Published: December 2010
Finally got around to it: Pretty much right away, actually
Despite devouring this book as soon as it was in my hands (the synopsis was just enticing enough), there was some trepidation on my part. Nicolas Dickner gained recognition last year after winning CBC’s Canada Reads competition for his previous book, Nikolski. For the life of me, I don’t know how that came to pass. Nikolski, for me, represented what some claimed to be a growing problem with Canadian literature—that it was limp and non-committal, with narratives that lacked direction and too many esoteric plot threads just quirky enough to sound great on the jacket of a book, but sadly remain one-dimensional, never really seeming to propel the characters or story. In other words, no beginning, no real arc or ending to be found, just a whole lot of self-exploratory middle. I remember finishing Nikolski and wondering what, if anything, there was to take from the book.
It was the premise that drew me to Dickner’s new book, Apocalypse for Beginners. At the tail end of the 1980s, the young narrator, Mickey, meets a girl named Hope Randall who lives in a converted pet shop with her borderline-insane mother, Ann. Why is Ann teetering on the edge of sanity? Because every member of the Randall clan, reaching back for generations, has had a crystal clear vision of the apocalypse, right down to the exact day and date. Upon the passing of each suspected final day, when the world continues to spin and another seemingly unavoidable apocalypse has passed by without so much as a whimper, the owner of the failed prediction would leave their sanity at the door and lose whatever was left of their mind. Hope’s mother, for some reason, was given a less than precise date to go on, and spends her days neglecting her daughter while she researches all possible ways to extrapolate a more precise day for her anticipated apocalyptic event. Why would she do this? Because you can’t be a proper Randall without the precision of the vision.
Hope, on the other hand, has been offered a day and date for her own end of days countdown, and it is the journey of discovery she takes with Mickey—and on her own—to understand the date and the seemingly impossible coincidences surrounding it that provide the book’s structure.
Instantly the characters of Hope and Mickey are likable and, though potentially too quirky for some, very relatable. Dickner is a self-professed child of the 80s and it shows, as such things like the fall of the Berlin wall (and talk of its rather shoddy construction) and the fall of the USSR provide much of the contemplation behind not only the coming end of the world, but what it means for a world to end in the first place.
Though there are still some elements that feel almost too esoteric for their own good (such as the ghostly disappearance of a surveillance-happy Japanese not-so-wannabe prophet from the bathroom of a Tokyo baseball stadium), Apocalypse for Beginners is a much tighter, more focussed work than Nikolski. Dickner realizes his strength is in his characters and the connection they’ve forged, and it is only when that connection is strained that the disquiet of the subject matter becomes a little overbearing. But that strain is absolutely necessary, and the distance it enforces sets emotions in play for a genuinely heart-warming finale. And when I set the book down, I was smiling.
That should say it all.