In books I and II of The Last Policeman series, by Ben H. Winters, we met the last policeman in question, Hank Palace, “The Thinking Woman’s Crumpet”. In my previous review I said that Winters is an accomplished writer, producing a polished narrative, original imagery and an unconventional approach to end-of-days scenarios. Through his main character he watches and notes the desperate last-minute activities of the panicked human race, rather like a mortician would, and definitely like a good detective should. Palace is an endearing, upright character with a romantic, empathetic streak. Through neat turns of phrase and unusually prescient observations, Winters paints a restrained picture of the coming end of the world. Rather than blood and guts – though murder is still on the agenda – his view of the apocalypse is pretty realistic and frighteningly normal. Which begs the question: what happens to a first-person narrator when he not only dies but everything else ceases to exist too?
How to end a book with the death of the narrator
In this book, Winters picks apart the notions of death, inevitability, fatefulness, doom. I’ll spoil the fun by telling you how it ends, but here’s the conundrum – you know how it’s going to end from the first page of the first book. It takes great writing skill to keep the reader engaged in Book III – World of Trouble – when you know that by p. 316, it has to end, in all possible ways. And Winters achieved that. Like seeing a movie about WWII – we all know how it ends; and The Sleeping Beauty, and, for that matter, all stories that are based on Received Knowledge. But the skill lies in how to get to the ending.
A while back, I was visiting Mount St. Helens in Washington State, USA, the scene of an enormous volcanic eruption in 1980 which blew the top and side of the mountain straight off and flattened, gouged out and otherwise reshaped vegetation and buildings over 230 square miles (600 square kilometres) around it. Standing at an observation deck, 10 kilometres or 6 miles away from the mountain that looked like a little white thimble in the distance, I read that right on that spot, Volcanologist David Johnson was standing the day it blew up. A principal scientist on the monitoring team, Johnston was the first person to spot the mountain erupting, transmitting “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” (meaning, Vancouver, Washington, not Vancouver, British Columbia) before he was swept away by a lateral blast. It was hard to believe the blast was so fast, and so powerful, from so far away, that a man was turned to ashes at that very spot. Now that, I would say, demonstrates inevitability. It happened, and 34 years later forests of trees still look like they had their tops neatly nipped off by a mountain-sized pair of hedge clippers. There is no arguing with nature in full rampage mode. So if the end is inevitable, what makes the journey towards the end worth reading? Why not just skip straight to the last chapter? Why bother reading it, or writing it, for that matter?
The attraction of apocalyptic fiction
The answer lies both in what kind of novel this is, and how well it has been written. It is two genres combined – apocalyptic and mystery. Apocalyptic fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction that is concerned with the end of human civilization. This apocalypse is typically portrayed as being due to a potentially existential catastrophe such as nuclear warfare, pandemic, extraterrestrial attack, impact event (that would be The Last Policeman series), cybernetic revolt, technological singularity, dysgenics, supernatural phenomena, divine judgment, runaway climate change, resource depletion, ecological collapse, or some other general disasters.
Why then do people like reading apocalyptic novels and watching TV series and movies? What explains the “Horror Paradox” and people’s love of vampires, zombies, meteor crashes and alien attacks? A couple of theories are:
- When you read the book, you are not experiencing the emotion of fear, but rather excitement (positive not negative stress).
- You are willing to endure the terror in order to enjoy a euphoric sense of relief at the end (catharsis).
- You enjoy being scared and happy at the same time.
- You find comfort in having your worst hidden fears realized – but safely in a novel, so you can put it down and forget about it.
- You associate yourself with the hero, thinking everyone will die/get eaten by zombies/suffer agonies – except you.
- You enjoy having your own theory of the end of the world either confirmed or denied.
- The extreme situation in the book is a super-stimulus; like loud music, thumping rhythms, huge cartoony eyes, popping colours and screaming bungee dives, we all love the extreme levels of stimulation that gives us a natural high.
- You are attracted to reading about it because of morbid curiosity. You are inquisitive, because it is a taboo subject. Death is still a taboo subject in most cultures, which is why people are drawn to car crashes. They want to look but they know they shouldn’t.
- Scary books – and the apocalypse is the mother of all scary scenarios – and our reaction to them, may be one of the last vestiges of the tribal rite of passage. We want to prove ourselves tough enough to read it and not put it down and hide the book underneath the bed. Or hide ourselves underneath the bed. The scarier the book, the more justified we feel in boasting that we read it.
If not gruesome, then what?
Let’s just say humans are weirdly wired. But World of Trouble is not gruesome, bloody or even fantastical. It’s far worse than that – it’s realistic and it’s visceral. You feel the end approaching with a creeping sense of dread. I began to develop a sense that I was treading towards a precipice of some kind, and, like Hank Palace, the great unknown of death, inevitable death, was close. Winters is really, really good at drawing out that sense of impending doom. The awareness of our own inevitable death creates the potential for debilitating terror, against which most people have no ways to psychologically defend themselves. Now that, dear reader, is terror. Winters understands this really well and depicts it with frightening precision:
“As the food is brought out, my courage suddenly drops out of me, and just for one awful minute my heart feels loose and floating and my hands start to tremble and I have to hold myself frozen by force of will, watching that big window, wide and square. I allow myself the last brief possibility that it will after all have been a dream, and that when I close my eyes tightly and open them again everything will be as it was – and I even try it, squeeze them shut like a child, press my knuckles into the lids, hold the pose until the starbursts dance to life inside my eyelids.” (p. 316)
The plot of Palace looking for his sister is still there, but while the mystery is compelling, there is nothing dramatic about the conclusion to that puzzle, since everyone in the world is busy trying to find a way to face their deaths. Some people keep living as they always have, in so-called “green towns”. Others, in “red towns”, go crazy and turn into barbarians. You wonder, as you read, what you would do. When faced with that terror, would you hide, kill yourself, wait, fight, party, pray? Hank Palace ends his life like he lived it, a helpful policeman to the last moment, perhaps more tender, more accepting of human frailty:
“I hold Ruthie’s hand and she holds my hand, we sit like that, giving each other strength, like strangers on a crashing plane.” (p. 316)
In the acclaimed – and profoundly frightening – novel about dementia and death, Out of Mind, by J. Bernlef (David R. Godine Publishers, 1989), the narrator says “I seem to lose words like another person loses blood”. By the end of the book, having lost his power of communication, he also stops thinking and talking. By the last few pages, he no longer uses sentences, just words, random ideas, memories. The author lets his language disintegrate like the mind of his character: “…outside…into the woods and the spring that is almost beginning…she says…she whispers…the spring which is about to begin…” (p. 130). In World of Trouble, Winters also lets his text peter out when his narrator’s life ends. The moment of apocalypse is only indicated by the sky beginning to glow. After all, after the big bang there will be no more Palace and no more “world of trouble”.
So, typically human, we hope that Palace will survive and that there will be other Last Policeman books. But even if this is the end of the series for Winters, I hope that a talented writer like him has more novels waiting to be written.