There's no way Nicolas Dickner's follow up to the breathtaking Nikolski was going to be as well received. Get cliché, call it a (critic-induced) "sophomore slump." To Dickner's credit, I don't think he even tried to get near that achievement. Instead, he wrote a "novel [that] almost seems intended for teenaged readers." I agree, emphatically. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Apocalypse for Beginners works extremely well as a YA book, and maybe should have been published as such. This isn't to say that Apocalypse is lacking content that would interest adult readers, or that its language is too simplistic; that would be a disservice to both Dickner and YA as a genre. Excepting the Gossip Girls and the Twilights (and there is just as much speedy garbage on the adult shelves), good YA fiction is just as deep and thoughtful as some of the adult novels out there, dealing with topics like sexual assault, eating disorders, sex and sexual identity, drugs, religon... all the biggies that cause angst in both teenagers and adults.
Dickner's heroine, Hope, is dealing with the inevitable approach of a hereditary mental illness, that causes her and her family to think much more about the End of the World than others might. She carries the burden of being the caretaker for her mother, who has been broken by this illness. Her companion for most of the novel, and the book's narrator, is a thoughtful young man named Randall. Randall is living in a world in flux: from geopolitical events (and the new ways in which people have access to information on those events) to the changing model of business (from family run to corporate owned) he is affected rather deeply by events he can barely fathom, let alone exert any power over. While Hope's family has a condition that causes them to pick a date for a literal apocalypse, Randall and other "normal" kids like him are seeing a massive shift in their world, as the Cold War -- and the easy binaries it enabled -- ends (and in contrast, making a real apocalypse less possible). To say that I think Apocalypse for Beginners was misfiled as an "adult novel" is not an insult in the slightest. I think that given the size of the book (less than 300 quickly read pages), the age of the characters in it, and a romantic "relationship more chaste than anything this side of Hogwarts" the novel is pretty solidly positioned in YA territory.
That "chaste" comment above is from the Whitlock review again, and I gotta say, this seems a strange sort of criticism to me. Are teenagers allowed to do things other than give into their hormones? Does it have to be Cruel Intentions to be believable? I exaggerate, but take my point. I don't see anything wrong in not fucking, as long as that's not held up as some kind of moral thing, as in the Twilight books. Randall just seems to 1) be shy about things and 2) care about Hope -- and understand her overly-complicated life -- enough to know that any attempt to add a sexual relationship to the mix would cause her more harm than good. Again, he's a thoughtful, nice boy. They exist, even in high-school. This lack of overt sexual action does also position the book back into YA territory, which certainly doesn't shy away from sex in all cases, but is often able put sex aside for the sake of the story, and whatever central issues it contains.
The reviews have been mostly middling, but I think fans of Dickner (and his excellent translator Lazer Lederhendler, who knows just which French bits should remain in order to keep the reader placed solidly in Quebec) will enjoy Apocalypse for Beginners. It's not Nikolski, it can't be Nikolski. It's a smaller, quieter book; less great, perhaps, but not less worthwhile.
I am alive at night.
I am dead in the morning,
an old vessel who used up her oil,
bleak and pale boned.
No miracle. No Dazzle.
-Anne Sexton, "Moon Song, Woman Song"
I followed a Twitter link, the other day, to an article that said "the age of 35.09—or approximately 33 days past your 35th birthday—is the precise tipping point," the point at which a woman's looks inevitably, irrevocably, go downhill. The study, such as it was, was paid for by a skin cream company, natch. It still hit me hard. I just turned 35 in December. My D-day had been January 25th. It was all downhill from there. I updated Facebook with the link, and commented "Nothing left to do but die." This birthday has been dragging me down. What was the point in all that exercise and healthy eating and not having baby weight if my visage is just going to get hag-like anyway? Nice legs, shame about your face.
I have "marionette lines," that look to me as if someone carved them in with an Exacto knife. It's the years of smoking, taking their toll. Everything a 20-year-old does, they do with supposed impunity, without any real knowledge of the fact that aging comes for all of us. I remember, so well, feeling invincible.
