funny that the word wedding should have had so little resonance for him till now.

“From heaven and earth,” repeated Pinchas, lifting and inclining his chin toward each destination. “Or if not heaven, then sitra achra, what they call the Other Side. Now we got with the aftermath to contend.”

Muni contends with the aftermath by writing it down. He doesn’t understand it (who does?), but he knows it’s remarkable, and he begins to scrawl a history of what has happened in the Pinch. Obsessed, he spends years at his desk; his relationships wither (a cautionary tale for us writers?), but the book he writes shifts the course of Lenny Sklarew’s life. Lenny, like the residents of the Pinch, is “left wondering if there is more in heaven and earth than [he] cared to believe.” And while some of that “more” may be terrifying and shocking, all of it holds ultimate meaning. Muni reflects:

That’s how things stood in the old neighborhood: nobody and nothing was so base or inessential that they lacked some aspect of the sublime. Every gesture, from scrounging for foodstuffs to caulking rust buckets and emptying water closets with a sieve, seemed to take its place in the grand narrative.

What Muni observes here is something I crave in any work of fiction. Show me more in heaven and earth than I previously believed possible. Open my eyes. Lead me to something that never occurred to me—levity, for example, where I least expected it. There’s something lovely about a book that court-jesters the whole idea of apocalypse, paints it with circus colors and trapeze-leaping language, imagines it as a bizarre, disruptive event—but not the end.

 

The Estranged Catholic with the Reimagined Bible

 

In some ways, Mary Rakow’s novel This Is Why I Came feels like the opposite of The Pinch. The mood is heavy and humor rare. But it shares this with Stern’s novel: there is life after the apocalypse, and in order to get there, a character has to write her way through the wreckage.

The novel opens with a woman named Bernadette in church on Good Friday, waiting to enter a confession booth for the first time in thirty years. She holds a hand-stitched book, a mélange of magazine cutouts and scraps from art books. It also contains dozens of handwritten vignettes: forty-odd retellings of Bible stories, from the stirrings in Eden to John’s apocalyptic visions on Patmos. Bernadette has re-dreamed them all.

In these reimagined stories (as in the originals), apocalypse and revelation abound. The apocalypse that really sets this book in motion, however, is a personal one. Some trauma (we never find out what) has left her estranged from the God of her youth, and over time Bernadette has created “a Bible of her own, a testament where she could cast a thread through the silence and separation and anger of those years, some line to catch herself, strong enough to bear her full weight.” That handmade book is not an artistic experiment for Bernadette; it has been her lifeline.

She appears only twice in the novel, first at the beginning and then again in the final chapter, when she speaks with a priest and leaves the church. In between, we have the book-within-a-book, the text of her forty-odd stories. Why do we see Bernadette only in the first and last chapters?

I would argue, in fact, that we see Bernadette in every chapter. Here, for example, is how she imagines Jonah, who has been forced to pronounce doom on so many cities that he suffers from an ancient strain of compassion fatigue:

“Is it good for you to be so angry?” [God] asked Jonah almost coyly, and Jonah hated God then, his neediness, his vanity, his predictability and lust…. The gourd and the vine cooled Jonah and Jonah felt for the gourd all the love he’d once felt for his wife and daughter and for God himself, the gourd bringing all this to Jonah so that he loved the gourd deeply and cried because he could again feel such things.

You can see Bernadette’s own wrestling: is God coy, vain, needy in his starvation for humanity’s love? We never find out what Bernadette’s personal apocalypse was, but we can feel its darkness. The standard biblical account of Abraham climbing the mountain to sacrifice his son is disturbing enough; here, it is skin-crawling, with Abraham taking sadistic pleasure in the binding of Isaac. The Gospel of Luke shows Mary embracing the task of conceiving Jesus; Rakow’s Bernadette imagines a Mary afraid to give consent, the angel Gabriel returning again and again, “perhaps seventy times seven,” until she tells him, “I have a ripped-apart place. I am ready. I have enough room.” And here is the Lord himself, brooding after another wrestling match with his Israelites in the desert:

He took off his chiton and his himation of indigo blue and sat naked on the bench wondering, are they right? Is this who I am? Am I a God without mercy?

