By Gareth Watkins
October 17, 2014
CALGARY — There’ a lot going on at Wordfest this year – literary deathmatches and clothing swaps and drawing classes – but the meat of any literary festival is always going to be one or more writers reading from and talking about their work.
One of the earliest readings in the lineup features two Canadian writers – now transplanted to Brooklyn, because everybody in literature is in Brooklyn – with two roughly similar novels out now. In Adam Sternbergh‘s Shovel Ready, a dirty bomb in Times Square causes the collapse of the city’s tourist economy, then everything else. Across the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey, a garbage man whose wife died in the attack embraces nihilism, then a career as a hitman in the newly dystopian Big Apple. British Columbian-born Emily St. John Mandel‘s Station Eleven proceeds from the onstage death of a Shakespearean actor to a pandemic that wipes out 99 per cent of the human population and follows the members of the remaining one per cent who form a travelling theatre company.
They are both excellent readers in their own ways. Sternbergh has both the rhythms of the hard-boiled detective genre and newspaper reportage down (he’s a magazine journalist when he’s not writing novels). The extract he reads skids between the narrator, Spademan, talking about his life after bereavement and the history of the terrorist attack and its aftermath. The humour is dark, but there are laughs there, particularly when they concern the fall of New York from a metropolitan Disneyland back into the violent, decrepit state it was in pre-Gulliani, familiar films like The Warriors and Death Wish. Mandel’s reading voice is more classically literary. She’s a writer first and this is her fourth novel, so her voice is slower, her cadence, flashes of eye contact with the audience and even hand gestures carefully planned to deliver maximum import to her prose. It’s not contrived, however. Writing is about control, and reading aloud even more so. Her extract is a long list of things that have disappeared since the pandemic: social media, travel, gasoline (which spoils after two years, she says, something that would have lowered the stakes of Mad Max 2 somewhat).
The unifying theme here is the notion of dystopia. Young adult readers will be the most familiar with the genre: mega-hits like The Hunger Games and Divergent are both set in post-apocalyptic societies that have embraced novel versions of totalitarianism, their shared themes of stratified caste systems and constant examination being instantly recognizable to high-school age readers. There are few dystopian novels outside of sci-fi-for-sci-fi’s sake novels that rarely break out of the genre ghetto, the only recent entry being Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, possibly the first great book of the 21st century alongside Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. There are many differences in Mandel and Sterbergh’s respective dystopias: in Shovel Ready, society still exists, but in a degraded state, while in Station Eleven it doesn’t exist at all.
Both writers are able to give answers to the moderator’s questions that are on point and insightful. Neither can truly answer why we are seeing a glut of dystopian or post-apocalyptic novels now, but then nobody can. They suggest that we, as a species, seem to find it impossible to imagine a world without us, or even the institutions and superficial trappings of the lives we currently lead. The idea that without social media and gasoline everything would be lost reassures us that we are walking the right path: Sternbergh insightfully compares post-apocalyptic fiction to earlier frontier narratives that showed a world of suffering and violence existed beyond the horizon.
It is apt that the talk takes place in the Theatre Junction GRAND. The auditorium can only be found by navigating a warren of corridors with polo-shirted attendants posted at key intersections to guide you. The setting resonates with a quote from Mandel’s novel, cribbed from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager: “Survival is insufficient.” That is, it’s not enough to simply outlast the end of the world; it’s up to survivors to preserve what was good about the world that came before. Stepping out of the GRAND into downtown and seeing the construction site of another gleaming skyscraper to go with the other gleaming skyscrapers, knowing that my text message to say that I’m on my way home will be in some government database indefinitely, knowing that there were 40 chairs for the talk and only half were full, it kind of drives that point home.AB, Alberta, Future Imperfect, Theatre Junction GRAND, Wordfest, Wordfest 2014