I found James Morrow’s 1986 novel This Is the Way the World Ends completely by accident, on the shelf of a Salvation Army second-hand shop in the United States. Used book stores and second hand shops are always my first stop on any vacation, and there was This Is the Way the World Ends sitting between crap nobody wanted to keep on their shelves at home. If someone had told me this was going to be one of the funniest and most devastating post-nuclear apocalyptic fictions I have ever read, I would have gotten to it sooner.
Learn from my mistake! If you have this book on your shelf, read it now. Before the nukes come, and it’s too late.
In Which James Morrow Writes a Superb Addition to the Post-Apocalyptic Canon
Both funny and dark, This Is the Way the World Ends buoys the horror of nuclear devastation atop humor, never allowing the horrible to sink out of sight, but helping you to cope with a laugh. It was equal parts Vonnegut and Bulgakov, the former in the humor, the latter in the exuberantly absurd characters and situations.
George Paxton is a tombstone carver, a happy, simple , unwitting “hero.” He can’t afford one of the scopas survival suits for his daughter that all his neighbors have purchased as protection against a Soviet nuclear strike, and so after making a deal with a strange old woman, he signs a dubious contract affirming his complicity in the war in order to get one from a literally mad hatter for free. It is this contract that saves his life, and it is this contract that ends it.
Though the novel begins with Nostradamus—the narrator of this tale—it is sweet, kind George who we accompany to the end of all things. Meet George Paxton:
“He had even out maneuvered the philosophers. A seminal discovery of the twentieth century was that a man could live a life overflowing with advantages and still be obliquely unhappy. Despair, the philosophers called it. But the coin of George Paxton’s life had happiness stamped on both sides—no despair for George. Individuals so fortunate were scarce in those days. You could have sold tickets to George Paxton.”
I adored Morrow’s style throughout the novel, and this passage is a good example of it. Light, yet meaningful. Well-phrased and smooth reading. Humor of varying degrees lurking at the end of every paragraph.
In Which I Am Forced to Speak of Spoilers
Sorry folks, but if you don’t want spoilers, you’re going to have to leave now. To properly praise this book I need to get into the details, many of which work well as surprises on the first read. (Everybody dies! Just kidding! Sort of! You knew this was a nuclear apocalypse!) Every other review of This Is the Way the World Ends plunges into these details without remorse or warning, but I’m going to give you a chance to run. Get thee to a bookstore and buy the book so that you can return for a chat asap.
On his way back from his deal with the mad hatter with a special golden scopa suit for his daughter in the backseat, George experiences the first nuclear strike. You might not think that the Soviets would bother bombing quiet, rural Wildgrove, Massachusetts, but they have so many nukes, they might as well get everything. Second to Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney, this chapter contains some of the best apocalyptic moment-of-impact and aftermath writing I’ve ever read.
“A mass of shocked and rubble-pounded refugees wove among the fires, improvising roads. George moved against the tide. Was Justine in this retreat? Holly? Find my family, God! (There are no Unitarians in the thermonuclear apocalypse.) Please, God! Justine! Holly! No. Nobody but ambulatory cadavers ruined by unbelievable burns and implausible wounds. This cannot be happening, this cannot be happening, this cannot… He saw torsos more cratered than the surface of the moon. Skin fell away like leaves of decayed wet lettuce, spirals of flesh dangled like black tinsel.”
George is concerned with finding his family, but instead finds the town’s scopa-suit salesman, who tries to steal his daughter’s suit and then shoots him. George survives because of the sales contract. Because he has admitted complicity in this nuclear event, a submarine crew picks him up to take him to his war crimes trial in Antarctica. He will be tried alongside an Air Force general, a nuclear scientist, a state department official, a disarmament negotiator, and a fundamentalist preacher.
In a startlingly fantastical turn of events, the court turns out to be made up of beings called the Unadmitted, short-lived physical manifestations of the unborn whose lives will never happen thanks to the nuclear war. They emerge from the ice of Antarctica and remain on the Earth for one year, filled with the echo-y memories of what their lives would have been like. And they are fucking pissed.
Each of the defendants claims to have done all he could to stop the war, though their arguments are absurd at best. It is obvious that they are all guilty, though perhaps innocent in intention. Even George, who was not directly involved in the war is complicit—as we are all complicit in the horrors our governments commit in our name if we don’t fight back. The present is put on trial by the future. War is stupid: a crime against the past, the present, and the future.
“Beware, the fable warns. Caution. Trouble ahead. Genocidal weapons in the hands of creatures who are bored by peace.” (247)
Though these messages have the potential to become extremely didactic, they never do. The court finds them all guilty, even poor George (though only on two of the four counts). Meanwhile, guided by a painting done by Leonardo DiVinci for Nostradamus, George has been attempting to get his fertility back and convince the ship psychiatrist, Morning Valcourt, that the two of them are destined to fall in love and start the last family on Earth.
George’s obsession with restarting the human race is in part a comical poke at the alpha-male post-apocalyptic obsession with doing just that and in part an effort to cope with the unfathomably painful loss of his wife and daughter. With the ship’s fantastical telescope (capable of seeing anything from anywhere), we see what has happened in the rest of the world and encounter many of the other post-apocalyptic character stereotypes. We see the plague return. We see a woman stranded alone on a beautiful island hang herself. We watch children die and disease flourish. The other defendants too, are each stereotypes of a specific apocalyptic character both in literature and in history.
At the end of the trial, just before the men’s convictions, we learn that it was a flock of vultures that started it all. But this doesn’t change the facts. As the judge says in her verdict:
“There will always be a vulture, gentlemen. History is full of vultures. When you booby-trap an entire planet, you cannot cry ‘Non mea culpa!’ if some faulty computer chip, misfiled war game, nuclear terrorist, would-ne Napolean, unmanageable crisis, or incomprehensible event pulls the tripwire. You cannot say that you were simply obeying your constituents or leaders.” (257)
Nine out of ten vultures, thought to be extinct.
Where I got it: A Salvation Army somewhere in the United States