Adolescence is the uncomfortable transition from childhood, when one assumes that one is the center of the universe, to adulthood, when one realizes that this is not true. Just about everything we understand about teenagers makes sense when viewed from this lens — the sense of injustice, the anger, the nihilism. It takes at least a full decade just to get over the horrific realization that the universe will continue without us one day. This is why every teenager, no matter how sweet or good-natured, has probably willed the end of the world at one time or another. The next best thing to being the center of the universe, an underdeveloped mind assumes, is taking the whole goddamned thing down with you as you go.
Anna, the protagonist of Alice LaPlante’s new novel Coming of Age at the End of Days, is a suburban teenager who has lost the will to live. She’s “sixteen when the darkness descends,” LaPlante writes.
She had hints it was coming. Interludes of deep sadness over the past twelve months. Mourning, almost, triggered by the smallest things. An expression flitting across her father’s face as he gazed at her mother. A glimpse of a small boy waiting alone at a bus stop. But the sadness always dissipated, she would always come to, and find herself again. Until now. The morning it all changes, the problem starts with the mirror, still plastered with pink Disney princess stickers, smudged from practice kisses. She looks at her reflection and retches. A sudden, violent aversion. What. Is. That. Thing.
LaPlante’s writing about depression is heavy and perfectly balanced and when you walk into it, it can clobber the light out of your eyes. Anyone who has ever doubted that depression is a serious medical condition, and not just a case of the sads, needs to read this book and get grabbed around the throat by these words. Depression is another character at the beginning of End of Days. It moves into Anna and it refuses to leave. She stops bathing. (Why bother?) She can’t muster up the energy to interact with the world around her. (“Everyone had at first been kind, but most people lose patience quickly, Anna discovered, when you stop responding to social cues. People feel insulted, take it personally.”) Slowly, she feels her heart turn grey and stop beating, and then her brain begins to turn to charcoal. She decides to die, and she feels something like relief.
But then, one day, Anna meets a boy. No, it’s not what you think, not a cuddly potboiler about love conquering all. In fact, she barely notices him at first, except to note, approvingly, that he’s pale and “cold” and “shrimplike.” (“Has the sun ever fingered his pale flesh?”)
But then as they wait for a bus that they assume will not come to take them to a school they both don’t want to attend, he starts quoting from the Book of Revelation — the pale horses and dashed infants and ravished wives and the end of the world. Anna falls in love. Not with him. With the apocalypse. She falls in with an apoclyptic offshoot of Christianity:
Much of Reverend Michael’s sermons go over what the faithful can expect in the months and years leading to the End Days. Harassment. Exclusion. Banishment. Blacklisting. “And, finally, extermination — that is, if we aren’t prepared to fight back,” Reverend Michael said.
Anna makes the distinction to her puzzled family again and again: she’s not a Christian. She’s not interested in being good, or punishing evil. She’s not assuaged by the thought of a Christ who suffers and dies for her sins; in fact, she doesn’t really think much of the compassionate crucified Jesus at all. The Jesus she’s interested in will turn the seas to blood and drown the world in his wrath.
LaPlante is careful to keep the focus of the novel squarely behind Anna’s eyes. She doesn’t judge Anna, or accentuate the weirdness of the Revelations-obsessed religion she falls into. Instead, it feels like reportage. And besides, Anna helps us realize, everyone is obsessed with the end times in one way or another. Anna’s own father can’t stop thinking about the Big One, the earthquake that will shake California to gravel.
And, really, Anna’s no more Revelations-obsessed than the rest of us. How many square feet of your average multiplex on any given Friday is turned over to dystopian stories of teenagers trying to survive in fascistic societies that have tamed the few living humans into fear-stricken cattle? How many hours of cable television every week has been overrun by starving hordes of zombies? How many feet of bookshelves groan with literary accounts of the misery that follows Life After Us? When did we as a culture become so obsessed with the particular lullabye that assures us the world will suffer when we are gone?
End of Days is not a dirge. It’s not the literary equivalent of doom metal, although it does dwell in some very dark spaces. At times, a reader will be astonished by LaPlante’s capacity to drain the narrative of light and love at the points when they are most needed. But it never wallows in those shadows, either.
To share too much about Anna’s journey would strip End of Days of its horrible surprises. She becomes obsessed with a wealthy American who is trying to bring about the apocalypse in the strangest way possible. (Those who read their novels with Google at the ready will be surprised, and likely horrified, to learn that LaPlante based this apocalyptic plot on some real-life counterparts.) In some ways, her own private apocalypse arrives early in the book, confirming all her worst fears. But she keeps on living. Not because she believes in the glorious future, or thinks that humanity is worth saving. She lives because she’s a survivor. And we keep reading because we have to see if Anna can find something to hope for beyond the utter absence of hope.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant