With the rumored apocalypse looming somewhere in 2012 (not to mention the almost willful and continuous damage our species has been inflicting over the past half-century on the only planet we have at our disposal!), the literary world has seen a spate of works depicting variations on the end times. Zombies, of course, are big, as evidenced by the recent popularity of The Walking Dead in both comic book and TV form, and epic struggles for survival in the wake of global disaster a la Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are also in vogue lately. Joining the fray — albeit reluctantly and perhaps more artfully — is Blake Butler’s collection of post-apocalyptic short fiction Scorch Atlas.
While Scorch Atlas bears superficial resemblance to a lot of recent titles depicting the end of the world, what sets it apart is the intimate scope of Butler’s narratives. We’re not seeing humanity’s epic struggle to survive despite some horrendous global fate in this book. Rather, we’re witnessing individual human moments, watching almost voyeuristically as children struggle to make sense of their suddenly damaged world and parents do their best to hold everything together. In one story, for example, Butler depicts the life of the first student stricken with the disease that will eventually quarantine the entire school. In another, he gives us a mother who watches with horror as the dehumanizing nature of life without hope swiftly changes her otherwise gentle children into savages. Throughout the book, Butler’s focus is on the domesitc (as opposed to the global). As such, it’s all the more chilling.
Of course, due consideration should also be given to the book’s design. I was reading Scorch Atlas while waiting for a haircut one morning, and three people interrupted me to ask what I was reading — mainly, they said, because the book looked interesting. Tall, narrow, and blackened, the volume looks like something salvaged from an actual disaster, the last record of a fallen world. Needless to say, this appearance perfectly reflects the contents of the book, for each story reads like a testimonial bearing witness to the final days of humanity.
Gripping, haunting, moving, and, in places, disturbing, Scorch Atlas is most definitely not a testament to human resilience and our strength to endure. Rather, it reads more like a dire warning from the future, a cautionary missive from those who’ve experienced first-hand the hell we’re creating and would do anything to change it.
The only real question is whether anyone will listen.
– Review by Marc Schuster