Monday
Apr062015

This Boring Apocalypse

By Brandi Wells


 

CCM
March 2015
978-1937865368


Reviewed by Matthew Mahaney


 

What comes to mind when I mention The Giving Tree? Do you remember it? Was it happy, sad, or both? Was it about the tree, the boy, or both? Despite not having read or even thought about Shel Silverstein's classic children's book in years, I was reminded of it often while reading Brandi Wells's novella, This Boring Apocalypse, which is ultimately about the ways in which humans seek to shape, control, or otherwise dictate the terms and dynamics of a relationship. That This Boring Apocalypse also includes various people being changed into trees, planted, dug up again, pruned, chopped down, and burned for warmth is another, more obvious reason that The Giving Tree came to mind:

The women do not go away. Their feet sink into the soil and they become affixed. Their roots grow down deep and spread across the yard. Several trees become uprooted and the driveway crackles and turns to rubble. The women grow taller and their arms stretch toward the sky, leaf-covered.

Wells's unnamed protagonist frequently changes her mind with regard to what she wants her partner to be or do. She blames and accuses her partner of being useless, unhelpful, and unsatisfactory in every way, while refusing to admit or even consider that she doesn't know what will make her happy or that her demands range from unfair to unpleasant to impossible. But the impossible is a good place to be in Wells's world, a world to which we are introduced by the protagonist claiming, "I try to fit her legs inside my mouth [. . .] She keeps kicking, so I remove her legs." The removal is not horrific or gross or anything more than a matter of fact attempt to improve the partner, and by extension, the relationship. The legs become "an accessory," something to show off to people, and when the partner calls to say she misses her legs, her arms are next to go. Eventually the partner is reduced to a torso, a container of sorts, to be utilized in a variety of ways before ultimately being discarded:

I only bury her in the ground once a week now, so I can check on the lemon seedlings. I don't have to lure her into the ground under false pretenses anymore. We both agree it is time for her to be buried and we walk together to her grave. She climbs into the earth and closes her eyes while I cover her body with dirt. Goodnight, I say. It is a restful time.

Inevitably, the neglected torso falls in love with someone else. Even more inevitably, this love interest is yet another neglected torso planted in the ground by the protagonist. When she finds out about this new love, the protagonist realizes that she "cannot imagine a love. Only a jealousy." She will have to try harder, will have to learn how to be and to feel from other people:

I do not know how to make myself feel more or differently [. . .] I gather people and keep them in my basement. Please, I tell one of the people in my basement, tell me how this feels. I rip their pinky finger off. I rip my own finger off and hold our fingers side by side. Then I hold our hands side by side. I compare our complete hands. I compare our incomplete hands. I look at our faces. Our faces look very different. I observe an acute unhappiness in their face and I add that to my graph.

The protagonist attempts various types of relationships with several potential new partners, though she keeps returning to the original, the sad neglected torso from which she could not make something useful. She seeks out a diagnostic specialist, which of course ends in drama, though this means an actual one-act play as opposed to the clichéd "drama" so often linked with relationships:

My actors come off the stage and drag the diagnostic specialist onto it [. . .] Once on the stage, they hook the diagnostic specialist to several pulleys. The pulleys maneuver the specialist around the stage in a way that makes it seem like he's dancing. You are dancing beautifully, the audience yells. And he is. He is elegant and even though he is not wearing a flowing ball gown, I feel like he is. I can feel the soft material against my face. I can see the way it drifts and billows around him, like he's floating.

Throughout This Boring Apocalypse, Wells's protagonist acquires and subsequently discards numerous pets, people, and foods, trying to understand her unhappiness through various means. It's the simultaneous elimination and accumulation that makes This Boring Apocalypse succeed. Were only one of these elements present, the book would perhaps feel predictable and unsatisfying. By introducing new, unexpected elements with each removal of a limb, head, or organ, Wells keeps readers wondering how far the hilarious, absurd, steady removal of personhood will go. But she keeps us even more interested in learning whether any true happiness or self-actualization will ever occur.