In Mark O’Connell’s eerily prescient new book Notes From an Apocalypse, he spells out a question that now feels inescapable: “How are we supposed to live, given the distinct possibility that our species, our civilization, might already be doomed?” In trying to answer, he traveled to places where the looming apocalypse could be glimpsed, talking to those who believed, or wanted to believe, that the collapse of civilization was already underway: preppers, survivalists, people hell-bent on the colonization of Mars.
For his subjects, the question of how to survive the apocalypse is a practical one, and they respond to it with answers like “be obscenely rich,” “dig a big hole in the ground and just stay in it,” or “gaily wash your hands of society, which you were not all that keen on to begin with.” For O’Connell, and for most of us, the question is more complicated—not just how to survive, but how to live—and the conclusions he reaches are what give the book its hope.
Mark and I became friends through Twitter, a fact which has done great damage to my belief that real friendships cannot be forged on the computer. I messaged him more or less out of the blue to ask for his advice on a writing-related problem that I believed to be an intractable disaster, and he pointed out the solution that had been in front of me the whole time. This is typical. As a friend, Mark is generous, with an apparently boundless enthusiasm for connecting people whom he (always correctly) believes will get on with one another.
His first book, To Be a Machine, was awarded the 2019 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize, and was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction. He is a contributor to The New York Times Magazine, Slate, The Dublin Review, and the Guardian. This interview was conducted over email during the first week of April, while I was in Cape Town and Mark was in Dublin.
The book starts with an epigraph from Annie Dillard, “These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other. Who can bear to hear this, or who will consider it?” What is it about those lines that appealed to you?
When I was putting that quote in as the book’s epigraph, I distinctly remember thinking that I was not myself entirely sure why I had chosen it, but that surely I would never be asked to account for it, because no one ever pays much attention to these things. And now here I am, having to do just that for The Paris Review—yet more evidence for my conviction that I can never be permitted to get away with anything. So thanks, Rosa, for that. It’s from For the Time Being, a book I love maybe more than any other book by a living writer. One of the things she does in the book, and in those lines in particular, is sort of deflate the apocalyptic sensibility, the notion that we are living in extraordinary times. The epigraph gestures toward what I was trying to do in my book, which was to do justice to the extreme apocalyptic urgency of our current time while also bearing in mind the fact that, in terms of the broader picture of human life on earth, this is also just business as usual.
Dillard, for me, is an ideal writer, in that she inhabits the world in an ecstatic way while refusing to avert her eyes from its darkness. She is also incredibly funny, without ever stooping to being humorous.
What’s the difference, for you, between a writer who is incredibly funny and a writer who is being humorous? It feels like an important distinction because I think for some people, there’s a suspicion of levity when the subject is inarguably serious, unless the funniness comes delivered to the reader in a package with a label that says “Let Us Pause for Some Light Relief Before We Head Wearily Back To The Salt Mines.” Was that something that you thought about when you were writing the book? Which is, I should say, incredibly funny.
Maybe this is a very idiosyncratic and unsustainable distinction, but I can think of nothing less funny than humor as a mode of writing. It’s like stand-up comedy or something. Almost impossible to be authentically funny within the brutal constraints and expectations of that formal context. It’s very gratifying to me when people find my writing funny, but it’s also always very unpredictable. Often the things that people find funny in my writing are things that I have written in a spirit of more or less deadly seriousness. And I’m fine with that—actually, I love it. Because for me, funniness is often an epiphenomenon of absolute seriousness. As a nonfiction writer, you constantly come across situations that are inherently funny, and being funny is just a matter of diligently describing reality. You literally just jot down in your notebook the amazingly strange things that people are constantly saying, and the amazingly strange things that are constantly happening around you, and you write about it as accurately as you can, and often that just winds up being funny. I think the reason I don’t like a lot of so-called humorous writing is that it sort of misses the point of how funny things are, and drowns that reality out with a load of jokes. I also think that writers who are not funny are, in some basic and irreducible sense, unserious.
Throughout the book, you meet a lot of apocalyptically minded people—preppers, bunker salesmen, tech billionaires who want to colonize Mars, tech billionaires who are buying up tracts of New Zealand. As you point out, the idea of civilization’s collapse is nearly as old as civilization itself. But you also make the case that there are particularly lurid strains of doomsday scenarios active today, exemplified by the visions of people like Peter Thiel and Elon Musk. Can you talk a bit about that?
The book is an attempt to reckon with what it’s like to live in a time of rampant apocalyptic anxiety and fervor. In one sense, it’s as much about my own anxieties. The external spectacle of people preparing for the end of the world provided me with a way of working out the complexities of my own apocalyptic anxiety. Figures like Thiel and Musk, for example, function a bit like characters for me, and occupy a symbolic position. They allow me to work out my themes, to say things I want to say about capitalism and the damage it’s doing to the world. In this sense, I suspect I approach writing in a way that is more common to fiction writers than nonfiction writers, with the difference being that I don’t make things up. Or maybe I’m just being obtuse, and basically all nonfiction writers go about things in this way. I wouldn’t put that past me, to be clear.
