One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses
by Lucy Corin
McSweeney’s, August 2013
“When you are in the throes of madness, if you are a boy, you may try to kill people, and if you are a girl, you may try to kill yourself. According to renowned experts, apocalypses, utopias, and the persistence of capitalism are all due to a cultural failure of imagination.”
I discovered Lucy Corin when several years ago I was scrolling through the FC2 catalog, looking for some new treasure (based on title and description). Then, there it was:Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls. How can you not love the title alone?! I bought it. I loved it. I taught it at an all-women’s Catholic college. They hated it. I loved that.
One Hundred Apocalypses is quite a different kind of read. While Everyday Psychokillers had short stories within the novel, this new collection consists mostly of flash fiction pieces. The more I read, the more I felt that Corin’s strength is in telling those short stories.
The whole collection contains three short stories followed by 100 flash fiction pieces about apocalypses. “Eyes of Dogs” is a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Tinderbox.” The second story, “Madmen,” is a particularly entertaining piece told by a girl named Alice who just got her first period. The rite of passage in Corin’s story is that Alice may now choose her very own madman to keep. While Alice worried about being left behind when her other friends developed physically, she now has to worry about ruining her favorite pants and choosing just the right madman. Her parents don’t make it easy, though; Alice realizes something important: “The more I was part of the whole adult world, the more turned out as one secret after another.” Corin surreptitiously uses her playful and yet continuously-disappointed-in-the-stupids-of-the-world writing style to suggest that adult life is that of a madman–that once we become adults, it’s all the more difficult from there. Alice can’t even get her parents to talk about their madmen, and her mother is always one slippery spot away from losing her composure.
The third short story is “Godzilla Versus The Smog Monster.” A piece that has many beginnings and far fewer endings, The Smog Monster is both a creature in a video Patrick finds hidden in his dad’s sweater drawer and a girl who lives down the road, Sara. The connection between the two was unclear to me, and even more so is why California is burning all around them (unless the destruction is meant to prepare our mind for apocalypses, or maybe California is really flammable and I missed that news).
The big piece, “A Hundred Apocalypses,” is divided into four sections, letting the reader know what percentage she is through the story. There actually are 100 apocalypses, each a flash fiction piece. Some are told in third person, others in first, but there is no continuity from piece to piece that I could find. There is a connection to madness, echoing “Madmen,” in a number of the flash pieces, for example, “Nobody is mentioning how the increasing rate of madness is apocalyptic.” People get “dressed” and “depressed” for the apocalypse. Knowing that it can’t go on forever makes them feel better. The apocalypse might make you miss your dog or create wandering ghosts.
What is an apocalypse, really, how and how can there be so many? In Corin’s flash fiction, it depends on who you’re asking: “At home, times like these, my mother would always say, ‘You’re being so sensitive, it’s not the end of the world,’ and I thought, Well, then what is the end of the world? I never found out from her, so I imagined the apocalypse. I thought about how weird it would be to be a horse and have a crop hit you behind the saddle out of nowhere.” Truly, the characters can never prepare for an apocalypse because they won’t know it until it’s past tense.
Other people remember how society used to imagine an apocalypse: “After the apocalypse we didn’t even talk about all the crap we’d read about it before or seen in movies. Like we were embarrassed of our whole species’ imagination. Even what we’d gotten right just seemed lame and obvious. It was a new taboo, talking about the predictions, uncool to do, as opposed to cannibalism, which was pretty reasonable, or wanton sex, which was necessary, heroic even, given the state of so many of our physiques.”
Only after I read an interview with Lucy Corin over at The Rumpus did I realize that the 100 flash pieces are meant to be something other than simply describing what the cause of the apocalypses was or people’s reactions to it. She explains, “A lot of times when I ask people what their apocalyptic fantasy life is like, they’ll immediately say something like, ‘Oh, what I think is going to kill us is climate change or World War IV,’ and that’s not what I’m interested in at all. The point is not about winning a bet about what’s going to happen. The point is about the human action of examining the possibility, the kind of obsessive imagining about it.”
I often find that conceptual fiction and poetry are hard for me to take in and process if I don’t have some “instructions.” Have you ever noticed that when you attend a reading the author always explains where he/she is coming from first? That’s helpful on the page, too, but I have yet to see it as a practice. Without some thread for me to grasp, I’m not sure how Corin knitted “A Hundred Apocalypses” together nor what I’m fully meant to feel or understand by the end. Some of the flash fiction makes perfect sense: “I never want the apocalypse to happen. Polar bears clinging to ice, all that shit, my worst nightmare. Being separated. I am so afraid of not being together.” Some makes no sense (to me) whatsoever: “She let several of the apocalypses run up her sleeve, down her pants, and enter her body while he wasn’t looking. She let them look out of her eyes. She crept up behind him while he was looking under the table for missing animations, use an apocalypse on his pants so they collapsed around his ankles where they belonged, and made a run for it.”
Overall, Corin demonstrates that she still has the thrilling ability to spin a tale, and that she is the master of entering a teenage girl’s head, but it takes a special kind of reader (or group of readers–it would be amazing to discuss this collection in a book club) to full appreciate One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses.