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Best of 2020: Books Notes From An Apocalypse

Calum Barnes looks at the books that are making sense of our darkest days

WHEN Britain went into lockdown in March, I gravitated towards the apocalyptic ambience.

The April publication of Mark O’Connell’s Notes From an Apocalypse (Granta) could not have been more timely, as the streets outside emptied.

O’Connell anatomises the fears and urges that drive survivalist  culture with his characteristic dry wit, providing an essential tonic for unprecedented times.

Bradley Garret’s Bunker (Allen Lane) traversed similar territory in his gonzo journey into the world of “dread merchants” and their private infrastructure projects, building shelters for the end of the world, and he reflects too on the resonances with the Covid-19 pandemic.

US novelists were evidently tapped into the same eschatological zeitgeist. Jenny Offill’s crystalline and elliptical Weather (Granta) examines how issues of global magnitude intersect with the everyday through the life of Lizzie, a Brooklyn librarian who is charged with answering the angst-ridden letters sent to her friend’s podcast about climate catastrophe.

With his uncanny ability to peer round the corner of the current moment, Don DeLillo’s The Silence (Picador) masterfully imagines a Manhattan suddenly plunged into an electrical blackout on the evening of the 2022 Super Bowl, conjuring the disquiet of actually living through one of those cataclysmic scenarios that perennially hover on the edges of our consciousness.

With lockdown proving to be a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories, M John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (Gollancz) curiously depicts a depressed post-industrial Britain that has become an incubator for strange theories about translucent humanoid creatures haunting rivers and ponds.

Against the backdrop of a post-midlife crisis, Harrison’s slippery novel is ultimately about the desire to connect and the allure of the mythical in a world seemingly evacuated of miracles.

Interrogating faith in the supernatural forms the crux of Claire Cronin’s Blue Light of the Screen (Repeater), a compelling yet unsettling experimental memoir which blends cultural theory and candid analysis of her lifelong obsession with horror films.

Chiming with my own bingeing on horror-schlock during furlough, this personal investigation goes some way to help us understand why paranormal and occult ideas are ascendant in our current moment.

While it was easy to embrace the isolation and indulge in the doomsday atmosphere, the moment offered pause to return to histories of collective action that could provide succour for future struggles.

Mike Davis and Jon Wiener’s Set the Night on Fire (Verso), a comprehensive history of LA social movements in the ’60s, proved an invigorating and inspiring read as Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the US.

As some on the British left have looked back to the revolts of the ’60s for new strategic models, Matthew Ingram’s Retreat (Repeater) handily provides a thorough and enlightening survey of the tangle of ideas that shaped the counterculture.

Besides showing how much of its philosophies have been co-opted by the so-called wellness industry, it still proffers fragments of a collective dream that can be salvaged for a post-pandemic politics of liberation.


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