Behind The Apocalypse Reader

As I reached out to shake Justin Taylor's hand at the PEN America Awards in New York recently, I couldn't help but notice that he was carrying a slim, tomato red volume under one arm. When I inquired about it, his response was that it was an anthology he'd edited. On the Apocalypse, no less. I took a deep gulp of the free hooch that could've passed as rocket fuel, and tried to smile optimistically as I warily perused the cover of The Apocalypse Reader.

Generally, the idea of anthologies makes me want to roll my eyes with all the cynicism and exasperation an exiled New Yorker stuck in the deep cornfields of Iowa can muster. I mean really, does the world need yet another anthology? How many times have you ever run into someone and asked what they're reading, only to have them scream with excitement "Oh man, I'm reading this kick-ass ANTHOLOGY right now!" Umm, never. Granted, I teach English at the university-level, so I do understand the importance of such texts. The problem, as my own professors see it (as well as several ex-bosses), is that I have a problem with authority -- I don't like the idea that someone has chosen "certain" stories for me to read, and then put them in some kind of strange "order," dictating how I should read the damn thing.

So I was not exactly jumping up and down at the prospect of reviewing this book. However, as I flipped through the pages that night in bed, I found myself pleasantly surprised. Perhaps the most admirable thing about this collection of stories is how incredibly varied they are -- the collection includes everyone from H.P. Lovecraft to new, deeply strange and unexpected work by Joyce Carol Oates, to the metaphysical musings of the incomparable Shelley Jackson. Sure, there are the expected narratives about hunting for food after a post-nuclear blast, and the usual crew of zombies on the loose, but, on the whole, I found myself, dare I say it, impressed with how finely nuanced the selections were. Stories by Lucy Corin (a writer I'd never heard of but instantly adored), literary enfant terrible Tao Lin, and Lynne Tillman were so engrossing, so explosively creative that I wound up reading well into the early morning hours. Plus, as Justin so eloquently explains in his graceful and intelligent introduction, the reader is invited to read the selections in whatever order they choose: "You, however, are encouraged to hunt and peck, pick and choose, see what suits you, what repels, and what draws you back." I was beginning to warm up to this whole anthology thing. Curious about how the project began, and wanting the story behind the book, I emailed Justin to get the facts.

JB) "Can you describe the process of getting this book published?"

JT) "In March 2006, I was working in PR, finishing the first year of a fiction MFA at The New School, and had this basic idea for a book about the apocalypse. I set up a meeting with Thunder's Mouth Press, walked over from my office to theirs on my lunch break. I didn't have an agent and I didn't shop the idea around at a bunch of places. TMP -- and a few other Avalon imprints -- had published a lot of books I really liked, and I wanted to work with them. They knew I'd never done anything like this before, but they liked the concept a lot. I guess I talked a pretty good game. Things happened quickly after that: I wrote a proposal, and within a few weeks it had been green-lighted. The main concern was the time-frame. They were one book short for spring '07, and wanted mine to be it, which meant I had six months to turn the thing from loose concept into finished manuscript. That's an insane schedule for a book to be on, but I really wanted to do it, and my editors -- John Oakes and Lukas Volger -- were great. Their attitude was basically 'if you think you can pull it off then we'll believe you.' By this time it was mid-April. I walked over to their office, again on my lunch hour, signed the contract, then walked back to my office and gave notice."

JB) "Was assembling the collection and bringing the book to publication an arduous process, or did it come fairly easily to you? (Are you hooked into the publishing scene here?)"

JT) "I learned everything as I went. It was all on-the-job training. The sheer amount of reading involved was a job in itself, and when I started, I didn't know how to deal with agents, draft permissions requests or anything else relating to the business or practical side of book publishing. I just had to hope people would respond to my good faith by acting in kind, which everyone did...At least everyone I ended up working with. In terms of whether or not I was "hooked in" to the publishing scene: I had relationships with a number of writers and publishers because I write a lot of book reviews and sometimes interview writers, but I wasn't in a position to call in favors or anything like that. If people didn't like my idea, there was really no incentive for them to sign on. But people did like the idea. In fact most everyone had a personal favorite apocalypse story (or writer) of their own. They'd put me in touch with their friends, or make recommendations. Shelley Jackson, for example, turned me on to Lucy Corin, who had published three 'Small Apocalypses' on I loved them. I don't know how many Small Apocalypses Lucy has written; I ended up taking 16 for my book."

JB) "What was the most difficult part of assembling the collection?"

