Book Review

Dystopian stories explore the malignant future we assume will follow a catastrophe (be it of the nuclear, social, extraterrestrial, or undead variety—or of the type found in the indomitable Purge movie franchise). Apocalyptic stories, on the other hand, offer us the end of the world, and typically end . . . at the end. Think impending volcanoes, asteroids, nuclear war, or the last ten Roland Emmerich films. Seldom is the apocalypse treated with an artful touch, which is unfortunate because ever since humans have looked to the stars and become aware of temporal distance, we have dwelt on the existential nightmare of the world—or at least our lives—ending. At the very least, apocalyptic art might act as a symbol for permanent loss. Or absence.

Katharine Haake provides a palliative for the shortage of thoughtful apocalyptic literature with Assumptions We Might Make About the Postworld, a collection of eleven short stories, each of which explores the end of things—even if just symbolically—as a way to meditate on themes of loss and absence. There are no meteors or volcanoes in Haake’s collection (though one tale does feature ravenous aliens intent on devouring all the trappings of modern life, from “dewy mown hay” to “quail egg omelets” to “pillows, stuffed with soft down and years of dead skin”). No, in Haake’s universe the world ends with a whimper, as cherished objects or people or hopes merely vanish. In one story, children begin to disappear into trees with a pop, until one by one, they are no more. In another, a community adores, then fondles, and finally devours “vast schools of small golden fish,” reducing the scaled creatures’ once vibrant and nourishing energy to desecrated flesh. But not only do the stories in this collection offer literal endings, they also summon an apocalyptic dread via the language of symbols, particularly symbols related to absence.

This brings me to the book’s epigraph from A Mapmaker’s Dream by James Cowan: “Quitting the place that we love means that we are condemned to inhabit our loss forever.” The epigraph, which is obtuse and, at first, easily skipped over, gains meaning as each story unfolds. In particular, the phrase “inhabit our loss” demands we pay attention to Haake’s repeated allusions to absence, from an absent limb, to a missing chunk of sky, to a blurred face, to a knotted muscle now missing, to those aforementioned golden fish which are known only by their absence: “We only knew it by what it was not.” One story is even titled, “The Bodiless Baby.” It’s about a baby with, you guessed it, no body. The baby is literally absent.

While absence and iterations thereof act as a connective theme, the symbols in these stories invoke childhood, or at least parenthood. Perhaps both. Besides the overall presence of young children or childlike wonder in most of the stories, we have symbols: “an orange backpack . . . with bright fluorescent stripes,” a “red ball,” and “our sensible shoes and our belief in orange juice.” Even certain moments feel parental: “We should do our best in school, be kind to our brothers and sisters, eat less and exercise more,” and “confabs over coffee, schoolyard altercations, lunchroom stony silences, and late night ruminations between lovers.” The overall effect of these parent-child associations is to imbue the text with a deeply personal feeling, as though these are stories written by a parent grappling with children who have grown up and vanished into adulthood. Things once important are now inert, like broken kitchen tools kept in a drawer. The absence of children is a parent’s wistful apocalypse.

And though symbols play a role, here they defy translation; they are not a puzzle to solve. Because of this, the stories speak in a language of their own, the kind that children keep alive in their imaginations. There will be a stone, a fish, an orange backpack, a red rubber ball, or an orange at the center of a story. The symbol will just . . . be—oranges tossed to children as the children vanish, a spaceship, a rock. These and other symbols resist an easy interpretation or any interpretation at all. In fact, the first person plural narration seems to code the text as being related to the Australian Aboriginal dream tales with their oblique narratives and unknowable lessons: “Among us lived a boy . . . ” or “A man came toward our town.”

Or as fables with unknowable lessons, they invoke the book of Revelation or an Old Testament flood. Even when one of the stories’ narrators literally translates a symbol into a sign, the translation becomes fuzzy as in “Master of Goats,” where a “torn sky” fills the narrator with “dread.” The tear in the sky equals dread. Easy. But not so fast. This tear soon becomes a rip, and then the narrator suggests it equals hope. It’s as though Haake is consciously playing with our need for direct interpretations. In defying direct reasoning, Haake’s stories dabble in the unknowable language of dreams—feedback loops of ever-changing meaning. The closest correlation is Richard Brautigan’s dreamy masterpiece, In Watermelon Sugar, a book that works in symbols that cannot be parsed, which somehow work deep magic on the reader’s subconscious.

Whereas Brautigan’s book reflects 1960s counterculture, Assumptions We Might Make About the Postworld acts as a book of unmapped folktales emanating from a region of the mind of a parent. They provide comfort to the cries of despair from an empty nest. What do you do with a tear but treat it as a rip, and why not turn the dread of absence or loss into hope? After all, even during the most nightmarish apocalypse, there is always the chance that the future won’t be dystopian. The narrator in “The Master of Goats” says it best: “Between now and [the end], she thought, if there was a human condition, let it be a condition of hope.”

About the Reviewer

Kirk Sever's writing has appeared in Angel City Review, Unbroken Journal, Rain Taxi, Bird's Thumb, and elsewhere. Additionally, Kirk's work has been recognized by the Academy of American Poets George M. Dillon Memorial Award, the Northridge Fiction Award, and the New Short Fiction Series. He currently teaches writing at Cal State, Northridge.