There isn’t a single android in Lucy Corin’s new collection One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses, but the book got me thinking about robotics, specifically the concept of the “uncanny valley.” Research has shown that we humans usually have positive feelings about robots that obviously look and act like robots (think R2D2). But the more human-like a robot is, the more people tend to feel uneasy around it, or even repulsed. Corin’s stories generate the literary equivalent of this effect. The writer and professor is such a gifted and meticulous craftsperson, she manufactures comfortingly familiar narrative forms and then sabotages them with slight but unnerving differences.
The setting of “Madmen,” the second of three opening pieces that precede the titular “Hundred Apocalypses,” feels entirely contemporary—except for the fact that, in the world of the story, young women who’ve started their periods get to adopt their own mental patients. “Godzilla and the Smog Monster,” the third story, also reads like a well-executed, but more or less standard coming-of-age story, until you get to the part where all of California is burning down in a mysterious conflagration. This distant and yet looming disaster serves as a prelude to the “Hundred Apocalypses” that follow.
By now, the apocalyptic narrative is as commonplace as the romance or mystery story. The world has ended so many times lately, in so many different ways, it’s a wonder any of us leave our houses at all. Corin playfully digs into this cultural fixation in the hundred short pieces. Though we catch glimpses from the standard dystopian film roll—blasted landscapes, cannibalism, emaciated survivors huddled around a fire—the most affecting calamities are deeply personal: a mother transmitting her trauma by repeatedly forcing her daughter to listen to her horrible life story, a lonely man’s attempt to connect with his neighbors on Halloween, even the way someone carelessly cuts a cake at a dinner party.
I caught up with Corin recently near her home in San Francisco. Her ankle was coated in plastic wrap. She had just gotten her third tattoo of a book to commemorate the release of Apocalypses—her third book.
The Rumpus: I’m a sucker for word play, and you’ve got a lot of it in this book. The first instance is right there in the title: “Apocalypses,” plural.
Lucy Corin: Yes. That was supposed to be the first joke.
Rumpus: How did you come to write about “One Hundred Apocalypses,” instead of just one, like most stories about the end of the world?
Corin: I was driving across the country and I decided to take secondary roads and byways instead of [Interstate] 80. When you’re spending that much time by yourself in your car looking at landscapes, it’s desolate. Most of the other people around you are invisible in their own cars. You’re driving past houses where maybe once in a while somebody is out, but that’s about it. So I was interested in that aesthetic and I decided I wanted to write an apocalyptic narrative, but the more I thought of it, it seemed bizarre and untenable to me to pick one, so I just didn’t.
I was interested in beginning and ending something as quickly as possible, as many times as possible, as a way of getting at a cultural fantasy life that has to do with the apocalyptic. Nobody can live in this culture and not realize that people really love this shit. We just love it. And so I started writing one after another and investigating it myself and talking to people about their own apocalyptic fantasy lives.
Rumpus: It definitely feels like we’re living in a particularly apocalypse-centric time, with all the rapture narratives and zombie stories and general disaster pieces out there. Most people tend to assume that things are going to get worse—maybe even a lot worse—in the near future. But do you think that’s really unique to our era, or has this dread always been with us?
Corin: That’s a question you should probably ask an historian, because they’d say something really smart. I’m a horrible historian. My memory is bad. I read things and then I forget them. I can’t understand dates and I can’t measure time. Time is confusing to me. That’s why I do a lot of manipulations of time in my books, in part because an orderly time is physically difficult for me to conceive of in my brain.
But I don’t think you can say that this is a more apocalyptic time than, say, when French people were experiencing The Plague. They probably felt, like, Can it get worse than this?
Rumpus: But that was one, singular apocalypse. It seems like we’re living in this age of a whole bunch of possible, even probable end-times scenarios. We both grew up during the Cold War, where the very real possibility of annihilation was with us all the time. Now, we’ve got climate change and terrorism and tsunamis and tornados and hurricanes leveling whole cities.
Corin: That’s why so many of the stories are about perspective and viewpoint. It’s not just about seeing and revelation. The idea of having many different stories from many different perspectives has something to do with me trying to deal with the impossibility of having a wide enough view to say anything really convincing on that scale.
A lot of times when I ask people what their apocalyptic fantasy life is like, they’ll immediately say something like, “Oh, what I think is going to kill us is climate change or World War IV,” and that’s not what I’m interested in at all. The point is not about winning a bet about what’s going to happen. The point is about the human action of examining the possibility, the kind of obsessive imagining about it.
Rumpus: While I was reading the book, there was this huge wildfire going on in Yosemite that the news said might poison San Francisco’s water supply. And yet, we all just went about our business. That experience seemed to echo the emotional register of the stories, where these unspecified mass disasters have taken place, but aren’t really in the foreground. The characters are living through them, but also completely detached. It creates a very weird, unsettling effect, or at least it did on me.
