Published in the October 27, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, “The Empties” by Jess Row is a postapocalyptic (or is it dystopian?) short story set in the Northeast. What grabbed me about this story was in the fourth paragraph, where Row’s characters step back and view their own narrative. What story are we in? What’s happening?
Anyway, Quentin’s saying, I was down at the Grange listening to these guys arguing about the difference between dystopia and apocalypse. Can you believe that? One of them was saying that we were living in a dystopian novel, and the other guy, big bearded dude, from the West Rats Collective, said, No, dystopia means an imaginary place where everything is exactly wrong, and what we’re living in is a postapocalyptic, prelapsarian kind of thing, you know, a return to nature after the collapse of society as we knew it.
And I must have been three or four shots in—we were drinking Wayne Peters’s sweet-potato vodka—because I said, Look, kiddos, the truth is neither, because we have no idea what might happen, the infrastructure is still basically in place, especially if people from certain collectives hadn’t stripped out the copper over in White River—
—but my point is really that dystopian and postapocalyptic narratives are narratives, that is, stories: things that are inherently invented or collated ex post facto. Narratives are static. Real life is, is—
The point is, we need to just let all that shit go, because, call it End Times or whatever you want, things are different now. None of the old endings played out, did they? So we have to imagine new endings. Hence the possibility for hope.
So, immediately, Row let’s us know he’s familiar with this genre and willing to pull away from the standard script, but does he follow through? With further references to Cormac McCarthy, he’s aiming his sights high; but ultimately, the story doesn’t deliver. What starts out strong ends up as another post-apocalyptic, disaster story that aims for some literary quality (literary meaning complex sentences and characters who seem like people), but that’s been done by Cormac McCarthy in The Road, Margaret Atwood in the MaddAdam Trilogy, and to an extent in comic books like Y: The Last Man and The Walking Dead, which may not have the literary angle, but do have an original storyline. In “The Empties” the power is out. That’s what leads to this collapse. It’s more benign than Ebola, Zombies, or a nuclear attack. But it’s like the first pitch of a baseball game, all that follows is the same. People are trying to survive after the collapse of civilization as we know it. Where’s the originality that Ross hints at on page one? These next two sentences point toward originality, or at least, create vivid, interesting images.
There was a girl, she remembers, who went up on the grassy hillside behind the Montessori school with a basket of scraps and a pair of scissors and began re-creating her Pinterest page, squares of bright cloth for each jpeg, strips of blue sheet for the tool bar and browser frame.
I love this image of a person coping and going through some technological withdraw in a such a delusional manner.
This isn’t science fiction, Quentin says, because if it were we’d have the answers, we’d know what happened.
And, while this second sentence states there will be no answers, it doesn’t set itself apart from The Road, which also had no answers, but plopped the reader down in a terrible present.
Perhaps, though, the originality is in the form of a disguised death. There’s a dreamy quality to the narration and one can easily imagine lucidity slipping away for the main character. The conversations are like the light from stars. By the time they reach the reader, we don’t realize they happened in the past. How much time has passed? Who said what? It isn’t until the end that we realize the character with whom she’d been talking to is dead. Quentin flows into Nathan and the reader readily confuses the two. There are no transitions or explanations; these are remembrances. Part of the narrator’s writing process. I enjoyed that aspect of the story, but then the true ending seemed to scale back. Outsiders approach the town. Are they good or bad? Is the world that black and white? We don’t know. We’re left with Quentin’s hope and the assault rifle slung across the narrator’s knees.
What were your thoughts on this story? What aspects of the story worked well and, or where did you think the story could be improved?