Was there a particular moment that made you realize you were going to write this book?
Yes. It was reading about doomsday preppers, and luxury survival bunkers, and realizing that I’d found, in the idea of people preparing for the end of the world, something that could give shape to my formless obsessions and anxieties. It helped that these things offered a really interesting prospect for reporting, for going out and finding weird and surprising and vivid things to write about.
What’s it like discussing your book now, at a moment where the end of the world is the dominant topic of conversation? I saw a review that describes you as proceeding “like Noah sensing rain in the air.”
While I’m of course happy to be compared to Noah, I’m really more like some guy in Noah’s village who saw what Noah was up to, and went and got himself a book deal to write some scrolls about the whole scene. But it is very strange for the book to be coming out right now. It’s as though the entire world has been narrowed down to a single narrative strand, and it just happens to have the same theme as my book. Obviously every writer wants their book to be timely, but I would happily settle for a lesser level of timeliness—where, say, bookshops were still open, and also millions of people were not likely to die.
There is certainly a high level of dramatic irony at play here. I got a delivery of some copies of my book from my publisher a couple of weeks ago, and the delivery guy was wearing a face mask, and I had to use plastic gloves to open the box containing my book about the end times. It’s all a bit on the nose. But actually, I’ve realized that’s one of the subcutaneous themes of my work, how reality so often presents itself as overcooked fiction. And yes, the parts of the book about doomsday preppers, luxury bunker builders and so on—it’s hard not to read those bits differently now, I suppose. There’s a sense in which they were right about some things, just as anyone who perpetually predicts catastrophe will be right eventually. But also civilization is not collapsing. I’m sitting in a park near my house, writing this as my daughter sleeps in her buggy beside me. People have not reverted to savagery, and I see no signs that they will. At least not where I am. But maybe these are the reflections of Noah’s neighbor, clutching his scrolls to his chest as the water rises to waist level.
There’s so much good noticing in the book—it’s rife with the strange things that people do and say. Do you recognize these moments for what they are as they appear, or do you figure it out later?
I am actually astoundingly unobservant almost all of the time. My wife is constantly remarking on my capacity to not notice things. I’m trying to think of examples of my poor powers of observation, but I also have an astoundingly poor memory, so nothing comes to mind. But every school report I had as a kid was basically, “Smart and fairly conscientious, but also weirdly absent-minded for a nine year old,” or whatever, and that assessment has mostly held good throughout my life and career. But I think the good noticing you’re talking about has to do with an ability to give in to distraction, to submit to whatever irrelevant thing happens to be claiming my attention at a given time. When I’m reporting, I tend to get into a particular mental state that I think of as “moronic receptivity.” It’s like my thinking mind is turned way down, and I’m just taking in a lot of information from my immediate environment, and noting as much of it down as I can.
I’m very unskilled as a reporter, in the sense of knowing what I want to find out in a given situation, and asking the right questions to get to it. I have no capacity for directing conversations. Reviewers often frame me as this Louis Theroux–style character who slyly gives people enough rope to hang themselves, but I’m actually just trying to keep up most of the time. But what I am good at is noticing things that have symbolic resonance, or peculiar ways people have of expressing themselves, or surreal things that are happening on the margins of a scene. And there’s this quite spooky thing that almost always happens when I’m reporting, which is that those things seem to happen at a much higher rate than in ordinary life. I do notice those things in the moment, yes, and I mostly immediately know when they’ll be useful to me in the writing.
I was trying to describe Notes from an Apocalypse to a friend the other day, and one of the things that I came up with was that it was a “very Irish book. Very.” Do you agree with that?
I have to ask, what do you think is so Irish about it?
Off the top of my head, the ability to find the raw facts of reality funny and to make them into a story. The sort of recurring fixation on roaming—Irish people, in my experience, love to make an absolute meal out of how they got from one place to another. The natural antipathy for/suspicion of authority. The fact that you are obviously getting a great kick out of making yourself laugh, not in a self-indulgent way at all, just when I think of Irish people, I think of them walking around smiling quietly to themselves at their own jokes. The general smoldering sense of historical injustice, and then the easy acceptance of, and natural empathy with, outright eccentrics. Does any of that gross national stereotyping feel right to you, in terms of what you write about and how you write about it?
