Monday, November 14, 2011

Book Review: After the Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh

The problem with being a relatively new genre reader (just the past decade — less if you consider my familiarity with the short story format) is that I'm unfamiliar with a lot of authors. For example, I'd probably miss out on someone like Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn film aside) if he didn't have a recent resurgence in terms of output. Maureen F. McHugh is one such writer: I didn't immediately appreciate the significance of Small Beer Press publishing her short story collection. In retrospect, I've read some of her short stories in the past, notably in original anthologies from talented editors like Ellen Datlow and Jonathan Strahan. Initially, I never made the association between McHugh's name and her stories, because at the time, the writing style and technique wasn't immediately striking, at least compared to the other stories in the aforementioned books. (There is also the fact that I was a different kind of reader back then.) In McHugh's latest short story collection, After the Apocalypse, I'm given the opportunity to re-evaluate my assumptions, thanks to the presentation of her stories in a different context.

Short story titles can be difficult, especially if you're a writer whose style has a wide range. I'm not against the current practice of naming a short story collection after one of your stories (sometimes not necessarily the most famous one, which is the case here), but with that limitation, some titles fail to convey the theme (or lack of a theme as the case may be) of an author's body of work. That's not the case with After the Apocalypse as I find it captures the mood and atmosphere of the included stories. It's not all post-apocalyptic, at least not in the general sense: the stories are all personal, and whatever bleakness and darkness that is present is due to the author's strength in characterization and empathy. On that level, After the Apocalypse immediately conveys to you what you need to know about this book.

In terms of story, McHugh's style is best described as slow, deliberate, and very character-focused. This can lead to emotional and heavy stories, which is a testament to the potency of the narrative. Take, for example, the horror element of some of her stories: it's not evident in the beginning, but it creeps up on you by the time you read the last line (nor is it a case of simply O. Henry plots). I attribute this to characterization, especially the way McHugh crafts convincing — and sympathetic — characters. Take, for example, the opening piece, "The Naturalist." Early in the story, you're rooting for the protagonist. Until you discover something reprehensible about them, but this revelation is what makes them compelling. That's also the case with the titular story, "After the Apocalypse." It's not that these characters are beyond our social norms, but their behavior are aspects of ourselves that's magnified to a certain degree that it crosses a moral line. One would even argue that in the latter story, the line is never crossed. It's this ambiguity that makes for a rich narrative that continues the dialogue even when you've put the book down.

Another topic that needs to be addressed — which is a non-issue for me but might be the case for some readers — is genre boundaries. I'm not exactly the type of reader to quibble whether a story is science fiction, fantasy, or something else: I'm more interested in whether it works, whether it was convincing, or whether it was entertaining. All the stories in After the Apocalypse succeeds on those counts. But if you want to quibble on some of the stories, whether they are indeed fantasy or science fiction, well, McHugh does have that kind of vagueness. "The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large" and "The Effect of Centrifugal Forces" feels like realist* stories for example. But for me, it's not just the tone that makes them science fictional, but the subject matter, as they are based on science; mundane science fiction if you will (which is an interesting debate because "The Kingdom of the Blind" is just as likely to happen in the real world but the concept of artificial intelligence, at least as far as the present paradigm is concerned, still feels very science fictional).

At first glance, McHugh seems to employ traditional writing techniques, but if you dig deeper, there's actually a lot of experimentation taking place. "The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large" for example is a documentary in prose format, and while other writers have attempted something similar (to varying degrees of effectiveness), the context and presentation is different, and what works here for example might not work in a different short story. (In the novel format, compare World War Z vs. Feed.) There's also the issue of characterization which I've already brought up: choice of characters, point of view, etc. all play a part and McHugh constantly presents us with tough choices without being didactic.

There are nine stories in this collection and what makes this book a must-have is the three originals. They're not, by any means, gimped short stories but well-polished and striking in their own right. I can easily imagine "The Effect of Centrifugal Forces" and "After the Apocalypse" finding their way to awards ballots because they're that potent and disturbing, while there's something cathartic when it comes to "Honeymoon."

If you haven't discovered McHugh yet, After the Apocalypse is a must-have. There's a few collections I'd nominate for an award like The Shirley Jackson Awards, and this is one of them.

*Or maybe that's the conceit, that McHugh imagined a condition that sounds plausible and incorporated it into the fiction.

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