The world has always been ending. The Great War, the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression. World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, COINTELPRO. Ozone depletion, deforestation, acid rain. AIDS, Ebola, SARS. People have always harbored the feeling that things couldn’t possibly get worse.
But now the world is really ending, right?
From the climate crisis to crumbling infrastructure, from murderous police to feudalistic levels of inequality and new COVID variants, the signs of impending doom seem harder to ignore than ever. So how do we live our best lives with the world ending all around us?
This is the central question that burns at the core of Sasha Fletcher’s one-of-a-kind debut novel, Be Here to Love Me at the End of the World. Part cookbook, part fairy tale, part working-class anthem, the book is a hybrid of forms that builds into a poetic how-to guide for love and life amidst our slow-burning apocalypse.
The novel follows boyfriend-girlfriend duo Sam and Eleanor over the course of one year in New York City, where life—in that most contemporary of ways—is simultaneously mundane and harrowing. Day to day, not much happens: Sam moves from freelance copywriting to a bullshit salaried job. Eleanor goes on a work retreat. Sam starts chopping veggies for dinner. Eleanor comes home. They talk about news. They worry about money. They uncork wine. They eat. They love. Sam marinates pork chops for tomorrow night’s dinner.
At the same time, life verges on the unbearable. The snow and heat have never been so extreme. Debt has never been so insurmountable. The subway has never been so late. Landlords have never been so evil. Secret police run amok, “blackbagging” entire subway cars. The President warns of a nuclear attack that never happens, which is promptly forgotten in the avalanche of bad news.
Fletcher’s balancing act—juxtaposing a dystopic modern world with normal home life—captures our great twenty-first-century contradiction at its finest. Who hasn’t doom-scrolled through the Horrors of the Day, only to put down the phone to wash dishes, fold laundry, watch TV? This alone would make for a solid literary recipe, but for Fletcher, it’s the launching pad for an exploration of our inner humanity, our better angels, and how we got here in the first place.
The novel’s exploration is seriously ambitious, requiring big leaps between times, locations, topics, and countless “mini-essays” that make up the book. Any given section might bounce from the rubber plant in Sam and Eleanor’s apartment to the FBI assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton to an imagined angel-based video game to a history of student debt to a play-by-play of Sam’s roasted chicken dinner, with a thousand other points and associations between. The sheer scope of topics and associations could easily lead to an overstuffed, unfocused novel. Fletcher, however, nimbly knits it together, largely by borrowing from the craft of poetry.
In many ways, Be Here to Love Me at the End of the World resembles a poetry collection, in both the book’s structure as well as individual passages. Take this standalone chapter, “Everything is good here. Please come home”:
When I look at you standing in the doorway like that all rimmed with light like that as I walk up to you like that what happens is that it feels like I love you so much that I can’t breathe. It feels like I love you so much that if I were to let you take my breath away like that then the world’d end right then and there. I think it’s cute that we all always try to keep breathing. That we refuse, day in and day out, to let beauty take our breath away, to have the sky crack open for good and always. It’s cute. It really is.
The repetition of the phrase “like that,” the variations on “breath,” the structure of the chapter—starting as a general observation and narrowing to a reflection on life and love—what is this if not big-hearted poetry? It should come as no surprise that Fletcher is a poet by training, with a book of poems and several chapbooks under his belt. Unlike a novel in verse, however, which strips down the prose while keeping a plot-based structure, Be Here to Love Me at the End of the World is the opposite: It reads like a poetry collection flexing as a novel, with a result that is both captivating and utterly unique.
The fingerprints of good poetry are everywhere, often taking the form of wondrously-executed pivots in the tradition of the associative essays and lectures of Mary Ruefle. Watch how Fletcher—in four sentences—takes us from the sixteenth century back to Sam and Eleanor’s Brooklyn apartment:
. . . on October 4, 1582, the Julian calendar ended and on October 15, 1582, the Gregorian calendar started. Jews sit shiva for a week because it took the good Lord seven days to create the world and each life lost is a world the sun will never rise on again. Pretty much all societies at one point or another believed that the purpose of birds was to carry the souls of the dead to Heaven, which is why New York has so many pigeons. It’s raining today and it has been all week. Tomorrow the clouds will part for the first time in days, and we, along with the all the plants in the apartment, will be bathed in light.
