‘Apocalypse for Beginners’ by Nicolas Dickner

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Alex Merrill

Who knew that the end of the world could be such a hoot? Nicolas Dickner’s latest novel might also be called: Apocalypse Not. No handbook for Chicken Littles, Apocalypse for Beginners is a balm for our cataclysmic times. In other words, this isn’t the book for you if you think the world is going to end in 2012, or that the Four Horsemen are hurtling toward us.

Dickner’s light-handed take on catastrophe is established in the first two pages. Mickey Bauermann is hanging out at the baseball field in Rivière-du-Loup, QC in 1989 when he spots a girl sitting in the bleachers, reading Teach Yourself Russian at Home, Vol. 13. He approaches her to make “meteorological small-talk,” but she intercepts him with, “Last night I dreamt about the bomb at Hiroshima.” While they chat about Little Boy (whose yield equals approximately fifteen kilotons, or enough to flatten two thousand five hundred baseball fields) Mickey realizes he has never met any girl like Hope Randall, and a friendship is born.

Mickey quickly learns why Hope, with her IQ of 195, is one of a kind. She comes from a long line of apocalypse predictors—each of her ancestors has been cursed to know the precise date of the end of the world. But when that day inevitably passes by during their lifetimes with nary a bang, the Randalls go crazy and/or kill themselves in unusual ways (e.g. by gulping down fistfuls of roofing nails).

Soon the two teens are spending Friday nights cuddled up together watching the Iraq War (the first one) and David Suzuki predicting climate change (back when no one was listening), but Hope is too preoccupied to notice that Mickey’s pining after her—she has adult responsibilities, such as bailing her mother out of jail. Her mother is going over the deep end because the world has not ended in 1989. And Hope, despite her predilection for science, is not immune to the family curse. She’s looking for clues to her own Armageddon and finding them in the strangest places, such as the packages of Captain Mofuku ramen noodles that she and Mickey eat by the roomful.

Dickners’s first novel Nikolski, which won the CBC Canada Reads competition last year, was longer and more ambitious than Apocalypse, but the two books have much in common. Both start in 1989 and end a decade or so later, leaping over five or six years at a time. His characters in both stories leave Quebec and roam the globe in search of elusive goals. And with Apocalypse, as with Nikolski, Dickner proves that he knows how to tell a good story. A good story, as George Saunders argues in his essay ‘The Perfect Gerbil’, propels us forward via a series of surprises, little pleasure bursts that delight us and keep us reading (this is like a Hot Wheels gas station, Saunders says, but you’ll have to read his essay to find out exactly how). Dickner propels us along with pleasure bursts meted out in 97 short sections with delightful titles such as “Ethnological Observation no. 743” and “The Most Unpleasant Publisher in the Known Universe.” Focused on the action, not introspection, of his characters, Dickner also greases their wheels with plenty of apocalyptic wordplay. “If I ever had to be vaporized in the company of someone else, I would definitely want it to be her,” Mickey thinks when he meets Hope. And when Hope casually drapes her leg over his, the effect on Mickey is “the Halifax Explosion, the eruption on Krakatoa, a supernova.” That Dickner’s cheekiness works so well in translation is a credit to Lazer Lederhendler, who also translated Nikolski.

While such writing undeniably takes plenty of hard work, skill and talent, Dickner manages to make it look easy and fun, in the same way that Miriam Toews performs alchemy with mere words. Both also have the gift of teasing out humour from the saddest and most serious of situations.

And while the story moves swiftly, Dickner’s writing is often pause-worthy and it pays off to slow down and take note. When, for example, Mickey explains why March isn’t a good month for the end of the world, he says, “March was the Ayers’ Rock of the calendar – an enormous red, smooth month stranded in the middle of nowhere.”

The story does lose some momentum about two thirds of the way into it. We lose Mickey as the narrator and follow Hope as she travels to Japan via Seattle, searching for a prophet who might have the solution to her Armageddon problem. We meander through the ‘90s, linger in murky Tokyo bars and touch down mysteriously for a few paragraphs in Israel. One short chapter left me stranded by the side of the road in Nova Scotia, confused and feeling like I was suffering MSG overdose from too much Captain Mofuku.

Luckily, Apocalypse picks up speed again in the last few chapters and presses on easily, with some surprises, to the end.  Without giving away his brilliant punch line, I will say that the world ends not with a kaboom or a moan, but with something much more hopeful. And it also leaves me eagerly awaiting Dickner’s next book.

Vintage Canada | 272 pages |  $22 | paper | ISBN #978-0307399410

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Alex Merrill

Alex used to live in Quebec and now she lives, reads and writes in Winnipeg. Some of her stories have made it into Prairie Fire and Event. A few others have appeared in the anthologies A/Cross Sections: New Manitoba Writing, and Creekstones: Words and Images.