Ordinary Chronicles of the End of the World (Journal Issue – Transatlantica) – Proposals due by September 1, 2015
full name / name of organization:
Arnaud Schmitt (University of Bordeaux)
Ordinary Chronicles of the End of the World
As early as the middle of the last century, American science fiction was the first to elaborate on the theme of the end of the world in a spectacular manner – probably strongly influenced by two particularly deadly successive world wars and by a cold war threatening to blow to smithereens a world united in fear (this period and the imminent threat of a nuclear apocalypse gave rise to films such as WarGames or The Day After  for instance). However, “mainstream” American literature, in the wake of its illustrious British predecessors (Brave New World by Aldous Huxley or 1984 by George Orwell), chose a very different angle to tackle this dramatic topic, favoring the social analysis inherent in dystopia over the highly visual pyrotechnics of alien invasions. It should be noted that some very famous science-fiction authors themselves opted for a dystopian representation of a post-apocalyptic world, or at least of a drastically upended world, often on the verge of global disaster: Ray Bradbury with Fahrenheit 451, Isaac Asimov with I, Robot or The Caves of Steel but also Harry Harrison with Make Room! Make Room!. In these novels, dystopia is of course used for its substantial impact on the reader’s imagination, but also for its ability to cast a critical and political eye over the societies to which authors and readers belonged.
The 21st century, caught unawares by another major dramatic event, 9/11, has seen the emergence of a new trend of eschatological literature, one less centered on the political vision of the world, and definitely not interested in the grandiloquence of global catastrophe. On the contrary, this new breed of texts concentrates on the everyday of the days after. This arguably represents a new form of naturalism, displaying realistic features pertaining to traditional mimesis, thus placing the reader in a familiar environment, while describing behaviors (survival) and characteristics (nature gone awry), belonging both to a distant past and to a future we hope we will never see. Although it is always difficult to infallibly establish a clear chronology of the birth of a genre, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road most certainly acted as a catalyst for many texts. Indeed, this novel dramatically refocuses on the human element, on human beings simply trying to survive amidst total chaos, breaking with the political dystopian tradition of some of the most important novels of the 20th century. Even if the world described by the American novelist fortunately bears little resemblance to the one we currently live in, the author goes to great lengths to describe survival in its most elementary version: finding something to eat, finding one’s way through a hostile world, trying to keep warm and protecting oneself from the others. But the theme of ordinary survival had been broached before the publication of McCarthy’s novel in 2006, in a less dramatic and emotional way for instance by Michal Cunningham in Specimen Days, a novel which once again goes beyond the topos of global catastrophe – even if the latter is elliptically mentioned in the second part of the novel – to draw our attention to the experience of the days after. Similarly to The Road, Specimen Days’ third part describes what living in a new (and devastated) world means. And, if it is the end of a world, ours, it is not the end of the world since these novels’ main achievement is to relocate human beings to a new historical context, but also to a different natural world. It is for instance the case in Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, a novel which describes a possible world where the earth suddenly starts to rotate more slowly, days and nights becoming progressively longer. The author depicts how these natural disruptions impact the everyday life of a typical American town. The Age of Miracles may be the most representative text of this new thematic genre; indeed, it tackles the notion of the end of the world through one of its least spectacular aspects: a minor disruption (at least, at first). This strategy could be dubbed moderate defamiliarization, and this might have been what Ray Bradbury had in mind when he wrote The Martian Chronicles: studying life on earth from a different angle by imagining it, slightly altered, on a different planet. In his collection of short stories, Dangerous Laughter, Steven Millhauser adopted a similar strategy of minor alterations, notably in “The Other Town.” However, the reasons explaining these disruptions in the order of the world can occasionally be more prosaic and morbidly in keeping with current events, a sudden outbreak of a pandemic disease being the perfect example. Two outstanding North-American works depict disruptions caused by unfathomable contaminations, on a local scale in Black Hole, Charles Burns’s graphic novel, or a global one (99% of the population) in Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Yet, they both examine almost prosaically how a group of characters cope with these changes in their everyday life. Other recent similar examples are Laura Kasischke’s In a Perfect World and Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star.
This special issue of Transatlantica (A publication of the French Association for American Studies: http://transatlantica.revues.org/?lang=en) will explore all phenomena of minor eschatology in contemporary North-American literature (graphic and non-graphic).
– defamiliarization strategies
– the concept of minor disruption
– the shift from the political to the human
– a reader-response approach to these texts
– the impact of these texts on the collective imagination
– eschatological realism
Other topics engaging with minor eschatology are likewise welcome.
Email your 500-word abstracts by September 1, 2015 to Arnaud Schmitt [email protected] If selected for this special issue of Transatlantica, the finished essays are due by July 31, 2016.