Ah the irony eh? That a book such as this should be published at a time such as this. If we hadn’t spotted it in the Granta catalogue some months ago (as verified by its place in our annual ‘Books we’re looking forward to…‘ list back in December 2019), we’d swear that author Mark O’Connell was some kind of warlock, foreseeing and foreshadowing the times we find ourselves in to the extent that he can whip down a book from the heavens with all the prescience of a mage.
Notes from an Apocalypse is a sort of exploration, you might say, of how certain wealthy or forward thinking individuals are preparing for the imminent collapse of society. As with his previous (excellent and well worth a read) book, To Be a Machine, O’Connell charts a path (Ronson- or Theroux-like) from ‘preppers’ (right wing / Libertarian-types seemingly fascinated by what they would need to carry in their rucksacks) to luxury survivalists (holing themselves in bunkers that themselves resemble nothing quite so much as a weird new kind of suburbia) to the likes of Elon Musk busy plotting a future for himself and his wealthy compatriots on Mars (although not, it should be said, until a few generations of babies have died to pave the way for the great and the good up there). What makes O’Connell different from, say, Jon Ronson, is that – where Ronson has a background hum of anxiety and unease – O’Connell’s anxiety and unease are part of the story. Arguably the journey O’Connell is on is the story.
“We are alive,” he writes,
“in a time of worst-case scenarios. The world we have inherited seems exhausted, destined for an absolute and final unravelling. Look: there are fascists in the streets, and in the palaces. Look: the weather has gone uncanny, volatile, malevolent. The wealth and power of nominal democracies is increasingly concentrated in the hands of smaller and more heedless minorities, while life becomes more precarious for ever larger numbers of people. The old alliances, the postwar dispensations, are lately subject to dire subsidence. The elaborate stage settings of global politics, the drawing rooms and chandeliers, are being dismantled, disappearing off into the wings, laying bare the crude machinery of capital.”
And we have the flipside, our own complicity in the mess:
“I don’t know that I would have it any other way. I want my toilet to flush. I want streaming music. I want to buy what I want to buy, eat what I want to eat, go where I want to go. I want to be able to leave my tiny island in the North Atlantic when I need to, or just when I feel like it. And if polar bears are going to be starving to death due to habitat destruction, I want to be able to watch deeply upsetting YouTube videos about it.”
O’Connell visits Chernobyl to see the end of the world (reimagined as extreme tourist resort) first hand. He visits tech billionaire Peter Thiel’s post-apocalypse hideout in New Zealand. We learn about the minor cult that has grown up around Jacob Rees Mogg’s dad’s book, The Sovereign Individual (a summary of which is basically – you’re rich, you’re special, fuck everyone else). And, as you’d expect, O’Connell finds threads that weave together at every turn. “Once you start using the apocalypse as a way of encountering the present, an anxious response to uncertainty and change, it presents itself everywhere in the form of cryptic signals, deep emanations.”
He joins author Paul Kingsnorth on a retreat on the spot where the Industrial Revolution (aka that thing which precipitated the end of the world, at least in terms of imminent climate catastrophe) began, and explores the limits of his imagination on a wilderness solo (basically sitting outside in the wilderness for 24 hours without books or phones or company). And throughout it all, quietly and in unshowy fashion, he introduces his erudition in a way that is comforting (readers will like O’Connell, he’s someone who believes in the power of books). Here, for instance, is Diderot, quoted whilst O’Connell is at Chernobyl: “Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures.”
Any Cop?: Perhaps surprisingly, or not given O’Connell’s humanity, he does arrive at a way to deal with all of this (although his way to deal with this precipitated the COVID-19 virus – so it might be nice to have a new appendix to the paperback, if and when that arrives), a way of dealing that may just amount to “ok it’s a terrible time to be alive but we are alive now and the times they are, if nothing else, interesting”. As a result of its individuality and its thoughtfulness, it ranks ever so slightly behind David Wallace Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, a book we feel everyone should be reading – but that is still a lofty place for a book to be.