JT) "At first it was hard to figure out what the parameters of the book would be. We talked about including poetry, nonfiction, religious texts, pieces of Cold War-era civil defense manuals -- we were all over the place. Once we decided to focus on fiction, I was adamant about making it a book of short stories. As I write in the introduction, I don't like book excerpts much. They're unfulfilling, and if one happened to be exceptional it might make my reader put my book down to go find the book the excerpt came from. Besides, the short story is my true passion. That's my favorite form to read and to write. The Apocalypse Reader is a celebration of the short story as a form. When you see how much variety there is in the book (in terms of content, focus, style, era, author -- everything, really) you realize how much potential and vitality there is in short stories. And the basic definition of a short story is a wholly believable, self-contained world that will be over before you know it, which is such an apocalyptic notion...I think the two themes complement each other nicely."

JB) "Which story is your personal favorite?"

JT) "I'm not sure I could pick a favorite, but Dennis Cooper's 'The Ash Gray Proclamation' would be a strong contender. He is one of my absolute favorite writers, and being in a position to publish him is an honor, plus a real point of pride. Jared Hohl's 'Fraise, Menthe, et Poivre 1978' would have to be another contender. It's so perfectly insane, gruesome and hilarious, you'd never know it was his first published story if it didn't say so in his bio. You'd think he was an old pro you'd just never heard of before."

JB) "Why the theme of the Apocalypse? What does the term mean to you, and why is this the right time for such a project?"

JT) "Well, I write about this a bit in my intro, but in a way it's always the right time for Apocalypse, since every generation in human history has theorized/fantasized that theirs would be The Last. At the same time there are really specific reasons, both obvious and complicated ones. Global warming, terrorism, the occasional food supply contamination scare, our disastrous involvement in Iraq and elsewhere, the current administration's brazen, basically unimpeded efforts to destroy this country from within. The list goes on. Even net-positives, like Al Gore's film getting attention and being taken seriously, contribute to the mood of impending doom. It's looking like 2007 will be literature's Year of the Apocalypse, with The Road winning the Pulitzer AND the Oprah Book Club pick, Jim Crace's Pesthouse, Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown, my book, and so on. The year is only half over! My book is a product of the world I came of age in and am living in now, just as each story is a product of the world each writer knows or knew. That's one reason it's fascinating to put Nathaniel Hawthorne and Grace Aguilar next to Steve Aylett and Tao Lin, and notice how our concerns have -- or haven't -- changed since the 1840s."

JB) "Why should anyone pick up and buy yet another anthology? What does this one offer that other's don't?"

JT) "Authors you've never heard of are placed side by side with contemporary bestsellers, cult authors, and old dead white guys . . . There are new stories by great writers: Shelley Jackson, Matthew Derby, the Gary Lutz-Deb Olin Unferth collaboration, and a number of others. As for the "selected" in "new and selected," this book does a better job than most of finding stories you don't know by authors you do know. Unless you're a Poe completist, you've probably never read "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion". Michael Moorcock's "Crossing Into Cambodia" is a harrowing and relentless war story, a far cry from the fantasy books for which he's perhaps better known. And unless you read the 1996 issue of Ontario Review where it originally appeared, you've never seen Joyce Carol Oates's 'Apoca Ca Lyp Se: A Dip tych' because the story has never been collected in a book until now, and it's about the last thing you'd expect from the woman who's supposedly written everything. Are people already familiar with Diane Williams? Josip Novakovich? Theodora Goss? Brian Evenson? Kelly Link? If you are, then the names sell themselves. If you're not, the unfamiliarity itself should serve as the invitation."

So, consider yourself officially invited to enter a strange, terrifying world of last days, pageant queens, and jaded teenagers on the brink of a terrifying post-apocalyptic sexual awakening. It's the twenty-first century, and the beginning of the end, after all. Personally, I found most of the stories completely consuming -- with the possible exception of the Dennis Cooper contribution (I'll have to agree to disagree with you here, Justin), as Cooper's insistence on describing the inside of someone's ass in every novel or story tends to eventually make me kind of queasy . . . And without spoiling the pleasure of a first read, I will say that the Joyce Carol Oates' entry will literally make you reach for your cell, speed dial your closest writer or reader friend and scream "You are not going to believe this insane Joyce Carol Oates story I'm reading. Yes, I said Joyce Carol Oates . . ." into the receiver. It's a strangely groundbreaking work for Oates--both in terms of form and subject matter.

Language has always been the way humankind has made and remade the world--its how we try to make sense of the impossible, the unimaginable. I believe with all the naiveté of a young writer early on in her career, that language alone will save me -- it has to. It is the only way I know how to make sense of a world where I am often confused and adrift. So, it seems particularly appropriate to close this review with a quote from Lynne Tillman's Save Me From the Pious and the Vengeful, a meditation on the impossibility of describing a world that has be reshaped, reformed, and ultimately lost--the near impossibility members of the human race experience when attempting to embrace radical change of any kind:

"Margaret Fuller said: I accept the universe. I try to embrace it. But I leave it to others to imagine the world in ways that I can't.

I leave it to others.

Out of nothing, comes language and out of language comes nothing and everything. I know there will be stories. Certainly there will always be stories."