As I mentioned in my last post, we’re currently watching The Stand, a mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s 1978 novel. Though both the novel and the series are quite graphic in their depictions of the weaponized superflu that wipes out most of the world—and quite clear on just how the pathogen escaped its experimental military facility—ultimately, the flu itself is ancillary to the substance of the story, which is about a showdown between the forces of good and those of evil.
As I enter the last two weeks of classes for the term and reflect back on the texts we’ve done in my graduate seminar on 21stC post-apocalyptic narratives, some of which have overlapped with my Utopias & Dystopias course, and the course I taught last term on pandemic fiction, I’m struck by how often it has been the case that the catastrophe precipitating these stories has been, more often than not, simply a device to clear the decks for what comes next. I really have no reason to be so struck by this fact, given that I titled my grad course “The Spectre of Catastrophe,” specifically because it focuses on narratives preoccupied less with the catastrophe itself than the aftermath. But it occurs to me that when the catastrophe—be it a viral outbreak, asteroid strike, alien invasion, or whatever—is the focus of the story, it’s usually because it will be resolved by the end. It is, in such instances, the focus of the action, not the setup for the action.
By contrast, many of the post-apocalyptic narratives I’ve been looking at this year often go out of their way to be vague about the nature of the precipitating catastrophe. Your average zombie apocalypse has little to say about what caused the dead to rise—few offer even as much exposition as 28 Days Later prologue, in which eco-terrorists storm a lab and inadvertently free monkeys who have been infected with the Rage virus, or the vague suggestion in Night of the Living Dead that zombies are the result of radiation from a satellite. Shaun of the Dead offers the most perfect parody of this tendency, when at the end, again safely ensconced on his couch, Shaun flips through channels on the TV reporting on the aftermath of the zombie plague and changes the channel before anyone can offer an explanation for how it happened.
Even the arguably bleakest post-apocalyptic narrative of the past twenty years—Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—deliberately frustrates readers keen to know how the world of the novel ended up a blasted wasteland. So too Emily St. John Mandel’s far more hopeful Station Eleven is conspicuously uninterested in the details of the “Georgia Flu” that devastates the world. The comparable pandemic in Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead is less significant for how it wipes out the world’s population than for the simple fact that it does, which allows for the rather intriguing vision of the afterlife on which the novel is premised. And even all of the gross, granular detail with which Stephen King endows “Captain Trips,” the superflu that wipes out 99.9% of America (and presumably the world, but that’s a speculation for a future post), is ultimately a bit of misdirection as the novel then settles into its aforementioned epic battle between Light and Dark.
In all of these examples, catastrophe plays the narrative role of what film nerds like me call a “MacGuffin,” a concept most associated with Alfred Hitchcock. A MacGuffin, Hitchcock said, is something the characters find important, but the audience doesn’t care about—something that precipitates the action, but is ultimately ancillary to it, like the Maltese falcon of The Maltese Falcon, a putatively priceless statuette that drives the plot, but which is never found; or, more specific to Hitchcock, the money Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals from her employer in Psycho, but which is less important than the fact that in fleeing her crime she ends up at the Bates Motel.
Catastrophe has become one of our more prevalent MacGuffins: how the world ends is more or less incidental to what comes afterward. There are of course exceptions to this rule; this post comes about in part from my notes for my grad class on Monday, in which we’re finishing Ling Ma’s novel Severance and starting Mandel’s Station Eleven. The latter, as I mention above, is exemplary of this tendency to use catastrophe as a plot device; Severance, by contrast, is far more interested in the particulars of the pandemic that collapses civilization, mainly because the particulars of the “Shen Fever” are tied closely to the novel’s themes of nostalgia and home. The infectiousness of the disease, in which people are reduced to mindless automatons repeating rituals from their former lives, is most prevalent among those given to nostalgia. Candace Chen, the novel’s protagonist, came to the U.S. at a young age when her parents immigrated from China; in the novel’s present, both of her parents have died, and she feels equally not at home in New York City and her home region of China, which she visits on business trips. Feeling generally rootless and untethered makes Candace ironically immune to the disease.
This thematic connection between the catastrophic pandemic and Candace’s situation—which in the novel is also more broadly representative of the millennial experience of late capitalism—makes the cause and particulars of the catastrophe central to the novel, in that both the characters and the audience care about it; this also makes Severance an instructive outlier in a burgeoning sub-genre full of catastrophic MacGuffins.
A large part of the reason for this relates to one of my overarching arguments about contemporary post-apocalyptic narratives, which is also one of the premises of my course: namely, that the preoccupation with the aftermath of catastrophe is indicative of a breakdown of faith and trust in government—not a new phenomenon by any means, but something that became supercharged by the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 failures in Iraq, the debacle of Hurricane Katrina, the increasing polarization of politics and culture, all culminating in the election of Donald Trump. Trump was an is a catastrophic figure, and while I mean that quite literally, it’s important to keep in mind that being symbolically catastrophic—i.e. being seen by his followers as a bomb that would demolish “the Establishment”—was a huge part of his appeal. To many people, Trump is an expression of what I’ve been terming “hopeful nihilism,” which is also an animating factor in many post-apocalyptic narratives. Hopeful nihilism is the flip side of what Lauren Berlant terms “cruel optimism,” a condition in which the object of your desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing; hopeful nihilism is the belief that burning down and destroying the present system clears the decks for a freer and more authentic existence in the wreckage.
Hence, the general lack of interest in the nature of the catastrophe in these stories: the important thing isn’t the why and how, but the simple fact of civilization’s end. The catastrophe is a MacGuffin; the important thing is what happens next, and how the characters negotiate the circumstances. It may be that in time that we see Trump in similar terms, which would actually go a long way towards explaining how a fatuous, preening New Yorker billionaire became the symbol of defiance for a rump of resolutely “anti-elitist” people; perhaps the particulars of the Trumpian catastrophe were less important than the fact of it. It is, I admit, a comforting thought, as it suggests a huge difficulty for those who want to step into Trump’s role going forward—especially if (and it’s a big if) the Biden Administration can take steps to re-establish people’s faith in government to help its people.