These are hard passages to read, but the bookend chapters with Bernadette remind us that we are eavesdropping on a character who writes not to shock us, but perhaps to un-shock herself. Like the psalmists, she must prod and rail and question before she can find her way to a truer experience of God—find courage to “refuse to believe in a God who’s too small.” Among the beauties of this book is watching Bernadette consider, reconsider, soften, change. When the grief in these stories breaks open, what appears in the cracks is a yearning love. In Bernadette’s version of the Queen of Sheba visiting Solomon, the king introduces her to the God of Israel, and she falls in love with both God and Solomon. Solomon breaks her heart. She returns to Sheba to mourn. But:

Sometimes she heard the reeds say, “There is a new Bridegroom,” and sometimes, “The God of Moses is yours.” But she discerned over time that it wasn’t the swans speaking and it wasn’t the reeds. It was Reason.

“The dry bough bears flower,” Reason said.

“But I have no one,” she answered.

“Prepare yourself so that you may see the immortal Bridegroom and the Kingdom of Heaven be yours.”

“But I’m not one of them.”

Then Reason said, “Grace is for all, even the foreigner.”

Countless writers, artists, and filmmakers have tried their hand at reimagining Bible stories, and it’s difficult to do well—to draw on the text without woodenly parroting it, turning it into a maudlin spectacle, or leaving the reader unmoved. So often the new version lacks what we love about the original: holiness meeting humanness in a way that surprises. Rakow does it with grace and power, even the steep challenge of getting inside the character of Jesus. It helps that she is a master of the close third-person and can slip deeply into her characters with specificity, and that she has a poetic facility with language, an ability to evoke much with a few physical details:

Cain dreamt of a city and the dream grew around him like comfort…. Irrigation canals, coats of arms, gymnasts competing in parks. He dreamt of diverse nomenclatures, sciences, precise theories of color, laws of motion. He would have a tea shop and serve cool drinks garnished with colorful paper umbrellas, honeydew and mint….

Here’s where Stern and Rakow differ from disaster porn: they write truthfully about suffering, but they also take pleasure in the details of our endlessly interesting earth. It’s the kind of loving attention that affirms the world as “good, very good.” In This Is Why I Came, the apocalypse of personal devastation is followed by an apocalypse of revelation: the slow unveiling of a God who can perhaps be loved again.

 

The Amish Farmer with the Solar Storm Journal

 

True story: one night in 1859, the sky lit up with twisting fits of color so intense that midnight over North America turned bright as morning. This was more than the northern lights. Birds began singing, thinking it was daybreak. Auroras were visible as far south as the tropics. Telegraph systems died, throwing sparks and setting their operators afire; the Atlantic glowed red; people thought they were witnessing the end of the world.

It was, in fact, a historic solar storm called the Carrington Event, in which a surge of charged particles burst from the sun toward the earth. It caused no lasting damage, but if it happened now, in the twenty-first century, it would.

In David Williams’s new novel, When the English Fall, it does. The book is told through the journal of Jacob, a contemporary Amish farmer in Pennsylvania, who is stargazing with his family on their porch when the solar storm hits. The electric lights of the outside world snap to black. Airplanes begin to drop from the sky. In the days that follow, word trickles in of the devastation across the United States: telephones, satellite communications, even basic mechanical devices like car engines and generators, all dead.

Although Jacob and his neighbors go on harvesting, canning, and curing jerky with only minor difficulties, they are moved by the suffering of the people “out in the world.” Having centered their day-to-day lives on the teachings of Christ—nonviolence, simplicity, humility, sharing what they have—they open their stores of food, which the armed forces collect for distribution in the rioting cities. As resources run even lower, though, outsiders arrive to seize food by force. Jacob’s community can no longer keep up an illusion of separation from the world, and they wrestle with how to respond.

