Saturday, September 22, 2007

It's Not The End Of The World Or Anything

Snooping around over at The Dizzies, I found myself entranced by Ed’s ”livebloggery” of Cormac McCarthy’s appearance on Oprah. McCarthy’s latest book, The Road, has received acclaim from sources as diverse as the big O and the Pulitzer Prize committee. It’s also right up my alley, as speculative fiction by masterful artistss is always special treat for me, a dyed-in-the-wool science fiction/fantasy dork. I loved Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and leapt at the chance to see Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046. So why haven’t I already filled up a Facebook profile with quotes from The Road, aside from the fairly repugnant quality of that idea?

Because I’m terrified of The Road, and not only because reading an excerpt of it forced me to learn the meaning of the word "catamite".The truth is that I have a very dysfunctional relationship with post-apocalyptic and dystopic fiction. I enjoy it – a lot – but it scares the crap out of me. As a child, I often dreamed of directing horror films, not because I particularly wanted to be a director, but because I thought that if I could see how scary movies were made, they might not frighten me so much (I also said that I wanted to be a nurse so that I could “hurt people,” but that’s a different story). When I was a toddler, my parents were great fans of the Hellraiser series, and often watched the films in our living room after putting me to bed. On these nights, without fail, I crept downstairs to peep out from behind the couch, saw something awful, and refused to sleep for weeks. For whatever reason, stories where the world ends, or has ended, are still a bit much for me. Today, with valid warnings of a real Ragnarok at every turn, I try to keep my mind calm by avoiding any unnecessary terror. This is not something I have always done. Here’s a list of apocalyptic media that scared me in the past and scares me now.

If I saw T2 in theatres, then I must have been seven at my first viewing. I find this hard to believe. I mean, as previously noted, my parents were certainly a little laissez faire about what they let me watch, and I loved them for it. But this movie? Arnold Swarzenegger looking like a leather daddy and acting like a real daddy to poor screwed up Edward Furlong, and then sacrificing himself for humankind? This movie terrified me not because it was psychotically violent and not because that nice black computer scientist had to kill himself, but because there was no happy ending. Everything was fucked. Cut to shot of highway at night.

I read Pat Frank’s 1959 surviving-the-nuclear-holocaust tale in my eighth grade advanced English class, which was cryptically called “A.T.P. Humanities” and taught by one Arlene Jarzab, who ran marathons and drove a red convertible. Ms. Jarzab had nothing but faith in her students’ ability to understand books typically assigned to high schoolers, which was why I read The Grapes of Wrath in fifth grade, The Good Earth in sixth grade, The Crucible in seventh grade and wrote a paper about population control in India in eighth grade. Alas, Babylon isn’t exactly one of the great works of the Western canon, but it is cannily gripping. The Russians drop the bomb on America, forcing the inhabitants of a surviving Florida town to recreate society. Diabetics die from lack of insulin, “highwaymen” are summarily executed for theft, and racial integration takes place out of necessity. The book is supposed to show how society could survive even the worst of all possible fears – by the end the survivors are serving fresh-squeezed orange juice and eating delicious roasted pigeon, and the spinsterish bluestocking is married and has chubby babies – but all I can ever think about is the telegram a military man sends his brother with their secret code for disaster: “Alas, Babylon.”

Ayn Rand’s 1938 “Careful what you wish for, Socialists” novella was also assigned to me in eighth grade by Ms. Jarzab. In a distant future, collectivism has sent humankind back to the dark ages (but now with Communism!) and rendered them unable to use singular pronouns, meaning that the titular hero Equality 7-2521 begins every sentence with “we.” Equality is smart, but his independent thinking gets him assigned to menial labor by the Council of Vocations. He rediscovers electricity and attempts to use it for the greater good, but is imprisoned and tortured. Meanwhile, he falls in love (also a no-no) with a farm laborer. They run away together and find a preserved house in the woods, where they take the names of Prometheus and Gaea from a book. Now that I think about it, Anthem didn’t scare me so much as it pissed me off, because as soon as the woman (Gaea, nee Liberty 5-3000) learns to use the word “I,” she just starts spouting earth-mothery dreck like “I love you” and “I want to have your children,” and I kind of preferred the before version where she was reaping wheat and doing strong communist lady stuff. Also, my eighth-grade reading list looks kind of hysterically anti-Communist on second glance.

I wonder if there’s anyone my age who read The Giver and didn’t find themselves haunted by the book’s strange blend of dystopic fiction and soft-core philosophy. I can’t recall whether or not I read Lois Lowry’s novel in school or on my own, but it almost doesn’t matter. The Giver was a genuine pop culture phenomenon among fifth- and sixth-graders in the mid-1990s, and probably still is. I remember carrying the book down the halls of my middle school and noticing who else had it, and having hushed conversations with my few friends about how very, very sad the book is. As in Anthem (and that granddaddy of dystopias, Brave New World), one of the most disturbing elements of the novel is the destruction of the family, although the infant distribution center and “birthmothers” of The Giver are somehow creepier than the straight-up kibbutz-style Home of the Infants in the Rand book (especially the scene where Jonas’s little sister mentions that she’d like to be a birthmother, and her parents admonish her…shudder). Jonas, the deep-blue-eyed, sensitive-boy protragonist, was also extremely crush-worthy. Lowry’s deft handling of adolescent sexuality stuck with me for long enough that I wrote some Giver slash when I was thirteen. I mean, Jonas’s dream about bathing Fiona? Hot.

