Nicolas Dickner, Apocalypse For Beginners

The end of the world has fascinated humanity for millennia, but unless you’re using a wonky Mayan calendar, rarely does the apocalypse send a calling card bearing the exact date of its arrival. Or, that is, unless you’re a Randall. When each member of this Nova Scotian family reaches puberty, there’s an unexplained, unwelcome gift bestowed upon him or her (in addition to the usual acne and dental machinery): a crystal-clear vision of the end of days, right down to the date, time, and form it will assume.

It’s a phenomenon that’s been going on for generations, with the horrifying details different for each receiver—and the fact that none of these predictions comes true is no comfort at all. In fact, as Nicolas Dickner describes it in his newly translated novel Apocalypse for Beginners, once the date of the vision has passed, the Randall in question experiences “a mental breakdown and an inclination to damage public property. The story would usually end in an asylum or suchlike.”

First published in French in 2009 under the (far superior) title Tarmac, Apocalypse for Beginners introduces us to the youngest Randall, a precocious redheaded teenager named Hope. Having grown up taking care of her mother, whose mind is unraveling as her own chosen date passes by, Hope believes that she herself is much too rational and well-adjusted to succumb to her family’s unique ailment. At the beginning of the novel the two of them land in Rivière-du-Loup, a small town in Quebec, in 1989. Here she meets Mickey, our narrator. Restless, hormone-riddled, and uninterested in inheriting the family cement plant, he’s only too eager to get swept up into the cyclone of this alluring stranger’s life.

Dickner’s first novel, Nikolski, which won both a Governor General’s Award and this year’s Canada Reads tournament, was mostly interested in the past, rooting around in dumpsters and family trees alike. Apocalypse for Beginners, on the other hand, keeps its gaze uneasily locked on the future—specifically, July 17, 2001, the date Hope discovers on a whim one night via a literal roll of the dice.

In addition to being a compulsive newspaper reader and obsessing over world events like cold fusion and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hope behaves like a rather unorthodox junior scientist. At another point she pores over an equation to figure out how many lemons it would take to generate as much energy as an atomic bomb. The short answer? Lots.

Apocalypse for Beginners has the same appealing looseness as Nikolski, but not nearly as much keeping it tied to firm ground. We know Armageddon isn’t really on the horizon, so the focal point then becomes Hope’s multi-pronged condition—she also, perplexingly, has never menstruated—and the narrator’s growing attraction to his best friend. Yet Mickey is severely underdeveloped. He barely exists on the page, more a series of keystrokes than a person. So perhaps it’s understandable that Hope never clues into his romantic feelings, and instead takes off to Japan, in search of a quasi-clairvoyant whose end date matches Hope’s exactly.

Much of the novel is powered by these kinds of left-field plot twists, and while there’s something to be said for bravely following an idea to its conclusion, one gets the sense here that Dickner isn’t saying no very often. The many narrative threads feel more often than not like rough drafts, or notes to be fleshed out later. Overreaching quirks like Hope lugging around a volume called Teach Yourself Russian at Home, Volume 13 are reminiscent of Douglas Coupland at his thinnest.

Perhaps this is all to say that Dickner should have set his sights a bit higher: he came up with Apocalypse for Beginners, when what we really needed was a master class.

Translated from the French by Lazer Lederhendler. Vintage Canada, 272 pp, $22, paperback

(review originally appeared, in a slightly different format, in The Edmonton Journal, January 2, 2011)

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