The ironies are so uncomfortable we can hardly bear to acknowledge them. Mark O’Connell and I meet to talk about his second book, Notes From An Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back, the day after the Government has issued a directive to shut down all public gatherings of more than 100 people in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
It’s mid-March, a Friday – the 13th – in Dublin city centre, but Grafton Street already looks like a Sunday in 1990.
O’Connell is that rare breed of Irish writer, a committed essayist and nonfiction adherent who circumnavigated all domestic routes to make a name for himself as a contributor to the New York Times magazine, The Millions and the Guardian. His preoccupations tend toward classic late Gen X: technology, future shock, pop culture riffs, a quirky sense of the domestic.
Born in Kilkenny and now 41, he is by anybody’s barometer something of a local literary star, but you’d never know it: many people are shocked to find he’s a Dublin resident. O’Connell’s first book, To Be A Machine, a journey into the strange new worlds of AI and transhumanist evangelists, further segregated him from the pack in terms of subject matter and scope. As well as scoring a blurb from Margaret Atwood, it won him the Rooney Prize and the Wellcome Prize and was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize.
The author has just concluded a meeting with his editor about how to reframe the press angle on the new book. Notes from an Apocalypse is a book about survivalists and end-times obsessives, a global tour of doomsday hotspots and hideouts, from the Black Hills of South Dakota and the pasturelands of New Zealand to the wind-blown desolation of the Scottish Highlands and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
O’Connell is, understandably, queasy about making capital out of a scary situation. We live in a time when speculative and dystopian fictions are overtaken by news reports in the lag between draft and publication. Since Brexit and Trump, since Black Mirror and Hypernormalisation, since the inception of non-linear warfare and the corrosion of the notion of objective truth, the future has become not just too dark, but too real to mention. Even as we speak, we’re still adjusting to the protocol of what will soon be termed social distancing, the eschewing of the handshake for the nod or salute, the polite but measured distance we keep between us as we chat.
But – and it’s a big but – despite the new book’s eschatological obsessions, despite its cast of would-be Martian land-grabbers and bunker monkeys, it’s a very personal work as well as a very timely one.
“I could stand for it to be slightly less topical, to be honest,” O’Connell admits with a near-grimace. “I’d take 50 per cent less. Or 100 per cent, actually. Obviously it’s coming out at an interesting time, but I don’t even know that I’d want to read a book about apocalyptic anxiety right now. I was talking to my neighbour across the street, ‘cause I’d given him a copy of the book, and he was like, ‘I can’t read your book, I can’t even look at the cover, I’ve turned it over on the table’. But people are different: some want to read into a situation and some people want to read out of it.”
I put it to the author that it’s actually a book about the anxiety of new fatherhood masquerading as a tract about end-times “preppers”.
“That’s exactly it,” he replies. “I mean, it’s not that it’s masquerading, but the apocalypse cannot be the subject for a book, because it’s not a thing, it’s an idea. This book is kind of a way for me to organise my obsessions, a sense of the fragility of everything, and a questioning as to how you’re supposed to live with a sense of meaning and purpose at a time when everything seems so uncertain, and the climate that we’ve brought these children into, we’re murdering it. That’s a hard thing to face when you’ve already had kids.
“So yeah, I was already thinking about these things, and I wanted to write about these anxieties, but I didn’t have an organising principle. Then I started to read about people preparing for the end of the world, preppers and super-rich people buying land in New Zealand. Both my books are about capitalism, and that was a way for me to mediate those themes, through this central idea – the Freudian thing of sublimating your terrors or anxieties or desires into a work.
“I don’t know that I would have gone headlong into it if I wasn’t a writer,” he continues. “My unhealthy obsessions are the same thing as my work. There was a long period, before I knew I was writing a book about this, where I was spending a lot of time watching YouTube videos about preppers, I must have watched Children of Men I don’t know how many times, I think it is the most prophetic film, it puts its finger on so many things that were already visible back then, but have become so current.
'Everyone in the world is experiencing this thing in different ways. Everyone’s life is falling apart to some greater or lesser degree'
“Not that it was like a therapeutic exercise, just this sense that I’m already obsessed with this stuff, and it’s not healthy, but I’m stuck with this particular source of anxiety. People are talking about the apocalypse now a lot, but what does the apocalypse mean? It just means our way of life, in our fairly privileged case, is under threat.”
And apokalypsos, translated from the Greek, also means to “uncover” or “reveal”. Where there’s catastrophic change there’s also accelerated growth.
