The apocalypse no doubt is a huge subject right now in movies and literature, but for the most part apocalypse narratives are the result of war, environmental catastrophe, or disease. American Apocalypse takes a different, and unique, approach – the financial crisis, where the crisis turns into all-out catastrophe.
The novel is similar to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in the sense that there is no detailed explanation about how the crisis occurred – it is centered mostly around how people survive the crisis. One of the haunting things about The Road is not understanding just why the apocalypse has occurred – it creates a kind of existential, Kafka-esque sense of doom and mystery. American Apocalypse does not obscure the cause of the meltdown to that degree. Nor should it, because the reasons for the financial crisis are as intriguing a topic as how people would survive an economic calamity. For example, the novel references Wal-Mart ‘s eventual collapse because China stops exporting discounted items to the chain due to America’s increased debt, totally collapsing Wal-Mart’s business model. As the state of the economy is on everyone’s mind, the novel is aided by some real prescience.
That said, the novel may have been more effective with some more detail about how the crisis occurred – perhaps offering some about how we can avoid it. What adds some confusion to the mix is that the entire world isn’t in collapse – a lucky few still have jobs and homes, there’s still a government, police force, TV programming, etc. So this juxtaposition could have used further investigation – a macro view of what has happened to the country, as opposed to the micro view of those who have been most-deeply affected.
The problem with offering this type of detail is that the novel could turn into a veiled work of non-fiction or polemic and the book reads very much like a novel with the plights of the characters pushing the book forward. The novel smartly doesn’t take any political stance one way or the other. If people are suddenly thrust into homelessness, political affiliation doesn’t really matter. They just need a place to sleep and something to eat.
The main focus is how everyday people, including rich people, must fend for themselves by any means necessary. The “by any means necessary” means, at times, a wild-west kind of violence. There is a fear in novel like this that it becomes a kind of survivalist revenge fantasy. The novel does veer into that territory, but only slightly – and the violence has more of a Tarantino flair (involving swords) than it does for the type of violence fantasized by the readers of Soldier of Fortune.
What’s particularly refreshing is that the novel doesn’t shy away from the anger a person might feel when thrust into this situation. Often apocalypse stories cover the tragedy, the sadness, and sense of isolation, but do not cover the sense of outrage and indignation, which is why American Apocalypse is a unique addition to the genre. The narrator can be crude – not the writing, which is clean and concise (though there are few typos), but the narrator’s voice – and this is wholly appropriate given the crudeness of his situation.
Overall, American Apocalypse is a page turner, and a great addition to apocalypse lit, covering ground that is not covered by most other apocalyptic fiction. If you love this genre, or you’re at all worried about where the world could be heading, this novel offers both catharsis and a warning.
I asked the author a few questions about the genesis of the novel:
SPR: This novel started out on the site Calculated Risk. What is Calculated Risk and how did this project come to be?
Steve Campbell: Calculated Risk is an economics blog. A very good one too. I started posting on the topics and began writing short, two or three paragraph stories about the topic. One of the stories took on a life of its own. I started writing four or five paragraphs at a time. It was suggested that I just do an excerpt and link to them. I was offered guest posting rights on a new blog and started posting there. Eventually the stories migrated to where they are now.
SPR: How was a work of fiction received on the site?
SC: It was well received. Most of my readers originally were people who read them on Calculated Risk. Many of them have followed the story, offered comments, and stayed with it since it began almost three years ago.
What gave the book a huge initial push was Bill, the owner of CR, who did a review of the book. I think of him as the Oprah of economics blogs.
SPR: The book is more about surviving the new environment than reporting about what led to the crash. Do you see this inevitable or preventable? What’s your for the American Apocalypse to not occur?
SC: I am not an economics major by any means. The story is more about exploring an economic collapse, and how regular people trying to survive one would live in America. It is also a way to explore how society might fracture under extreme stress and what cults or religions might arise.
I also wanted to explore the cowboy archetype and mythology in general. The book is different from most in that I am not suggesting the only way to survive is with guns, God, and hate. If it should happen then self sustaining communities will be the best place to be.
SPR: Why the pen name Nova? Did you want to keep this separate from your other published books?
SC: The pen name came about because that was my user name on Calculated Risk. People associated the story with that name and it was easier to stay with it.
My other books are about the Holocaust in the east during WWII. Especially the role of the German security forces. I have written about 220 pages so far on a book about the role of the German security forces, especially the Schutzpolizei, in the Baltic that I hope to finish someday. Very different subjects, but in many ways, at least for the story I am writing, there are some common threads.
SPR: Did you try to get this book traditionally published, or consider it?
SC: I was rejected by almost every agent listed on the Internet. Sometimes twice.
SPR: American Apocalypse is called Book One. What’s coming in Book Two?
SC: I think Book Two is a lot better book. The characters are trying to build a community in West Virgina as the economy becomes progressively worse. The federal government is fighting to maintain its grip as different religions, the old and new, try to establish new power groups. Local services continue to fail due to the loss of tax revenue to fund them at minimum levels. The social safety net, shredded by previous administrations, fails to cushion the fall of people who were previously middle class. America continues its descent to third world squalor.
Check out theamericanapocalypse.blogspot.com.
Note: the author and I traded books, as we both write apocalyptic fiction.