Lately, I’ve found it very difficult to feel very “clued in” on what’s going on in the world—specifically through social media. I’m not opposed to viewing the darkness—my newest novel, My Volcano, is very pre-apocalyptic, and shines lights on many anxieties that vibrate through our worlds—but I find that darkness without a frame is overwhelmingly shapeless. I tend to turn to reading, and other forms of art (for example, I’ve been jonesing to play some Metal Gear Solid with all the nuclear anxieties during these early 2022 months) to feel connected and directed in a way that makes it easier to engage.
I’ve composed a list of books that I feel are worth reaching for in times like ours—some because they are apocalyptic and heavy in subject or tone, others because they are satirical, and others more simply because of how they either show parts of the world that make it worth staying in or show a world so foreign to ours that it helps medicate against some of the tunnel vision of our times.
Let Them Eat Chaos, by Kae Tempest
Kae Tempest’s narrative long poem/spoken word/hip-hop album (available both as a book and as an album) is an intense dive into the lives of several everyday folks in Britain very late one night. The way this piece zooms out to an almost galactic level, raging at the state of the world and meanwhile zooming in on the particular intimacies of the lives of Tempest’s characters, is energizingly moving.
Brother, by David Chariandy
Not for the faint of heart, Chariandy’s Brother is a heavy (but quite short) novel set in Toronto’s working-class suburb Scarborough. Told in achingly beautiful prose, the story revolves around the main character and his (you guessed it) brother—who are both Trinidadian immigrants, living precariously with their mother in a housing project—and particularly the brother’s tragic death. If you’d like to yell “ACAB!” more than you already do, pick up this book.
Daytripper, by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá,
Seems weird to say it, but this graphic novel—where the main character, an obituary writer, dies so many times—is a truly beautiful testament to life. It is also a marvel that a book can set up a premise, where we will follow the character toward his death in his possible alternate lives, and make it consistently surprising and engaging. A beautifully illustrated, moving piece of work that reminds us how precious and fragile life can be.
Wittgenstein’s Mistress, by David Markson
I had to include my favorite possibly post-apocalyptic novel on this list, following Kate, who—as far as we can tell—is the only living person on the planet. We don’t know what happened with everyone else, and slowly we piece together how Kate has been living and continues to live in the years since she was left alone on Earth. Humorous and deeply lonely, in a way that I felt so incredibly seen by, this book is astonishing.
Green Grass, Running Water, by Thomas King
One of the most cognizant touchstones for me in writing My Volcano, King’s novel is a sprawling, satirical story that is full of mythic dread alongside the human dramas of the Indigenous characters it follows—revolving around their independent journeys to attend a Sun Dance ceremony. This novel is cutting and hilarious.
The Grotesque Child, by Kim Parko
If you are tired of our world, and its points of reference, you’re in luck with this book. I can’t even really give a good description of it, aside from that it is surreal, and that its world and creatures are completely divided from what we know on Earth. If you want to feel as far away as possible from this world, slip this book off the shelf.
Crawl Space, Jesse Jacobs
Another of the sort of “I need to get out of this world” sort of books on this list is Crawl Space, which is a really playful and beautifully rendered graphic novel, wherein kids find their way into this alternate dimension (through one of the character’s washing machine). Psychedelic and playful, the space this book opened in my mind was so welcome and new. Climb on in.
A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, by Alicia Elliott
Elliott’s essays stare our world in the face with a ferocity and intimacy that’s so invigorating and challenging, speaking on things like depression, race, love, and colonialism.
the earthquake room, by Davey Davis
I’ve not read a book that’s so small in it’s scope and stakes—being about a relationship between two queer people in the pacific northwest—that has felt as apocalyptic in tone as Davis’s the earthquake room. This is a beautiful book.
Through the Arc of the Rainforest, by Karen Tei Yamashita
A book that I’m happy I read after I finished writing My Volcano, this is a bizarre, satirical novel about capitalism and imperialism following the discovery of a strange geological formation under the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, and various characters who find their lives revolving around one another there. If you read My Volcano and want something along those lines (though still very different) this book is for you.
My Volcano is a pre-apocalyptic vision following a cast of characters, each experiencing private and collective eruptions: an eight-year-old boy in Mexico City finds himself 500 years in the past, where he lives through the fall of the Aztec Empire; a folktale scholar in Tokyo studies a story with indeterminate origins about a woman coming down a mountain to destroy villages and towns; a white trans writer living in Jersey City struggles to write a sci-fi novel about a thriving civilization on an impossible planet; a nurse with Doctors without Borders works with Syrian refugees in Greece; a nomadic herder in Mongolia is stung by a bee and finds himself transformed into a green, thorned, flowering creature that aims to cleanse the world’s most polluted places on its path toward assimilating every living thing on Earth.