November 25th, 2011

The Steve Himmer Blog

Review of Revelation by Colin Winnette
Steve Himmer

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Revelation, a novel by Colin Winnette, is a story about the end of the world in which, somehow, the apocalypse isn’t the biggest thing going. The story follows a core of three friends (Marcus, Colin, and Tom) from youth to old age as they lead ordinary lives in the midst of exploding trees, vanished oceans, plagues of locusts, and the Four Horsemen. Mundane traumas like a lost teenage girlfriend are more devastating to these characters than a lost ocean, and the vast wasteland of dead, rotting fish left behind as it dries are taken as a wretched novelty but not much of a warning.


It’s disorienting, at first, that the novel insistently focuses on these men growing older, having children, entering and leaving marriages, and so on, rather than offering specifics about why the world is on fire or what will will be done about all these plagues. It goes so fiercely against expectation, reversing the genre of apocalypse tales; think 2012, in which hollow stock characters are put in the story only to lead the viewer from one special effect to the next. In Revelation, by contrast, the explosions are there to lead us through the years of these characters’ lives, and for the most part the catastrophes of the story — both apocalyptic and domestic — happen “off stage.” That stylistic choice of huge spans of time passing in between pages is disorienting, too, reducing the chronological context of how these boys became the men they are to ambiguous events of religious conversion, time spent in jail, multiple wives we don’t meet, and so on. We drop on these characters once in a while, at moments that aren’t their most dramatic but are more like the aftermath of drama, and all along the apocalypse goes on in the background as ambiguously explained as their lives.


For these boys-then-men, the end of the world has gone on like this for years, one plague at a time their whole lives. Time passes, other things dominate your attention, and minding the apocalypse is as easily forgotten as remembering, for example, to visit an aging father more often than it actually happens. That may be the biggest revelation in all of this: how easily time slips away, subsumed by smaller demands, even in the face of global destruction; no need to overload the implications, in our age of climate change and extinction.


There’s a metaphor in all this, that the world is always ending and always has been and will be for each generation of men (because Revelation is very much a story about men and men’s lives, with markedly few women crossing the novel’s pages) as they’re born and they age and they endure the same frustrations and failures as past and future sons. It’s the end of the world but that’s no reason to give up on it, as a father who spends his free time on astronomy reminds his son:


“The stars don’t stop moving.” Marcus’s father was at the telescope. He sat back in his chair and looked at his son. “There is always something else to see.”


Later, that son, Marcus, pays to take a hot air balloon ride, and the balloon’s pilot asks,


“What makes you want to do a crazy thing like ride in a hot air balloon, anyway?”


“I don’t know,” Marcus said. He leaned against the inside of the basket, resisted the urge to sit, to lie down. “My girlfriend left me.”


The other man could only laugh.


Why pay for a view above a scorched, oceanless, nearly-dead landscape unless that’s the only world you’re used to and individual heartache pains you more than that global loss? Why, unless the end of the world is the ordinary cost of being alive?


Later, when he’s older, Marcus wades through a parking lot flooded with biting locusts to carry his own son to safety, a much greater concern than asking why the world has been plagued. And Marcus’ own father, the astronomer looking for answers, says of the insects:


“Funny thing is,” his father began, “as long as they stay outside, they’re not really a problem. In fact, they can be comforting at night. Their little bodies tapping against the windows and the walls of the building, every night sounds like a soft summer rain.”


Characters endure and even ignore the apocalypse one way or another, the way we endure anything — broken bones, broken hearts, lost jobs and lost oceans — and ultimately there’s a fatalistic optimism in that: this is the world we live in, whether it’s on fire or not, and this is the world in which we’ll grow old, so you might as well get used to it. The way you might get used to a sky when familiar stars are fading away:


Marcus was no good at rowing. They turned three half circles in either direction once the boat was out of the mud and fully afloat. She took a turn with the oars and managed to get them 20 feet or so from the shore. It was a clear night. Things were still. Little wind. The water gathered itself around the body of the boat.


“So few stars,” she said.


“You have to let your eyes adjust.” They sat in the boat and tried to see how still they could be, how easily they could settle into the night, and it into them. The stars never came. The sky was thin and dark and the moon hung low, as empty as the night before.


“It’s much duller than it was at the beginning,” she said..


[Originally published on the personal blog of Steve Himmer, editor-in-chief of Necessary Fiction. It can be found here.]