Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Stories for the End of the World by Eric Shapiro

In his collection, Eric Shapiro ends the world three times (more, if you want to be abstract of philosophical). His methods include a giant asteroid ("It's Only Temporary") and radioactive crab monsters ("The Hill"). Reading it, I kept thinking of the book as being called Stories from the End of the World, but that's wrong. The title is Stories for End of the World (Permuted Press: 2010). The distinction is significant. These aren't transmissions from our future selves, warning us of our impending dooms. Rather, Shapiro is sending these stories forward. They are stories about apocalypse for people dying in one, from those of us careening happily and boneheadedly towards our own.

Stories for the End of the World contains ten stories, three of which are long enough to qualify as novellas. Although the collection is, to overuse the term, apocalyptic in theme, not every story takes place at the world's end. These are apocalypses of love, of self, of good behavior. All are suffused with a sense of morbid glee, not dissimilar to the final montage of Doctor Strangelove.

Well, not all. "Fizz," the collection's grimmest inclusion, relates the circumstances leading up to and away from a calculated date rape. It's sad and infuriating. In a noteworthy twist, it subverts the usual goal of fiction of finding the universal in the specific, and instead tells a specific story through generalities, and in so doing, makes the subject matter loom all the larger.

A blurb on the cover anoints Shapiro the next Philip K. Dick, and I suppose I can see some similarities. In "Days of Allison," one of the book's longer (and best) pieces, we do have that most-Dickian of tropes, robots that think they're people. The writer I find myself going back to over and over again while reading Shapiro, however, is Nabokov. These Stories for the End of the World show that same precise balance of language that one finds in Lolita or Pnin, between playfulness and anguish, civility and grotesquery, funny ha-ha and funny kill-yourself.

An easy criticism to level at this collection would be that it is repetitive. Certainly, Shapiro's narrators tend to share a few personality traits, the most noticeable being their proclivity towards spiraling inner monologues of misanthropy and self-loathing. I caution against such a point of view. It's reductive, and misses the real accomplishment of these stories. Shapiro shares a worldview that is specific, unique, and complex. For readers, there are few greater treats than that, even if in his world, we all die at the end.

1 comment: