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Notes from an Apocalypse review: Laugh and scream to the bitter end

Mark O’Connell entertainingly explores the ways life on Earth could all go irreversibly wrong

Notes from an Apocalypse
Notes from an Apocalypse
Author: Mark O’Connell
ISBN-13: 9781783784066
Publisher: Granta
Guideline Price: £14.99

I worry about Mark O’Connell. He worries a lot himself, mostly about the future, that great unknowable, once a glittering city but now more likely to be seen as a blasted wasteland. Is the future really not what it used to be? O’Connell thinks so: his first book To Be a Machine explored the possible meeting point where technology not only supplements humanity but renders it obsolete.

Now, and forgive me while I try to work out if the timing is ironic or perfect, O’Connell has published a book about the end of civilisation, in the middle of a global pandemic. I don’t know if his books are therapeutic ways of working out his anxieties, or if they drive them deeper as he researches more about his topics, but either way, I don’t want him to stop. They’re fun but filling.

Perhaps that should be not “the end of civilisation” but “the ends”: there are a lot of ways it could all go wrong, and a global pandemic isn’t even one of the options in Notes from an Apocalypse. It covers climate change, nuclear disaster and more, and the focus is not on the “how” but the “what next?”

O’Connell, as in his previous book, travels to meet the weirdos and misfits who think about all this a lot and prepare for it. The most on-the-nose of these are the “preppers”, people – typically American – who stockpile not just food and toiletries but energy sources, off-the-grid space and, of course, guns. One runs a blog and has founded a movement that advocates for the migration to a remote corner of the US of “like-minded conservative Christians and Jews (but apparently not Muslims)”. Another, who had “some strange but familiar notions about Jews”, sought to assure O’Connell that “I’m not even slightly anti-Semitic. I banged a lot of Jewish girls in my day.”


Preppers luxuriate in the feeling, not only self-indulgent but self-regarding, that civilisation is only an earth tremor away from collapse

As O’Connell points out, these are largely people who were “never fully convinced by the idea of society in the first place”, and who are “not preparing for their fears: they’re preparing for their fantasies”. They luxuriate in the feeling, not only self-indulgent but self-regarding, that civilisation is only an earth tremor away from collapse, when all evidence is that our social structures are remarkably robust. (During the coronavirus crisis, for every knucklehead twatting another shopper in the supermarket aisles with the last multipack of bog roll, there are two dozen others patiently queueing in the taped-out boxes in the Tesco car park, and three quarters of a million volunteering to help Britain’s National Health Service.)

New colonies

O’Connell also visits “an apocalyptic bolt-hole for the international elite” in New Zealand, spoken of by the likes of LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman as the “favoured refuge in the event of a cataclysm”. As with the preppers, their concern for the future of humanity is a gloss over a base selfishness, a belief in “the freedom of wealthy people from taxation, from any obligation to materially contribute to society”.

And of course there’s Elon Musk, “a perfect simpleton [...] granted the threefold gifts of intelligence, ingenuity and money” and whose favoured solution to any challenge is to over-engineer it as flamboyantly as possible, and who accordingly wants to deal with the end of the Earth by colonising Mars. (“Colonising”, as O’Connell notes, is an interesting choice of word for an endeavour largely pursued by rich white men.)

He visits the Chernobyl exclusion zone, which is the closest thing to the end of the world that we have on Earth

There’s something admirable about people who seem so committed to life after the comforts of civilisation to those of us for whom the Netflix servers going down would mean the living must envy the dead. O’Connell seems on the fence on this point (his comfort zone “is at all times more or less room temperature”) but he does at least meet one woman whose final fallback stash, for when Cormac McCarthy’s The Road looks to be just over the horizon, is 30 yew tree seeds, “which would cause almost immediate heart failure and death”.

Still the fascination is an itch O’Connell cannot satisfactorily scratch. He visits the Chernobyl exclusion zone, which is the closest thing to the end of the world that we have on Earth, and where nature’s regrowth in a place abandoned by humans means that it feels like having “one foot in a prelapsarian paradise and the other in a postapocalyptic wasteland”.


But for all the air miles (and, he acknowledges, carbon emissions) he racks up travelling to these places, O’Connell’s most fruitful journeys are those inside his own head. He tends not to challenge his “weirdos”, to call them out on their selfishness or racism, but lets them speak and then adds his commentary in, as it were, the voice-over studio afterwards. Maybe this is the best approach, but it would be nice to hear them in defensive as well as declamatory mode.

The good news for those terrified by O'Connell's last book is that it doesn't look as if the future is going to happen anyway

There’s no question that O’Connell has thought deeply, in a reflecting pool, about all this. He battles, for example, his own worst instincts in terms of the ambivalence towards the future that parenthood brings (and, in a book riddled with literary references, from Borges to Elizabeth Hardwick, he rightly identifies the closing lines of Dr Seuss’s The Lorax as among the most troublingly moving in the language). And he recognises that his fascination with the apocalyptic derives from “what Sontag calls the taste for worst-case scenarios, the need to master what is felt to be uncontrollable”. At its glummest, the book is less inquiry into the apocalypse than a submission to it.

Notes from an Apocalypse feels more like a collection of discrete essays than To be a Machine did, and O’Connell shows the same nimble ability to shift between high and low registers – and the same pinpoint accuracy with a well-timed joke – as Geoff Dyer or, in his pomp, Martin Amis. The good news for those terrified by his last book is that it doesn’t look as if the future is going to happen anyway. But if we are all heading down the long slide, at least with O’Connell to keep us company, we’ll be laughing – and screaming – all the way.

John Self

John Self is a contributor to The Irish Times