As a kid I was taunted for my looks, for being ugly, acne-covered, and fat. I internalised all of that. I did my time in the Disordered Eating Dungeon. I never felt thin enough, though I relied on being thin, because I always felt so ugly. Last year, at 34, I discovered running, and the for the first time I felt real peace with my body, and consequently with my face. Photos were taken of me that year that I liked, not just tolerated. When I looked in the mirror I consistently enjoyed what I saw. For once, for a year, I felt good about myself. If this was aging, I was all for it. Then came the lines. And the 35th birthday. So much for all that.
Maybe it would behoove me to read I Feel Bad About My Neck. See how the older half lives. I have beautiful friends in their 20s. They're dewy and gorgeous. One of them expressed surprise at my feelings on aging. She asked, doesn't one become more confident? I replied that you have to be confident, to compensate for looking old. I hate being the voice of sadness, but I can't help expressing how this feels. How surprised I am that I look in the mirror and see what is just the beginning. The decline. I am not comfortable in my skin, as I was for that one gorgeous year.
Thanks, Susan, but knowing it doesn't stop it from kicking the shit out of me. Because it really is. Sontag even acknowledges the dreaded number by name: "After thirty-five any mention of one’s age carries with it the reminder that one is probably closer to the end of one’s life than the beginning." People laud celebrities for looking amazing at 40 and 50, but of course they have the money and time to spend on looking perpetually 30 -- maximum. "Most of the women who successfully delay the appearance of age are rich, with unlimited leisure to devote to nurturing along nature’s gifts. Often they are actresses. (That is, highly paid professionals at doing what all women are taught to practice as amateurs.)"
"But although this system of inequality is operated by men, it could not work if women themselves did not acquiesce in it. Women reinforce it powerfully with their complacency, with their anguish, with their lies." But what's a girl to do? Even a girl that recognizes all the binaries and bullshit. I've read The Beauty Myth. To not buy into the anti-aging industry
is the real social threat: that women will first accept their aging, then admire it, and finally enjoy it. Wasting women's money is the calculable damage; but the damage this fraud does women through its legacy of the dread of aging is incalculable. (Wolf 113)It's capitalism. It's a patriarchal set up; a possible excuse for the males who leave us for new models when we lose our fecundity -- if you believe the biological determinists. And yet: what's a girl to do, when she is no longer a girl (despite the embarrassingly erroneous suffix on her email address), and the world does not come easily knocking at her door, what can she do but anguish? Fuck me, I want a cigarette.
Simone Weil wrote something that speaks beautifully and simply to me: "To love truth means to endure the void and, as a result, to accept death. Truth is on the side of death." When I was 34, I tattoo'd Klimt's conception of Death on my arm, from shoulder to elbow. When my tattoo artist placed the stencil on my arm, he remarked on Death's gaze: "He's got your back." It's not dying I'm frightened of; I accept death as truth. For me, the fear is what's expressed by Alex in The Witches of Eastwick*: "Getting old. That scares me. I mean, it's a short life, isn't it? [...] I look in the mirror sometimes and I see everything falling apart. Fast." Live or die, but don't poison everything...**
Sontag's article was written when I was three. When I was eight, Susan Brownmiller's† Femininity was published. In it, Brownmiller noted that we live
[...]in a culture where the chief criteria of feminine success are ephemeral youth and beauty, a woman's sense of failure is likely to begin at the moment she is percieved by others as no longer young and desirable. (165-66)The Beauty Myth came out when I was 15. And here we still are, when I'm 35. The terrors of aging have made women react with horrors of their own, long before I was born. Lady Bathory's legend is of bathing in the blood of virgins to maintain her youth, and today Joan Rivers has, though surgery, bought herself an inhuman mask. In the morning, when I see a face I don't want, I understand all of it.
*From the screenplay, found here. I don't know if this actually appears in the book.
**Anne Sexton, "Live"
†In one of the alternate universes in Robert Anton Wilson's Schrödinger's Cat Trilogy, breasts are called "Brownmillers." Oh tee hee, Wilson.