Thursday, December 17, 2009

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What, exactly, is the point - or the merit - of Helen Simpson's short story "Diary of An Interesting Year," featured in The New Yorker this week? Certainly its publication has something to do with the flailing Copenhagen talks, rechristened "Nopenhagen" from "Hopenhagen" by various parties, and with the general idea that the world is ending. I've been haunted by apocalyptic narratives for my entire night - and as I've written before on this blog, deeply impacted by several. And now I've been upset by this story, too.

The setup is simple - a few pages of brief, miserable diary entries by a 30-year-old British woman in 2040, after society has completely broken down following something called the Big Melt (guess). The tone is cribbed from every other apocalyptic story, ever, but it most nearly recalls to me the dystopian fictions of Margaret Atwood (which, with The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood now number three) - that is to say, occasionally shot through with black humor, often obsessed with social rules, and completely hopeless on the topic of human nature. The narrator's relationship with her husband, "G.," formerly her university professor, is the type of sniping, pithy interchange that plenty of married couples experience - but then again, it's her fault, because she married him.
Another quarrel with G. O.K., yes, he was right, but why crow about it? That’s what you get when you marry your tutor from Uni—wall-to-wall pontificating from an older man.

It's her fault. Just like, not incidentally, the end of the world. Without the internet, nobody can do anything, least of all deliver a baby: "Nobody else on the road will have a clue what to do now that we can’t Google it." And then, things fall further apart: malevolent men arrive, the pregnant woman dies with her dead baby inside her, a cartoonish evil Spanish grandma materializes from nowhere and steals the narrator's tins of food. This blogger says that it's supposed to be funny, but I don't think it's funny. I think the black humor is a bad excuse for humor, and I think the lazy gallows-gawker quality of the story says plenty of negative things about The New Yorker fiction department's motivation in choosing Simpson's story. What, exactly, am I supposed to take from yet another story about the future that informs me that women will shortly be raped in the streets - or in forty-foot-tall tree platforms, as Simpson has it - and be forced to self-abort their captors' children?

This kind of sensationalistic fiction rarely raises anyone's consciousness. At its most effective, it only succeeds in doing what it did to me this afternoon: disrupted my sleepy holiday with a dark mountain of nameless dread. Perhaps the most frustrating element of the current doomsaying is that, as ever, it seems there's nothing we can do, other than buy guns, as one Peak Oil prophet once suggested all women do. I don't see much skill in Simpson's story; unlike Atwood's apocalyptic tales, this one doesn't reveal much about the human condition, or even about our current psychological state. It just says that our lives will end nastily, that hope reveals itself as a miserable lie, and that life offers us no consolation. Last time I checked, the point of writing was to draw out the essence of being alive, to perhaps provide a justification for the strange mystery of life.

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