We Are Alive: On Mark O’Connell’s “Notes From An Apocalypse”

"Notes From An Apocalypse" cover

Dear friends of my mother live in francophone Europe, where the currents of post-war diaspora deposited them. They have one child, and he died in his 20s. He was a non-blood cousin, distantly perfect—in musical ability, marks, temperament. Through Notes from an Apocalypse, I thought about catastrophe and bereavement and him. I thought about tragedy and scale, about the circumstances of my U.S. citizenship and my parents as Vietnamese youth in the 1970s, and about how cruelly cases I’ve read for law school teem with injury and death, the phrase “could not recover for loss of companionship.” I remembered my cousin having been mourned and gone before I was even a teenager, and I was going to write something neatly connected, revoltingly so, to having watched personal apocalypse in one’s family, in periphery. I remembered my feet dangling during the announcement. Abject smallness. Upon resurrecting the whole memory for inspection, though, I found that I’d been in college, the summer after my first year. 17, the body in that memory gradually became—I’d had a first drink, many; a first kiss. I remember now a hotel bedspread in central California, dry-heaving at the revelation that my parents hadn’t told me when he died, for fear of burdening me.


Notes is a parent’s search for how to be honest with his child about—while still protecting them from—a brutal, brutalized world and its prognosis. Mark O’Connell visits sites of catastrophe past and predicted to ask: When do vigilance and realism render one useless? With wryness but neither outright contempt nor indulgence toward doomers, himself included, O’Connell examines sightseeing in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, online survivalist “prepper” culture, and American tech billionaires’ fetishization of New Zealand as a purchasable utopia. He attends a Los Angeles conference on Mars colonization and a solo wilderness retreat in the Scottish Highlands, tours luxury apocalypse bunkers in South Dakota. Notes is not a historical diagnosis of contemporary Western apocalyptic paranoia, not an inexpert’s prescription for policy solutions to climate change, absolutely not a self-help guide that could have been called ALL IS F*CKED or something equally smug and rabid. It is a study of apocalypse as a concept, an anxious self-portrait of someone alive in an uncertain present.

O’Connell’s prose is lucid and elegant, the best sort of reminder that reserving for fiction expectations of “literariness” and beautifully crafted language is witless bullshit. And for a book on anxiety, apocalypse, and death, it’s very funny. Unrelenting self-awareness saves what would in other hands be a horrifically on-the-nose explanation of The Lorax as a fable of environmental activism, when his four-year-old’s (“I have lately noticed in him the presence of intellectual vanity”) bedtime story becomes a Socratic dialogue on consumer desire:

“We don’t have any Thneeds,” my son protests.

“That’s technically true,” I say. “Because Thneeds aren’t a real thing, and you couldn’t buy one even if you wanted to. But maybe what Dr. Seuss is getting at is the way we all tend to buy things we don’t need. I think it’s a metaphor.”

At this point, I can hear the clanking and wheezing of the machinery of my PhD in English literature as it is roused into a state of sluggish animation.

“Do you know what a metaphor is?” I ask.

This self-awareness undergirds Notes’s discussions of individual agency and the tension between two faults: (a) gauche overestimation of one’s significance in the universe and (b) unforgivable complicity in systems one knows to be incorrect. Beyond indifference, what constitutes productive, quotidian individual action—especially when set against the volume of damage and repair industries and nations can do—is difficult to pin down, but this difficulty is never allowed to absolve O’Connell, or the very process of researching for the book: “You will note that this book about the apocalyptic tenor of our time features a great many interludes of travel to distant places […] and that I neither walked nor sailed nor took a train to any of these places. […] My footprint is as broad and deep and indelible as my guilt.” A perfectly functioning sushi conveyor belt at Heathrow Airport prompts a memorable passage on its “miraculous and terrible” unsustainability, as he marvels at “the raw tonnage of fuel needed to extract the fish from the sea and ship them to where they were processed, to get them to the gaping mouths of my fellow consumers.” Calling himself “the apocalypse of which [he] speak[s],” O’Connell apparently prefers risking error on the side of (a), but these acknowledgements come as careful reckonings, not toothless, self-deprecating formalities.