It’s easy to like this narrator. His voice is kind and his words are spare. This book could easily have been written as a dreadful marriage of rapture porn and Amish romance “bonnet rippers.” But nothing in this book, not the violence, not even celestial calamity, is exploited for sensationalism, and Jacob is not painted as quaint. He is all the more likeable because he’s a bit unusual—a compulsive journal-keeper.

Writing about crops served a purpose, my uncle would say. About yourself? It is selfishness…. I can hear the prayer my uncle would have me be praying. “Lord, keep me from this,” I would say. “Silence my desire. Make me your servant. Guide me to your will. This will be the last of these entries. I will cast this away. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.” I can hear it. But I cannot pray it. I will not pray it.

 

The itch to think on paper becomes indispensable during his anxious nights awake: “I feel I need to write about this, to chronicle this uncertain time,” he writes.

Jacob’s writing habit isn’t the only difference between him and his neighbors. Another stems from his daughter Sadie, who receives odd visions during epileptic fits, visions that often turn out to be true:

The angel’s touch, some said she had…. It was strange, and Bishop Schrock had many talks with me about the whisperings that should not be part of the Order.

“There is no Christ in this,” he said. “This seems the Devil’s work,” he said.

Is it? Jacob is unnerved by Sadie’s episodes in the weeks before the solar storm, visions of the sky filling with angel wings, her cries of, “The English fall, they fall.” But her premonitions also carry unmistakable moral conviction, urging Jacob back to the essentials they have always practiced. “It’s going to be hard, so hard,” she tells him, but “I’m not afraid.” She tells him: “Hope, Dadi.” When it becomes clear that life will never return to normal, Sadie’s visions guide the community in what to do next. Despite the fears of the bishop, there appears to be much “Christ in this.” Here we have apocalypse in another biblical sense: the revelation of God’s presence and guidance.

What distinguishes this novel is not just the quality of the prose but the way it affords space to complex questions without providing easy answers. The disaster in When the English Fall is certainly an apocalypse in the cinematic sense, the decimation of society as we know it. It is also, in some ways, a spiritual apocalypse, a moment in which norms are stripped away and core character is unveiled. Should Jacob and his community accept, for example, the armed protection of their non-Amish neighbors? Their way of life was never easy, but it was somewhat simpler when the rest of the world was not looting their houses.

 

If you, like me, are poorly equipped for the next Carrington Event or similar disaster, you may be unnerved by a book like When the English Fall. I, for example, have few skills other than stringing words together; I can’t coax grass from my sandy yardlet, let alone grow wheat or graze sheep; and I do not expect anyone will trade me their last can of beans for a saucy limerick.

Williams’s novel, however—any of these novels—isn’t really about how to physically survive in a post-apocalyptic world. To some degree, though, each of them is about how we survive spiritually, humanly. They’re about what happens to our souls. Not in the sense of the religious tract—If you die tonight, do you know where you’re going?—but in the sense of what kind of people we become, or continue to be. What does the unveiling of an apocalypse reveal about us? This is a useful question in times of crisis: whatever may happen to us, who do we want to be?

These novels also hold specific treasures for writers and artists. It seems significant that each contains a book-within-the-book—that the main characters can find no other way to process the apocalypse except to write about it. In the best of times, we artists may ponder our usefulness in this world. These novels seem to imply that in a time of upheaval, the simple, difficult act of chronicling the truth is valuable in itself.

Apart from writing, though, on a level applicable to all humans, I have thought many times in recent weeks of Sadie’s words in When the English Fall: “It’s going to be so hard.” If he is afraid, she tells her father, it’s all right. But “I’m not afraid.”

Children don’t fear the bomb as they did in 1947; some adults don’t either. Still, it is a fearful thing. When I read the latest tweet or see the news of the newest nuclear test, I fear for my children, and all humans, and myself, and I search for one small action, and I pray. But this one sentence from Williams’s novel has been sitting quietly, honestly, in my mind—an antidote to panic, to all the bellicose noise: It’s going to be so hard, but I am not afraid.

This one sentence, I think, is a word that “gets down to what matters,” as Williams puts it. This one sentence is a word that “makes clear.” This is a revelation. This is an apocalypse I’ll read.

 


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