Post-Apocalyptic Fiction: Comedy or Tragedy

The first answer to the question of whether post-apocalyptic fiction is comedy or tragedy seems all too obvious. The sheer number of horrific events, losses, causalities, and trials faced by the characters after the apocalyptic event insists that we are dealing with a tragic form here. The last dying gasps of our world are meted out by the survivors, each one a sign that things in the present, our present, went terribly, terribly wrong. Perhaps a more suitable way to grasp the question is to return to the birth of the modern form of the comedy, (i.e. the romantic comedy), which happens to arrive on the scene at a crucial moment in the pre-history of post-apocalyptic fiction as well.

The comparison I am asking us to consider is, for all intents and purposes, actually between Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). This is where the question of comedy clarifies its place in my inquiry. But first a word on Shelley’s science fiction novel:  Frankenstein enacts one version of tragedy, when, in the face of a possible resolution to the conflict of the narrative the monster asks Frankenstein to fashion him a wife, Frankenstein refuses, shattering any hope that a resolution can be met. The novel is obviously much more complex than this, but it illustrates the dynamic of the tragic closure, which is made unbearable by the possibility of a complete resolution, if only for an instant, seeming to be so close at hand and then being dashed away.

Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand, incorporates many minor tragedies time and again into its narrative form, bringing Elizabeth and Darcy close together and then pulling them apart. But in Austin’s case the bittersweet sting of a nearly fulfilled love is finally overwhelmed by understanding, union, and marriage. Phillip Wegner has commented that the insidious nature of Austin’s text is that, beneath the veneer of love and the hustle and bustle of posturing and relationships, is the work of the bourgeois Cultural Revolution, which at this point in history, was engaged in an occluded struggle to make marriage a natural conclusion and the only direction in which one ought to move.

My argument, then, about post-apocalyptic fiction hinges on its own mode of closure. What is often the case at the end of these novels, rather than marriage or the failed reconciliation of opposing forces, is the overwhelming prescience of the family or an insistence on its importance. To name a few examples Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming (2010), Alan DeNiro’s Total Oblivion, More or Less (2009), Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars (2012), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), and so on. To quote the ending of DeNiro’s novel: “I understand love a little bit more—and what it can cost. But it’s a cost I’m more willing to pay. Mother taught me that. Ciaran taught me that. My living breathing family is still teaching me that. I don’t pretend to be wise anymore, and I don’t try to stop being afraid when I’m afraid, or angry when I’m angry. It sounds so easy but it’s the hardest things in the world” (306). So, in terms of closure, it is safe to say post-apocalyptic fiction is comedic. 

What’s at stake in all of this, besides some musings on literary history and generic form? The stakes for me are simply this, the work of Austin marks a moment when the operations of the novel, in hindsight, did the work of solidifying a class and outlining that class’s role in history. The marriage at the end of Austin’s novels isn’t the deepest moment of cultural warfare, however, I would argue that moment comes after the novel’s close and that its name is the reproduction of daily life under capital. Isn’t then the form of closure we find in much contemporary post-apocalyptic fiction engaged in the same type of warfare? Though we can argue about the role of literature and the death of the novel (about which see more here), I think it’s clear that post-apocalyptic fiction is doing a similar kind of work to Austin’s novels in that it tries to maintain the status quo and is deeply disinterested in the movement of history as such, which isn’t the same as saying it cannot tell us anything about history.

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