February 26, 2011

Disaster fiction

About a month ago, I read Tim Wilson's novel, Their Faces Were Shining (VUP, 2010). Like a lot of other people, I was impressed -- but then I was expecting to be, thanks to Tim's great journalism in Metro and his television work as TVNZ's New York guy (in that capacity, he once interviewed my grandmother -- the clip was played at her funeral last year). Their Faces Were Shining is about the Rapture; specifically, one woman's experience of it. A Christian, Hope Paterson expects to be lifted up or carried away, but she isn't. So it's about her reconciliation with the ways in which she hasn't measured up to her belief system and it's about her marriage and it's about living through a catastrophic event and finding that it doesn't take too long before the abnormal becomes a new normal: how quickly you get used to your circumstances. "The world ends; the world carries on."

I read that Tim had drawn some of this from his experiences of covering disasters like Hurricane Katrina. How the world ends and the world carries on, disaster's ordinary, daily business: the power cuts and police cordons, the soldiers on the street, the addiction to news coverage, the conversations with strangers about the one event (where were you when?), the impatient crowds at supermarkets and gas stations, the concerns over water quality and expiration dates. Today, I pulled the novel out from one of the stacks of books that fell to the floor during the earthquake on Tuesday:
As we neared downtown, the streets betrayed the day's confusion. Tumbleweeds of discarded wrappers stumbled in the wind. Smashed soda and beer bottles littered the gutters, and the sidewalks too. An abandoned station wagon blocked the intersection of Sullivan and Anchor, hazard lights flashing, the doors jug-eared. A wheat truck had plowed into a liquor store, hemorrhaging its yellow cargo. The air smelled sugary, tipsy somehow. We passed a ShopRite, then a hardware store; every window in both was smashed. The glass fragments our tires crunched over resembled diamonds.
That was the disaster scene, moments after the Rapture. But this kind of thing, a page later, was closer to our Tuesday:
The house faucets released another gallon and a half into various containers. We schlepped them downstairs, and Rachel returned to her room. I sat at the kitchen table and, using as little water as possible, washed the soles of my feet. The quiet poured over me then, a corrosive, searching stillness. Zero cars on the street. No ringing phones. No television. A pure, agitating silence deprived even of the companionable hum that switched-off appliances make when plugged into live sockets.
This is Tim Wilson talking about the ordinariness of disaster in Stephen Jewell's story about the novel in the NZ Herald last year:
Taking his cue from the late JG Ballard, the dystopian future that Wilson envisions is distinctly humdrum. "He wrote sci-fi that was recognisable," he [Wilson] says. "It's the end of the world as seen from the kitchen sink. I wanted it to be low key, I didn't want it to be Hollywood sci-fi. It's a manageable apocalypse. The end of the world comes and the world keeps going. That's what I've seen when I've gone to these disaster zones. There's an earth-shattering event and then people get on with their lives. How do they do that? It's often very mundane things that concern you like how are my loved ones doing? Have I got some water and should I throw all the food out of the fridge?"

Rather than battling zombies or some other fantastical creature, Hope has more trivial concerns, including her rapidly diminishing bank balance, something that rings true in Wilson's experience.

"Money is important," he says. "When I was driving around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I was fortunate because I had a credit card that worked, so I was able to buy gas. There was one point where all these people were fighting for petrol at a petrol station and because I had a funny accent, the attendants said that I could have some. That's the kind of stuff that matters, the struggle for electricity, for water, all the things that we take for granted. I was able to do that through my job and I was able to write about it."