I’m not sure these count as gross stereotypes, actually, and they would be pretty flattering ones if they did. But this is such an interesting question to me because since my first book came out I’ve been aware that people—myself included—sort of have trouble putting me in the category of “Irish writer.” This is especially the case in Ireland. I think there are obvious reasons for this. One is that, even though I’ve lived here all my life, neither of my books have had much in particular to do with Ireland. And although Ireland has this famously rich literary history, nonfiction has historically never had much of a part in that. Journalism is not really seen as a literary form here at all, in the way that it is in the U.S. I have never seen To Be a Machine in an Irish Writing section of a bookshop here. But I do think there might be something irreducibly Irish about my writing. To Be a Machine was animated by this sense of the absurdity of absolute commitment to logic. If there’s a central idea in the book, it’s that extreme rationalism is indistinguishable from outright madness. And I realized at a certain point that that was a really Irish notion. Flann O’Brien is full of it, and so is Swift, and so is Beckett. This is not to say that my writing is influenced by those people in any way I can identify, but they are absolutely in my bloodstream, and in the bloodstream of the culture that I exist in.
Who are you influenced or informed by? Who do you read when you get stuck?
Well, I spent four years in my late twenties and early thirties writing a Ph.D. thesis on the fiction of John Banville. All day, every day, just reading Banville, writing about Banville, so that whole passages of his work are burned into my retinas like an image left too long on a screen. So it seems inconceivable that the rhythms and cadences of his prose would not have gone to work on me in some deep and permanent way. DeLillo is quite an overt influence, I would say. You probably wouldn’t have to look too hard at either of my books to see where he’s left his mark on me. Maybe the most overwhelming presence, actually, is Borges—not as an influence over my writing as such, but more as a methodology of interpreting reality. If it’s possible to be a Borgesian in the same sort of way as people are Marxists, that is what I am. When I feel stuck, the person I read more than anyone else is Janet Malcolm. She’s a very clarifying presence for me, as a nonfiction writer. I read Malcolm, and I think, okay, now that’s how it’s done.
Throughout the book, you are pretty unsparing with yourself as you try and answer unanswerable questions, or solve insoluble moral problems. I did notice though that there is one question that you simply abandon, whether there was “some inherent connection between the wearing of Oakley-brand shades and the holding of extreme reactionary views—opposition to the role of the state in the structuring of society, the belief that personal liberty meant freedom from taxation, the conviction that white heterosexual males were in fact the last victims of societally sanctioned discrimination”? You have had months now, surely, to think about this question. Are you any closer to an answer?
I didn’t simply abandon it. I probably thought longer and harder about it than anything else in the book. I just couldn’t come up with a theory that I found satisfactory. After the book went into production, the rapper Vince Staples, who I revere, randomly tweeted that “backwards Oakley’s is the white power durag.” I think that’s pretty inarguable, and is in the same general ballpark as the point I’m making—although obviously he goes even deeper, into talking about a style of wearing them—but he never got into the question of why, either. Yaniv Soha, my U.S. book editor, had an interesting theory about how sunglasses are, more than any other article of clothing, an expression of one’s sense of transgressive cool. It’s impossible to put on shades without feeling self-consciously cooler. Mirrored Oakley’s were at their most popular in the hawkish Reagan/Bush years, and so, as he put it to me, for anyone who came of age during the late eighties and early nineties, “sees that time as a kind of cultural apex, still listens to butt rock and its adjacents, yearns to return to that muscle-flexing, militaristic register, there is no better way to express that than to wrap the middle of your face in reflective plastic.” I think Yaniv is definitely onto something there. But also I think it’s just good to have a little open-ended question in the book, a little discursive invitation for the reader.
Some of the loveliest moments in the book come when you write about your family, and about the experience of parenthood as a “radically increased stake in the future.” In that sense, it’s an incredibly hopeful book—the conclusion that there’s no real or pragmatic alternative to hope. Given that you would not, I don’t think, necessarily describe yourself as an out-and-out optimist, did reaching that conclusion surprise you?
I am definitely not an out-and-out optimist, or really much of an optimist at all. But what I found in the course of writing the book was that I was not quite as committed a pessimist as I’d assumed myself to be. The book had started to become a kind of inner argument between despair and hope. I definitely went through a trajectory when I was writing the book. I started writing it in a long interlude of real hopelessness about the future, and by the time I was finishing it, I felt quite differently. A lot of this had to do with things that were happening in my own life. My wife and I had a second child, a daughter, and that was just an amazing time, full of a sense of expanded possibilities, the mood of which had to bleed into the book. But yes, the book is hopeful in the sense that its conclusion is that hopelessness is not really an option. I started to recognize pessimism as a luxury, an intellectual self-indulgence, I had allowed myself when I was younger and had less of a stake in the world. But at the same time, the hope that is present in the book is extremely fragile. It ends with me reading to my wife, while she is breastfeeding our daughter, a news story about how the massive plunge in insect numbers is threatening ecosystem collapse. While I’m doing this, our daughter blows a raspberry at me, which is obviously a moment of levity, but the context is as dark as it was at the beginning. I think what’s different at the end is that—and there is no way of saying this without sounding corny—I’m just more capable of giving my full attention to my daughter blowing a raspberry at me, without letting the thought of the future, which is always going to be unknowable, overpower the present moment.
Rosa Lyster is a writer living in Cape Town.
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