The book’s sharpest idea is threaded throughout in reminders of imperial violence: that, for some, the apocalypse has come and gone and always been—that to imagine apocalypse and survival is a luxury, for what’s genocide if not apocalypse devalued, history if not a series of inconceivable catastrophes? Catastrophe, let alone uncertainty, is ordinary. Notes considers, for instance, the short-memoried fantasy of Mars pioneering as “an exercise in future-nostalgia” that “recuperat[es] a twentieth-century optimism and excitement about technology and science” despite “the significant weight of historical baggage attached to the whole project of colonialism.” In an address to the 2012 instantiation of the Mars settlement convention O’Connell attends in 2018, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and insufferable Poster, lauded the history of American colonial expansion and extrapolated it to a future of space exploration:

“The United States is a distillation of the human spirit of exploration,” he said. “Almost everyone here came from somewhere else. You couldn’t ask for a group of people that are more interested in exploring the frontier.” (Musk did not allude in his speech to those who had been brought here against their will, or who had been here long before the frontier explorers he was invoking. What he meant by the “human spirit of exploration” was, in essence, the white European spirit of colonial conquest and exploitation.)

And for non-billionaires who foresee imminent disaster, too, vigilance blends with fantasy, as is the case with preppers who order camouflage-printed tactical go-bags and gear online, who imagine themselves Survivors like the billionaires they admire or the rugged outdoorsmen of ahistorical pasts. This critique of selectively defining apocalypse appears when a Royal Air Force bomber designed for war, current and elsewhere, thunders overhead in the Scottish wilderness; when the idea of New Zealand as a pristine, near-uninhabited utopia for American billionaires echoes a telling of history that overwrites Māori existence with British commerce and colonization; when O’Connell encounters unsheltered people on the streets of Dublin—everywhere. 

Especially in the New Zealand and Mars sections, the reader is left unable to empathize with any sort of solipsistic, mortal fear that materializes in extreme, selfish resource-hoarding, whether or not she thinks the fear valid—a key difference from O’Connell’s previous book To Be a Machine, on transhumanism (and, well, the anxiety of having a human body). In Machine’s treatment of cryogenic preservationists, for example, fearing death that way, hoping to best it, fantasizing survival, retained a fundamental admirability; you don’t really throw anyone under the bus by freezing your corpse, even in quixotic futility. When I want to feel strange and open, I flip to that chapter of Machine and think about what Max More’s life must be like. In contrast, the idea of Peter Thiel & Co. preparing for the real-or-not endtimes with private disaster bunkers, don’t mind the masses, reeks only of cynicism, hope corrupted. Some people are very happy to drive the metaphorical bus, and Notes does not ask its readers to relate to that self-serving glee.

What Notes suffers from, then, if anything, is being too timely. I feel like I’m losing my mind, writing as vaccine development for COVID-19, a WHO-declared pandemic, becomes a commercial race to profitability and New York State launches branded hand sanitizer produced by the labor of incarcerated people “paid an hourly wage of 62 cents and as little as 10 cents” and Musk—oblivious at best to his net worth of over $30 billion, eager to moonlight as a social media epidemiologist—flippantly tweets “The coronavirus panic is dumb”, and, and, incessant and. It’s not March 2020 alone to which I react; the U.S.’s dismally inadequate initial response to this global public health emergency and the newest rumblings of economic recession follow two decades of my youth marked by 9/11, the 2008 Recession, the sequence of Bush-Obama-Trump administrations, the crisis of domestic health insecurity, endless war waged as U.S. “foreign interventions,” scientific consensus about the impending worldwide effects of global warming, and more. My field of vision is limited in many ways, probably most by nationality, and the world is always ending, but fear persists. Cassandra of Troy wasn’t wrong. As a voter, I’m on the losing side of my red-handed, gerontocratic country’s generational cavern—and to add insult to injury, it’s the winners who’ll generally get to leave this Earth first, dragging with them the most vulnerable of others.


