In contemporary parlance, apocalypse usually connotes final endings and violence. The apocalyptic worlds of our imagination run amok with great calamities: Earth-coating nuclear blasts, emerging undead, or deserts where stragglers wage cage battles for civilization’s last scraps. Originally, though, the term had less to do with violence and more to do with vision: Apocalypse, from Apokalyptein, meaning to uncover or reveal. In the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos indeed saw the Earth’s end, but his account was apocalyptic because God was showing him something he’d never seen before.
In the hundred short fictions that make up the bulk of Lucy Corin’s exhilarating new collection, she mines apocalypse as a literary form, exploring its varied meanings and manifestations. A number of stories here flash with images we fully expect from our end times literature: war, clouds of ash, floods, cannibalism, piles of rubble. In others, apocalypse becomes a shorthand for American declinism, the sense of an end pervading our current economic and cultural malaise. “Recall” details an all-encompassing contamination of a food supply reliant on “hybrid production.” In “What I Got,” the narrator walks through her neighborhood whistling Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and is suddenly transfixed by a foreclosed lot (“something to do with property taxes”) overrun with enormous thistles. In pieces like these, apocalypse for Corin is less about future events and more about the eschatological pall already coloring the present. When a Circuit City shuts down in “Coming to Life,” the narrator’s apocalypse is one of all-too-recognizable family loss and institutional failure, an experience recalling any number of testimonials from the 99 percent:
But what do I know. Since my dad died no one here has had a job, no one here has health insurance. I’m in the kitchen with my mother who is now going deaf. My brother keeps us in sight but just out of reach, too afraid to relax in the house and too afraid to leave it, and I can see his point because this place is falling the fuck apart.
Not everything is full-on calamity and decline, though. Some of Corin’s best fictions here travel more muted territories, the apocalypse becoming a matter of smaller subjective visions and revelations. In “Math,” the narrator’s small talk about Lolita escalates quickly into a meditation on personal identity and the power of the gaze; by the end of the story, she aches with loss, though she hardly remembers the man she was talking to originally. The terrifically bland opening of “Sails, Hull, Jibs” (“She was eating an enormous salad at an outdoor café at the marina.”) rapidly turns nightmarish as everything in the marina—people, boats, the pier—disappears, leaving the narrator alone but surveilled, “sitting with her salad in a desert at the ocean surrounded by nothing but suspended eyes.”
These clipped fictions, many of them just a few sentences long, gather energy from their radical pivots and shifts. One of Corin’s greatest gifts is a unique kind of tonal nonchalance, the way her characters often face apocalyptic horror with an adolescent shrug. As one narrator considers the thousands of unopened time capsules still buried outside elementary schools across the country, her calamitous immediate surroundings pale in comparison to the conclusions she reaches about posterity: “Then, as we wiped the sperm from each other and climbed from the wreckage of our Mini Coopers and settled into life in our yurts, we thought maybe the lesson was that no one’s keeping track except you.” The spare form also makes for intense moments of suspension, veiled conclusions that thrum with anticipatory energy. “Audition,” a story ostensibly about the miserable life of the narrator’s mother, resolves by absorbing us directly into the action, witnesses to unpredictable and impending destruction. “Oh wow, do you see that, that thing?” the narrator asks, “What is it, a tornado over the water? It’s pretty.”
Taken together, these apocalypses work as a series of unsettling vortices, moments where everything in the world seems to collapse in an instant into a single subjectivity. As it was in her first novel, Everyday Psychokillers, 100 Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses is deeply concerned with the body, that physical husk we all bear, and the site where, for Corin, so much apocalyptic, subjective, and revelatory shit goes down. A menace hovers around the bodies of characters in this collection, especially the women. In “Ghosts,” a young woman doesn’t know she’s surrounded by “the ghost of everyone who loved her,” a voyeuristic host watching as she bathes and sleeps with new lovers. In “Virgins,” which feels as if it’s set behind an illicit middle school gymnasium, we’re made complicit as the unnamed narrator tells us “what happened to Betsy”:
She grew a tail. They ripped it from her. It divided her butt. I’m kidding. But you know how you can tell when a girl loses her virginity is you look at her ass: if it’s clenched up she’s fine, but if it’s got a space—like if you look at her ass you can tell because obviously there’s room now—seriously, pay attention when you go by.
The body also plays a major role in “Madmen,” one of the three longer fictions that open the collection. On the day Alice gets her first period, she takes a trip with her mother and father to an asylum to acquire her personal madman, a strange rite of passage designed to work as an introduction to empathy. “The whole idea is you take in a madman that teaches you about Facing the Incomprehensible and Understanding Across Difference,” the smart-aleck Alice explains, “and soon we are one big family.” Alice’s selection process comes fraught with historical baggage—Corin draws from Michel Foucault’s History of Madness in her descriptions of the inmates up for adoption—but it’s also acutely corporeal. When Alice feels faint, “partly because all the iron in [her] body was rushing out between [her] legs,” her newly assumed adulthood splits her in two, causing her to feel inside and outside her body at the same time. As she peers in at two dancing fools in separate cells, she tells us:
I felt at odds with myself, that phrase came to me. Like I was related to whatever invisible puppet master was making them dance together when they couldn’t even see each other. I think I spent less time with them than anyone, but the effect went straight to my body.
Eventually, Alice’s trip to the asylum leads her to remember her mother’s past suicide attempt, another moment when Alice is able to step outside herself briefly and glimpse the unknowability and chaos that lurks in every other body roving around in the world. It’s a moment that broadens Alice’s perspective, but it also reminds her of her own subjective limitations. “But even then I knew it wasn’t me that saved her life,” she says, “It wasn’t about me. I was just there while she was maybe going to die and maybe not, and then she just didn’t.”
The apocalyptic in “Madmen” and Corin’s other stories here ultimately resides in the difficult mystery of these kinds of revelations. Corin’s characters may experience grand visions, but the meaning of those visions remains perpetually beyond them. If they catch a glimpse of the deluge humming just beneath the mundane, it’s only for a brief moment; there’s magic and frustration in that. “There could be so many more things to aim my feeling at, and sometimes I think the right thing is hovering just above my left ear,” the narrator of “Versions” puts it. “But it’s like every time I move, whatever the right thing is moves in exact relation to me.”