“What’s happening at the moment is like a blacklight or something that reveals stuff that is not ordinarily visible, it absolutely shows up the fault lines in our society, but it shows up some of the good things as well. Like, people are talking more, because everyone is going through the same thing. The thing I find really extraordinary about what is happening right now is that everyone in the world is experiencing this thing in different ways, everyone’s life is falling apart to some greater or lesser degree.”
Notes from an Apocalypse is a swift and accessible read, but despite O’Connell’s inherent gift for the comedy of the incongruous, it is often angry. Reading about people such as Peter Thiel or Elon Musk, obscenely rich men sinking bunkers in Auckland, or making plans to colonise Mars, one thinks of privileged slobs who have trashed their own homes and now want to move, leaving the serfs to clean up their mess. The kind of men who would rather face unimaginably hostile alien territory than invest in saving their own polluted planet.
Among other things, Notes From An Apocalypse highlights the infantile aspects of the American frontier mindset, the Last Man survivalist pose. Several times while reading I was reminded of Martin Amis’s 1987 essay Thinkability from Einstein’s Monsters, the fear he experienced as a new parent in the midst of Cold War nuclear paranoia. Would O’Connell characterise the anxiety that fuelled his new book as a sort of male equivalent of post-natal depression?
“Hmm. Yes, but I don’t know if it’s explicitly male. One question that is unresolved for me is, how much of this anxiety would I have experienced if I wasn’t writing a book about the topic? There’s an emotional trajectory to the book, where at the end there’s a sense of, not stoic acceptance, but tentative optimism. And that’s true, that’s real, I did go through that to some extent.
“It was such a hard book to write, and so many of the interludes of, I won’t say depression, because it’s not a clinical thing, but just feeling shit about things – that went on for a long time. The writing of it was difficult because the topic was so heavy, but I did come through it, that note of optimism at the end was real, it wasn’t something that I had to force.
'I went through a long period of feeling inadequate to the task, and I did spend time trying to get to grips with the complexity of these ideas'
“The key line in the book for me is towards the end: my son is looking at the sunset and he says, ‘It’s interesting.’ That’s the first time I heard him say that. It’s not what the book is about, but it is what drove me in a way, because as anxious as I was about the stuff that was happening, it’s interesting. It’s very cold and arguably psychopathic to think in that way, but the fundamental human connection is there. I think if you’re a writer you can’t stop finding things interesting. The whole psychological dynamic of the book was wanting to be reassured or to have some belief, because when you’re parenting really young kids, the big thing is to inculcate the sense in them that the world is beautiful, a good place, and it’s an interesting place, it’s not a dark and threatening place. And to hear him say that was really powerful.”
As with To Be A Machine, there’s a wry humour at the heart of the new book. The tone is somewhere between Louis Theroux or Jon Ronson and Dr Strangelove. This is largely because O’Connell is not afraid of looking like an idiot if it means asking the reader-proxy questions.
“I don’t know how long I spent as a journalist – for want of a better term – being afraid of coming across as stupid,” he says, “and I learned eventually that the most valuable thing you can do as a reporter is ask a stupid question. The one thing that you’re afraid of asking, because it makes you seem like a f***ing moron, that’s the most important question you can ask.
“Definitely with To Be A Machine, when I started writing it, I was so fascinated by the topic, I knew I had a good thing, I knew I had this milieu that was fascinating and full of crazy ideas and really eccentric people dealing with things that were of philosophical importance or whatever, but I went through a long period of feeling inadequate to the task, and I did spend time trying to get to grips with the complexity of these ideas, and reading serious books that were in various ways beyond my grasp. And I eventually realised that the stupid ignoramus position – not in a comic playing-it-for-laughs way, but a person who knows nothing – is actually a better point from which to grasp what’s important about a topic, and a better point from which to communicate with people. As a reader I value experts in a broader sense, in the political sense or whatever, but I wouldn’t want to read a book about transhumanism by a person who is an expert.
“But talking about humour, certainly in my books, I hope they’re funny, but it’s very unknowable to me what is funny in what I write and what isn’t, because for me humour in writing is just like being... accurate. A lot of situations are inherently humorous, so it’s just about faithfully describing things a lot of the time. I actually think if a writer isn’t funny at times, doesn’t use humour, or evoke it, I kind of feel like they’re not fully serious. There’s something un-serious about someone who’s not funny.”
Notes From An Apocalypse is published by Granta