I worry, as we all do, about the decimation of the human race from climate catastrophe, supervolcanic eruptions, plagues. An asteroid at least wouldn’t be our fault, which is liberating the way it is when a plane hits turbulence and you realize that if you plummeted to your death it wouldn’t matter that you smoked for 15 years.
I also worry, selfishly, about the extinction of human culture as I’ve known it, for reasons both existential and practical. The music and books I love, the TV ads I remember, even the Far Side cartoons I’ve read and the novelty mugs I’ve drunk from, are so much a part of my consciousness that to think of them gone forever is to consider the end of me. Second, even if I survived the apocalypse, what would make life worth living?
I thought of this while reading Edan Lepucki’s California, a post-apocalyptic novel that received a huge publicity bump last month from satirical TV host Stephen Colbert, who encouraged viewers to buy it from independent bookstores as part of a middle-finger salute to Amazon (Colbert and Lepucki share a parent publisher, Hachette, whose titles have been shunted by the online superstore). It tells the story of Frida and Cal, a twentysomething couple in a United States rattled by climate catastrophe, who flee a rotting Los Angeles for the countryside. After Frida gets pregnant, they abandon their home in the woods for a strange community guarded by giant spikes made from junk. The inhabitants aren’t as menacing as expected, but human drama ensues.
Lepucki is less concerned with doomsday logistics than with a more essential question: What will make life meaningful when life as we know it ends? The book is a love story, fuelled mostly by the tension between Frida, Cal and their baby-to-be, but love, in this case, isn’t necessarily redemptive or virtuous. It’s a moral contranym: on one hand, nothing else matters when you’ve got love; on the other, when you’ve got love, nothing else matters. Through twists and turns, Frida and Cal end up in a private community for the surviving wealthy, where the shopping plaza plays How Much Is that Doggie in the Window and troublemakers are made to disappear. A suburban hell, but safe for the family.
Instead, the most heroic theme in California is human resourcefulness – how we carry “home” on our backs and remake our lives with whatever’s available. Frida invests a turkey baster with totemic properties and trades an old bra for a pair of Vicodin. Alone in the woods, she and Cal entertain themselves by having sex (“it replaced the Internet, reading, going out to dinner, shopping”) and meditating on terms (“Magic Marker, air conditioner, strawberry. It was more entertaining than Frida would have ever imagined it to be”).
It’s strangely uplifting to consider how future generations might salvage the ruins of ours. Consider Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play – which will see its Canadian premiere, produced by Outside the March and co-directed by Mitchell Cushman and Simon Bloom, next May – in which survivors of a presumed nuclear holocaust build a new culture based on The Simpsons.
In the first act, characters remember old episodes for comfort and to pass the time. By the second, survivors have formed rival theatre troupes to perform them, buying repertoire piecemeal from strangers – Simpsons lines have become a commodity – and staging “commercial breaks.” Everyone remembers how ads work, by selling status and identity over product, but no one quite remembers which products mean what.
The third act, set 82 years after the beginning, is a musical reconfiguration of the show’s Cape Feare episode (in which Sideshow Bob – now Mr. Burns – tries to murder Bart Simpson on a houseboat). Bits of Ricky Martin, Britney Spears and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas are absorbed into an allegory of the fall of civilization and the dawning of a new order. “And now that I’ve lost everything,” sings an uncanny Bart, “Now that everyone I love is gone/ All I have left is everything/ The river carries me on.”
It’s absurd, but not ridiculous. The Simpsons is the perfect basis for a new culture: both art and entertainment, profound and escapist, smart and stupid and wadded so deep in our psyches that, as the grounds for collective imagining, Springfield might as well be the astral plane. (For an example of how the show has been completely rewired for a new world – one in which the dysfunctional middle-class family is a literal pipe dream – and a new medium, consider @Homer_Marijuana, a Twitter account that tells a surprisingly grim story of the family’s weed dependency.)
The worlds of California and Mr. Burns are post-television, post-Internet – their predominant medium is memory, which warps culture more vividly than anything you’d need a generator to access. We know that our way of life is doomed, and that everyone will lose everything, and even through the best of times the end buzzes like office lights. But the prospect of building a new culture from figments of the old is oddly soothing. The only cause for optimism is human imagination.