Ending Ad Infinitum: Looking For An End After the End After the End

Reviewed by Niall McArdle

As I write this, the number one film at the box office is a post-apocalyptic adventure story that imagines a ravaged future populated by bandits and marauders in tricked-out vehicles warring over gasoline, and one of the most popular television shows features hordes of flesh-eating ’zombies’ walking the earth following a worldwide Plague-like viral outbreak. The Apocalypse has never been more popular, it seems, which makes Teresa Heffernan’s Post-Apocalyptic Culture first published in 2008 more timely than ever. 

A lively and spirited rereading of some classics of modernist and postmodernist novels, Heffernan’s starting point (even that phrase is rendered problematic in the context of a treatise on beginnings, endings, and the possibility of narratives that have neither) is a response to Frank Kermode’s thesis that much, if not all of, modern literature is a secular version of the biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation, and that stories need a traditional beginning, middle, and end. “Endings in fictional narratives, he argues, are mini-expressions of a faith in a higher order or ultimate pattern that, though it will remain perhaps forever obscure, nevertheless lends a sense of purpose to our existence in the world.” 

Pointing out that the word apocalypse “is literally understood as a revelation or unveiling of the true order,” Heffernan argues, “we live in a time after the apocalypse, after the faith in a radically new world, of revelation, of unveiling.” What follows is a series of postmodernist readings of twentieth century literature—works that often came after cataclysmic or pseudo-apocalyptic events (the First World War; the Holocaust; the dissolution of Empires). While the usual suspects of postmodern theory make appearances—Derrida, Baudrillard, Foucault—Heffernan acknowledges that “the terms modernist and postmodernist themselves suggest the twentieth century crisis over teleological narratives precisely because they beg the inevitable question of what can possibly come after the modern or ’after’ its after.”

The book is divided into four sections: The End, History, Nation, Man; and, in each section, seminal works are given close readings. William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Don DeLillo’s White Noise are examined in terms of how they treat the notion of “an ending.” Modernists posited the idea of an end as impossible, and ’open-endedness’ in narrative form became standard (think of the endless circularity of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.) Faulkner was dissatisfied with his classic The Sound and the Fury, calling it his “most spectacular failure” precisely because he felt the story was incomplete. DeLillo’s White Noise is set in a post-nuclear America where the hero is bombarded with images of unreality through TV and advertising—the white noise of the title—which leads to a classic postmodern ambiguity about what is real and what is fake, and finds an end of sorts in the authenticity of Nazi Germany.

Heffernan also gives post-apocalyptic analyses of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, D.H. Lawrence’s Apocalypse and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (“sex in the modern world, Lawrence suggests, has become nothing more than a commodity”), E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Toni Morrison’s Beloved (the heroine of which disrupts storytelling because “even as she feeds on narrative, her story cannot be accommodated by narrative conventions”), and Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus.

If Heffernan sees a world in which “there is no functioning symbolic code or underlying universal order that can be reflected in art,” a place “that cannot be righted because there is no right,” then it’s best that nobody tell Scott Feschuk. The Maclean’s humourist is a postmodern version of a nineteenth century Luddite: he’s terrified of the future; he knows it’s already here; and he’s miserable (in part because The Future as he imagined it as a child has not come to pass—he still has no flying car.) 

His very funny, eminently readable The Future and Why We Should Avoid It offers several reasons why we should be concerned with advances in technology and what the consequences might be if they go unchecked (mainly that we will be sold ever-refined version of products we don’t really need.) Feschuk observes: “Because of the human imagination, the future will always amaze. Because of every other aspect of humanity, the future will always disappoint.”

Covering topics as diverse as health, death, vacations, and killer robots, Feschuk casts a sardonic eye on the intricacies of the postmodern world (for an ostensibly comic work, Feschuk has done an awful lot of research, even if that research consists of Internet searches for sex dolls.) As a sign of just how accelerated our culture has become, one of the book’s early targets, Google Glass (or “dork monocles”), has already become defunct.

This review “Ending Ad Infinitum: Looking For An End After the End After the End” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 144-45.

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