Living in the End Times: Why American Writers Are Obsessed With Apocalypse
On a cold afternoon this winter I sat before a glass wall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, fielding questions about Jewish dystopian literature. Outside was New York Harbour and the audience seemed distracted by the passing boats. My fellow panellist was Joshua Cohen, author of Witz, a novel about the last Jew on earth. My novel The Flame Alphabet concerns a poisonous language spoken by children and is set in a world of failed science where Jewish mysticism might offer the only clue to the language toxicity. Cohen and I were asked, with some impatience, why the future in our novels was so dour. Why write about the future at all when the present was, you know, so interesting? Doesn’t the real trump the unreal? And maybe most importantly: what was this attraction to dark visions of the last days, a burgeoning literary genre that might as well be called “end times porn”?
For years I’ve been asked to justify mercilessly sad endings, stories lacking in redemption and narrative visions that strip characters of their humanity through gruelling moral tests. Finally it is difficult to argue - no matter how true it feels - that pain and sorrow, in the literary sense, equal pleasure. Sometimes rhapsodic pleasure. But you know what they say about one man’s pleasure: you start to feel like a fetishist luring customers on the street to come inside and sample the delights of your whip.
The audience that day wasn’t satisfied by the observation that the phrase “happy novel” might be an oxymoron. What a lonely, underpopulated bookshelf would result that could house only happy novels. Neither did it help to intone that “the positive has already been given”. When you quote Kafka, even to a middle-aged Jewish crowd, people cry foul. Kafka was welcome to excuse his own bleakness, but we were not permitted to borrow his alibi.