I read Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel when I was 18, so I don’t know if it qualifies as a apocalyptic work that terrified me in childhood. It did, however, upset me more than pretty much anything I had ever read, and also established Atwood as one of my favorite authors. In my opinion The Handmaid’s Tale should be required reading for every high school junior, particularly the legions of girls ready to go wild who don’t understand what all the fuss about feminism is. The book’s funny, smart, angry narrator, Offred (quote my best friend Ben: “Offred was so fucking hot,”) explains in simple steps how Reagan-era America is destroyed by the violent religious right and transformed into the Republic of Gilead, where nuclear warfare has made fertile women a hot commodity. There as so many moments in the book that still disturb my sleep; the re-education center (really an old high school gym) where women are sent to become Handmaids, Offred’s realization that her husband must have killed their cat when they were trying to escape, the photograph of Offred’s daughter shown her by Serena Joy, and the miserable nightclub where Jezebels are kept. Atwood lights a tiny candle of hope with the epilogue, which implies that Gilead is long gone and has been replaced with churlish Inuit academics. I may demolish any respect my three readers have for me by noting that the first time I read the book, I failed to recognize its setting as Cambridge, Massachusetts. But after I figured it out, I sure couldn’t take the playful antics of those Harvard types lightly anymore. The Handmaid's Tale has been adapted into a film, play, opera, and radio play, none of which I've seen.

From my first blog, called “Madrant:”

Tonight, I went to see a movie which was the most moving, touching, beautifuk [sic], and horrifying film which I have ever seen. It was tragic, heartbreaking, suspenseful and humourous at times...and you know what? You Titanic freaks can all go stare at a wall, because Deep Impact KICKS ASS!
It's the story of how a comet predicted to hit earth changes the lives of so many, I no feel like explaining. But it made me cry..and if you knew me, you'd know that I NEVER cry in movies. You could show me a half-hour of children starving to death, and I'd think it was sad, but I wouldn't cry. Deep Impact Made me many valiant few shelters...ARRRGGHH! Depression!
I will see Deep Impact over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again for the rest of my is beautiful. And it kicks Titanic in the ass. So, to all Titanic fans: To females, stop staring at your Leo posters, use a Biore pore strip and go see this movie. YOu can see another, more appropriately aged attractive male in it, Elijah Wood(*sigh*) and ogle Males, stop staring so fixatedly at your pictures of Kate Winslet nude and get off your ass, wash your hair and go outside. That glare is the sun you haven't seen in so long. Now, go to a movie theatre and see Deep Impact. Trtue, there's no naked chicks, but depending on your taste, there is Tea Leoni. Gosee [sic] it anyway...
Tired and hungry. K'bye.


7. The Book of Revelations, especially as seen in the X-Files episode “All Souls” originally aired April 26, 1998

Although both of my parents were fairly burnt out on religion after decades of Catholic school and guilt, they made a valiant effort to inculcate the faith in our home. They weren’t about to send us to St. Mary-of-the-Ruler-Whack, however, so my sister and I went to extracurricular “CCD” or “Catholic class” held on Wednesday nights. I was a nightmare to the nice ladies who volunteered to teach these classes; I mean, I didn’t even process until the end of high school that they probably weren’t paid for their hour of sanctimonious workbook exercises. The highlight of my extremely splotchy CCD career was definitely seventh grade, when we were given Bibles and told to read the thing front to back. Not only did this give me bragging rights in my borderline-agnostic social circle for the rest of time, it also exposed me to Revelations, in which a woman in the sky gives birth to a dragon who swallows the sun. In “All Souls,” Scully has another forty minutes of religious guilt when she and Mulder have to figure out what’s going on with a series of handicapped girls who have died while in foster care. The girls were born with six fingers, and if I remember correctly, Lucifer is coming for them – but God gets them first, orchestrating their deaths so that they can ascend to heaven? I think? What I remember most is Scully reading some Revelations description of angels as having six wings: two to shield their eyes, two to stand on, and two to fly with. Scary. Also terrifying: Sufjan Stevens’ Seven Swans, especially the title song. Religious terror was never so hot or cuddly.

What books and movies scared you when you were small? Did the end of the world seem foreboding to you, too?


Axel said...

Lost Highway! Apocalypto! Yay!

ajruns said...

Since I am referenced here, I had to read on. It is gratifying to see that a former student is writing so well. While I don't think I can take credit, aat least I know I challenged her.

Ms. J

Daphne said...

Interesting to know.