Corin: I think we are living in an era of being hyper-concerned about, Is it us? Because we have this historical awareness. People really want to know: will it be us or our kids or our grandkids to live through this? We don’t want it to happen, we don’t want to be the ones with the poisoned water, but at the same time, I think there is this curiosity, like, Am I one of the “lucky” ones who gets to be here at the end? That’s the tension I’m interested in. You don’t want anything fucked-up to happen to you, but wouldn’t it be cool if you were there for it? You want to be there but you don’t want it to hurt.
Rumpus: So this fixation with disaster and catastrophe goes two ways. There’s this all-consuming anxiety that almost turns into a fetish of sorts.
Corin: Yes. Fetishization and dread and desire sleep in the same bed and fight over what position to do it in.
Rumpus: Allowing yourself to write multiple apocalypses seemed freeing to you as a writer, at least formally. You’ve got apocalypses written from the perspective of ghosts, you’ve got one written as a collection of Amazon reviews. Some pieces even read more like short prose poems.
Corin: I decided to make myself a little less precious with my storytelling. I think you can see from the first three pieces in the book that I have a long term relationship with the short story as a form and I really love an elegantly crafted story that has several elements that come together in a way that is emotionally complex and different from when we started. That kind of crystalline, perfect, idealized thing that the short story as a genre has come to represent. At the same time, ideologically, I have a lot of problems with that, especially when people toss around that form of story as realism. What’s called “realism” is actually highly formulaic.
So I starting sending these things out [for publication] when they didn’t seem totally done to me, and I took things that were published and ripped them apart or took one sentence out of them or recombined them. [This book] is a malleable thing. It can move in a three-dimensional way and even though they are in such a gorgeous package right now and I love how physical this book wound up being, to me the stories feel like they’re still in motion. They don’t have to be like this.
The short story is so much about inevitability and this feeling that things always had to be this one way, and I wanted the apocalypses to blow that idea apart. I hope it feels that way. I hope the book invites people to read the stories in order and then, if they feel like it, maybe not read them in order the next time.
Rumpus: So you’re officially giving people permission to read the “Hundred Apocalypses” out of order?
Rumpus: I was looking through your bio and even though you’d probably still be considered a “young” writer, you’ve been doing this for quite awhile. Your first story was published in, what, 1994?
Corin: 1991. I was a baby.
Rumpus: What got you into writing in the first place?
Corin: I didn’t learn how to read and write until pretty late, and it was this very mysterious, incredible thing, like driving, that I didn’t get to do. And then I started writing things down on little scraps of paper and I would hide them. I would write the year on them and then I would stuff them in a drawer somewhere. But I didn’t start to really read until about eight. I’m dyslexic, so it took a long time.
Rumpus: This might sound like a stupid question, but do you think being dyslexic has had an effect on your writing?
Corin: I think as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten more aware of how my thinking is not like most people’s, and I think it might have something to do with dyslexia. I think in patterns. It’s almost impossible for me to understand anything unless there’s a physical shape I am associating with it or unless there is a pattern to it.
One of the reasons I like to hang out with scholarly types is they can do a broad reach conceptualization of things that is astonishing to me. I’m really good at the particulars but I have to do an immense amount of critical thinking to make something larger of it. And somehow writing a book is about me doing the work to get from the obsessive particular to something that reaches out of that in some meaningful way. It doesn’t come easy to me. I really admire people who do it with acuity, but I don’t, and for me it takes the process of working on a book for years to do any thinking that I feel accomplishes anything. I don’t do it off the cuff well.
Rumpus: It sounds like writing a book for you is an “apocalyptic” activity, but in the sense that the word also means a revealing or uncovering of something.
Corin: Yes. There were a lot of apocalypses that didn’t make it into this assemblage because they didn’t suit the world. And defining that world and figuring out what its wobbly borders were was a long-term and exhaustive process. I had all of these different ways of categorizing the apocalypses I had made. I had a period of time where I cut them up.
Rumpus: You mean like the old William S. Burroughs technique, the cut-up?
Corin: Yeah. I really like the interplay between thinking of text as ephemeral and thinking of it as a concrete, physical thing. With almost anything that I write, I’ll stay completely immersed in the electronic text of it for a period of time and in another period, I’ll stay immersed in it as a physical thing that can cut your skin. So with the apocalypses, I had them taped all over the wall and they had codes on them. Sometimes I would color code them in terms of thematic elements, sometimes in terms of voice, sometimes visual forms or images.
Rumpus: You said you think in patterns and that definitely shows. Often a single word will link the apocalypses. One story will have a thistle in it, the next one will be titled “Thistles.”
Corin: Yeah. I’m always in a fight with it. I’m so into it, but I know not everybody is. It’s a delicate balance. Even now, I was putting together a sequence [for an excerpt] and I was like, “Oh my god, these two stories both have milk in them so they should be together!”