I admit overidentification with Notes’s exposure-therapy approach to making sense of fear. I’m obsessed with the human condition—fragile, foolish, fleshy, animal—and I’m never not thinking about grief, “the trauma, the bomb, the thing after which we cannot ever write poems” (Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter). I often think of my cousin, his parents. I can’t outmaneuver chance, but I can’t not fear, and it sends me looking for accounts of disaster, as though if I research and rubberneck and think hard enough, I might ward off heartbreak in my own timeline. My obsession with public transit, for instance, I frame in rational terms like “vehicular violence” and “transportation justice,” ground in communicable data: the number of lives lost in collisions, the environmental folly and economic shortsightedness of prioritizing private automobiles. But the root is horror. The rest is grief, preemptive and concentrate.

I am not afraid of apocalypse, exactly; I fear being surprised by it. I am anxious, about being alive. So, I do sympathize with doomsday preppers in that instinct for fear, if not its origin or response. To that end, Pascal’s stupid-as-hell Wager seems much more useful to thinking about climate violence than about deism. If we act to prepare for and reduce the impact of catastrophic climate change, and it does occur, then we will have prepared and reduced. If we do not, and it does occur, then we stand no chance at all. And if we are to prepare and reduce, it can only be because enough people bet on a strategy of solidarity over selfhood—for the many, not the few. (See hope yet, for example, in the solidarity of voluntary social distancing and grocery shopping for neighbors in response to COVID-19, and in how up-to-date vaccinations for those who can get them protect, through herd immunity, those who can’t.) Either way, we won’t have any reason to be surprised.


I approached and left Notes as I would an older, settled, maybe-wiser friend’s home, one with sensible furniture, searching for some kind of imitable stability and direction—knowingly misguided. I wanted a budget for despair, some external report of how much of my angst is overprivileged youth, how much is reason, how much is both. Depending on the time of day, it’s pathetically undisciplined to find hope so difficult to manufacture; I know this every second I’m alive, anglophone with a U.S. passport and college diploma and health insurance.

My favorite passage is towards the end, four dog-eared, iridescent pages on having been attracted as a younger person to Schopenhauer’s “brave and rigorous rejection of the world” and having “what Sontag calls the taste for worst-case scenarios.” It begins:

For many years, I considered myself a pessimist. This is not to say that my own experience of life was a miserable one. I was, broadly speaking, a happy and fortunate person for whom the world had laid on a great many privileges and benefits. But to the extent that I could claim to have a basic philosophical position, it was that life, for most people in most places, was characterized by terrible suffering, for no good reason […]. Throughout my twenties and thirties, the writers who seemed to me to possess the truest vision of the world […] were those who […] rejected most thoroughly the idea that life might be on aggregate a good thing.

The whole last chapter on its own would be one of my favorite essays I’ve read in three years, doing the maddening, refractive thing good essayism can do with recursive questioning trained on one seemingly obvious idea: that “a state of perpetual anxiety [is] no way to live,” that what we ought to do is care for whom we can. Still, I think I’m just not yet far removed enough from my foal-legged undergraduate German papers, or my birth year, to arrive in my own emotions where Notes leads me, compellingly, to believe O’Connell has. (Which, mind, isn’t even close to peace, just a state of attempting to refrain “from excessive abstraction, from shallow intellectual gamesmanship.”)

O’Connell’s personal conclusion, orbiting the purpose he finds in love for his wife and young children, is deeply moving, if unsatisfying—I don’t have offspring to rear, nor am I likely to anytime soon, if ever, for many reasons, and when I think about that too hard, despite all my premature fears about parental failure and loss, I weep—but how could it have been otherwise? Whole, stagnant, complacent satisfaction is neither a reasonable objective for a book about the anxiety of being alive, nor one that it promises. A neat universal theory of how to bear witness well would betray the first 200 pages. I don’t know what answer could possibly have satisfied anyone who knows how they, and others, live in this present.

Either we are alive in the last days or we are not, but the inarguable thing, in any case, the interesting thing, is that we are alive.


Notes From an Apocalypse
by Mark O’Connell
Knopf Doubleday; 272 p.

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