The passage, like so many in the book, could be a prose poem. So how does Fletcher weave them all into a novel? The answer is another clear sign that we have arrived in the land of poetry, as it has much to do with the novel’s narrator, and little to do with plot.
The narrator (or “speaker” in poetry-talk) is intimate yet ambiguous. The narrator addresses the reader in the first person, yet never reveals their vantage point. They approach omniscience but never quite get there. They are an avowed enemy of every landlord and cop and union-buster in the land. They are hilarious. They are charming in their passion—flamboyant with exclamation marks—as well as their occasional forgetfulness:
Meanwhile Sam had a slice of key lime pie from the other night. The other night, there was key lime pie. It was salted, and delicious, and I cannot believe I forgot to tell you about it.
Above all, the narrator is nimble, which allows Fletcher to make the flawless jumps between the novel’s many associations. This energy is central for propelling the novel, as Sam and Eleanor’s arc is nearly absent of plot. The couple does not cheat on one another. They are not mailed a mysterious note that sends them down a trail of clues. They are not involved in a rebellion against the landlord class. Like a pair of Sally Rooney characters, Sam and Eleanor are simply trying to live life. Their plot is hunger: What will Sam cook tonight? Their plot is the commute: How will Eleanor make it home from work amidst subway delays? Their plot is debt: How will Sam scrape together $2,000 to contribute to their joint savings account? Readers accustomed to traditional structures might find themselves a little lost with Be Here to Love Me at the End of the World, but everyone will find echoes of their own experience. The majority of us—like Sam and Eleanor—are consumers of news, not participants. Dinner, the commute, debt, and love are the plots of our lives.
So, if not plot-driven, literary-logic dictates that the novel must then be character-driven. But this isn’t exactly the case. Sam and Eleanor begin the novel as an adorable couple deeply in love, and they end the novel as an adorable couple deeply in love. The book’s most-repeated line is likely a tie between variations of “I love you so much, Sam,” and “I love you so much, Eleanor.” Do not make the mistake, however, of thinking they are uninteresting characters. It is a joy to follow Sam and Eleanor, yet their draw has nothing to do with conflict or growth, and everything to do with their desperation—and success!—in being tender to one another amid the crushing external pressures of a world that makes love such a needless challenge.
The radiant engine of this novel is neither plot or character but rather the thick bundle of arcs and associations working in tandem: angels and birds, wolves and castles, unions and debt, seasons and wine and cooking and love. Each of these associative arcs is delightful in itself, and all the more so when reverberating and accentuating one another like distant ripples converging in the center of a pond:
He put the strips of chicken in the flour, then the egg, then the breadcrumbs, and dropped them in the hot oil. He transferred them to a baking sheet with foil in the oven to keep warm as they fried. He turned on the heat for the pot of water, and the secret police came for the tenant’s rights committee. Soon the noodles were ready, and the sauce had simmered, and the broccoli had cooked, and the chicken had fried. He plated dinner, and put shredded mozzarella on his, and put the dishes in the sink, running hot water over everything and squirting a solid amount of grapefruit-scented soap that promised to burn grease off the face of the earth into the pile in the sink. Eleanor walked in the door. He opened a nice Barbera and kissed her on the cheek.
The most joyful, memorable passages of Be Here to Love Me at the End of the World center around these descriptions of Sam’s cooking—which is fitting, as the novel, as a whole, hits the brain in that same sweet spot as a cooking show, where the real magic comes from process, the messy steps and charming slip-ups along the way. Which might also serve as a thesis for the novel: journey, not destination. The world, after all, has always been ending, and it always will be ending. Debt may never be repaid. Landlords may never stop raising rent. The angels may never float down to save us. So what to do in the meantime, as things fall apart? Sam and Eleanor show us one recipe for success: Say, “I love you,” as often as possible. Be tender. Be kind. Cook the most delicious dinners that our tiny kitchens will allow.