Rumpus: You seem to enjoy playing with or playing on a reader’s expectations. As I said, most of the “apocalypses” in the collection aren’t really about some massive calamity. They’re about normal, even mundane things like a dinner party or a daughter’s relationship to her mother. In a similar way, your first novel, Everyday Psycho Killers, seemed like it would be a thriller or suspense book, but it doesn’t go that direction, either.
Corin: For a really long time [before writing the novel], I was watching a lot of serial killer movies and I started to wonder if this was a trend and if other people were doing the same thing. That’s what happens when you suddenly have a critical perspective on your own behavior. If you think it’s worth writing a book about then that means you suspect that you’re not the only one. You suspect that it has something to do with the larger patterns of your culture.
That’s what makes me interested in writing a book. I don’t want to write the thing that I am a consumer of when I’m unconscious. I want to write the thing that makes me contend with the thing that I’ve been consuming unconsciously.
It’s a matter of resisting what something made you feel before. And resisting that as a consumer is not easy. I know it isn’t for me, and not just when I consume pop culture. When I go into a book and it feels too familiar, I don’t have the energy to do it. My whole reason for reading it is to be in a fictive space that is unfamiliar to me.
Rumpus: To be surprised?
Corin: Surprise is an overused word because it’s usually like, I want that thing that surprises me because I always like the thing of surprising things when I feel that surprise thing. That’s not real surprise. That’s like the “ohhh” line, when you go to a poetry reading and you can feel that a poem is pushing towards that point when everybody in the audience is going to go, “Ohhh.”
I won’t ever say “ohhh” on the “ohhh” line. I won’t do it.
Rumpus: Why not?
Corin: Because I’m contrarian. And because it’s not an actual revelation. You’re seeing something that you’ve seen a thousand times and you just like it. There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s not a revelation. It’s not a surprise. It’s comfort.
Rumpus: If you don’t mind, I’m curious to hear more about your dyslexia.
Corin: I don’t want to poor-mouth about it. It’s not hard dyslexia. But it affected my brain and affected my relationship with reading. And being told that I had a “thing” was really formative. But I didn’t have it in a debilitating way that many people do. It was really mild. This is not a big “I have overcome” story.
Rumpus: I promise not to make it into one. But I find it intriguing that someone who was told that they have this “thing” was drawn to writing.
Corin: I think there is something about being described and having your abilities described as something definable. I was diagnosed at about six, when a teacher couldn’t understand how I could be a bright girl and yet couldn’t read yet. I did that whole backwards letters thing. I used to sit in the same place when I did homework because I remembered that B’s went towards the window and D’s went away from it.
When you have an authority figure tell you something that distinguishes you, there’s a little bit of a badge of courage or pride point that comes with it, and also some relief that the grownups actually have an answer for the problem. But, at the same time, there’s suspicion and defensiveness, like, Why is the way I do things a problem? Maybe the way you do things is the problem. All of these things come with the very notion that you’ve been described.
Rumpus: But did that experience, and maybe the fact that your brain probably works differently than mine or most people’s, allow you to write a book like this? Do you think it gives you the quirkiness to, say, write a book about apocalypses, plural?
Corin: You know how some people will say to writers, “Why don’t you just write a romance novel that sells a bunch of copies and then you’ll have the money to do the kind of writing you want to do”? I always say that I don’t have the skills or knowledge to do that. It would be just as hard for me to do that kind of writing as it would be to learn how to do any number of productive careers that I can’t manage to make myself do.
Rumpus: Are you okay being called an “experimental” writer?
Corin: Sure. It’s a problematic and maligned term, and it suggests some things that are really awesome in books and some things that are really stupid. And my job as a writer is to minimize the stupid.
Rumpus: I mentioned the Cold War earlier, and I know growing up in that time had a tremendous impact on me. Do you think living under the threat of nuclear war got you interested in what you call the “apocalyptic aesthetic”?
Corin: I’m not sure. The whole digging a bomb shelter in the backyard thing was before my time. I do remember asking my mother one day, “Who’re our enemies?” Isn’t that a great question? And I remember her going, “Um, the Russians, I guess.”
We lived in a charming New England town and we had some family friends who left the little town and moved to Soho. This was back before Soho had indoor plumbing. They were living in this loft in a six floor walkup, and the feeling of Soho in 1977 is so palpable to me. I remember hanging around with their son, who was about my age, and going out onto the streets and looking for bottle caps with him, and climbing all those stairs, and how he slept in this loft area, and the art his parents were making, and it was definitely like I had stepped into my idea of being a pioneer. It’s funny to think that we went to this big city and we felt like pioneers.
Rumpus: You’re saying this memory you have of Soho in the ’70s feels apocalyptic to you?
Corin: Now that I think of it, yes. The image that it conjures in my brain matches the landscape in my brain when I think of this book.
Rumpus: Was it scary?
Corin: Yes. But only in the way that makes me smile thinking of it. I couldn’t have really felt in danger. Maybe I felt like I was escaping danger. Or maybe it felt dangerous, but I knew I would be okay.
Featured image of Lucy Corin © by Sara Seinberg.