[Perennial Press; 2022]
Keely Shinners’ debut novel, How to Build a Home for the End of the World, is an epic post-apocalyptic adventure. It’s the Americana dream: a father-daughter Route 66 road trip, soundtracked by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and The Blues Brothers, John Denver and the Rolling Stones, Bessie Jones and Public Enemy, and a hymnal held by memory and breathy harmonica. Donny is a carpenter, out of work and, like the rest of the world, out of water. His daughter, Mary-Beth, is on a mission to make it from their ghost town — Fox Lake, Illinois, where the slowly draining lake has disappeared over night — to Los Angeles, where Ida, the girl she loves, is looking for an organ donation. Unbeknownst to Donny, “a man who slipped so easily into denial” and who has an increasingly loose grasp on everything from his name to the state of the dried up world, Mary-Beth plans to be the one to donate her intestines, and her life, to Ida, through a “living donor” program set up by the activist organization, The Collective.
Along their cinematic journey, Mary-Beth and Donny encounter pockets of life. If not always flourishing, these pockets are robustly surviving: a state prison retrofitted into a borehole for water drilling by The Collective; a ’50s-styled, space-themed diner in an otherwise empty town; a motel, The Munger Moss, run by Mooney June and her canaries, which even boasts electricity; a group of fellow travelers settled into the bed of a self-driving delivery truck; a camp of trippy queer folk in the Mojave Desert; and Los Angeles, no longer the paradise of milk and honey, but a city still, populated by thousands.
Through and past these encounters, the two journeyers discover their capacities and incapabilities for love — of themselves, each other, the entire ending world. Their relationship is strained, not least because of Donny’s erratic, at times borderline psychotic behavior. He attempts to hold tight to their traditionally patriarchal relationship — solving problems and protecting Mary-Beth, affectionately gripping her, for comfort or for control, so tight she bruises. Meanwhile, Mary-Beth shifts her own shame onto Donny, resenting him as a symbol of the world’s destruction, and as a mirror to her own complacency in it. She blames him, but she cannot leave him. “This was not love,” writes Shinners as Dr. Maria Camphor, the voice behind the apocalyptic-anthropology dissertation slash road trip narrative, “but it could be.”
In fact, the dissertation at its heart is an inquiry into love and hope. Backgrounded by climate collapse and the systemic (dis)organization that emerges from the inherited infrastructure of late capitalism, a line of dialogue is repeated like a refrain: What is love like for you?
The answer is different every time the question is asked, adding up to a manual for surviving the so-called End of the World. Ultimately, Dr. Camphor concludes, love is not sacrificing one’s self for another person or a cause, as a martyr or as a strategy to avoid responsibility for individual and collective shortcomings. It’s not power, controlling other people with a mind for what’s best for them. What is it, then? Generosity, perhaps. Self-awareness. The choice to stumble, broken alongside everyone else in a broken world, believing that together, your bodies, and the body you make up together, might have a chance to heal. And, if they do not heal, caring for them despite their sickness.
Sickness permeates the story of How to Build a Home at the End of the World. Donny is probably an alcoholic, with volatile emotions reminiscent of bi-polar disorder and eventually severe physical disabilities. Ida, who organizes water deliveries to the elderly, sick, and disabled members of her Chicago community, has gastrointestinal issues that prevent her from digesting some, or perhaps even most, of the things she consumes. Dr. Camphor has liver disease, a result of her own dependence on alcohol. Everyone but the most wealthy — which many of the high-level members of The Collective seem to be — or the most ingenious — like the members of the rebel community in LA — suffers daily dehydration, uncomfortable hunger, malnutrition, and nostalgia-laced depression.
Sickness permeates our own world, which may or may not be ending, depending on how you choose to define an end. In the first week of 2022, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, said, “The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75%, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities. So really these are people who were unwell to begin with and yes, really encouraging news in the context of Omicron.” The message is blunt, so easy to decipher: in a capitalist world, sick people are worth more dead than they are alive.
Reading, last summer, a year and a half into the Covid pandemic, Johanna Hedva’s essay entitled “Sick Women Theory”(which first appeared in maskmagazine.com and later in Genderfail’s An Anthology on Failure Volume 1), I somewhat idly, almost proudly thought to myself, “all my bitches, sick bitches.” Hedva writes, quoting Starhawk, of “a myth — that somewhere there exists some state of health which is the norm, meaning that most people presumably are in that state, and those who are anxious, depressed, neurotic, distressed, or generally unhappy are deviant.” I know that health is not the norm, because everyone I know is sick with something. Suffering. From cancer and COPD, IBS and eating disorders, MS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, POTS, Lyme disease, scoliosis, bi-polar, ADHD, anxiety, depression, addiction, allergies. We have injuries we cannot afford to address, bones healed wrong, muscles overworked, migraines, UTIs. If I, if any of my friends or family, were to die from Covid, we would die with comorbidities. If we died with less than four of them, we would be the lucky among us.
“The Sick Woman,” Hedva writes, “is told that, to this society, her care, even her survival, does not matter.”
“Really these are people who were unwell to begin with,” says Dr. Walensky, of the recent Covid-dead, “and yes, really encouraging news in the context of Omicron.”
This is the neoliberal system from which Shinners’ Collective springs; one where progress is a road built with the bones of the sick, the blood of the oppressed, the water that should be there for all of us to drink. Worldwide crisis is an opportunity for adaptation — “a blessing in disguise,” Ida calls it, “No more cops. No more landlords. No more mayors. No more bosses. I mean, finally, we could breathe . . . Sure, we didn’t have water in the taps, but with the lake right there, we could take care of ourselves.” It’s also an opportunity for those in power and those thirsty for it to make structural decisions in the name of safety, of survival. But safety and survival for who?
How to Build a Home at the End of the World illustrates Sick Woman Theory in a track parallel to our own, one where drought, not pandemic, is the central harbinger of the End. It is unlike fatalist apocalypse media meant to frighten us out of our “bad attitudes” towards climate change. Take, for example, the Adam McKay and Hyperobject Industries movie Don’t Look Up, in which Leonardo DiCaprio ignorantly states, moments before a meteor instantly wipes out the grand majority of life on Earth, “We really did have everything, didn’t we?” Instead, How to Build a Home at the End of the World is exactly what it purports to be: an instruction manual for surviving the End of the World, which might just be the glorious end of capitalism and the binaries Hedva illustrates as “sick” and “well.” When we are all sick, all the time (as we are now), and it is not seen as abnormal (as it is now), we can take care of each other. This is what capitalism desperately wants us to not do. If we are busy taking care of each other, who will take care of the economy?
This is how we build our home.
Hannah Lamb-Vines is an interviews editor at Full Stop. She lives in Berkeley with her dog, Joni, and likes funny poetry, weird fiction, and extra half-and-half in her coffee. You can follow her on instagram @embarrassed4evr and on twitter @profesh4evr. A list of her publications is available at https://www.neutralspaces.co/lambvines/.
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