A Thesis on Abiding Love and Undying Hope: Review of How to Build a Home for the End of the World by Keely Shinners
How to Build a Home for the End of the World. Keely Shinners. Perennial Press, May 2022.
Early on in Keely Shinners’ How to Build a Home for the End of the World, the young protagonist Mary-Beth finds a pamphlet with the quote “What if the End of the World wasn’t the End at all, but a New Beginning?” Shinners’ debut novel is an imaginative exploration of this question, and of the limits and potential of love, care, and healing in the vastly dystopian world that we inhabit. Structured as “a case-study of post-apocalyptic times,” the anthropological-academic framing conceals a dystopian narrative with a utopian core. Shinners’ novel is an exemplary work which shines new light on the ongoing debates about the (f)utility and (in)dispensability of utopian thought in our contemporary late-capitalist world order.
The novel opens in the Sorensen home in Fox Lake, Illinois, a few years after a pervasive worldwide drought. Triggered by a chain of irreversible climatic fallouts, the event marks a rupture between The Before times and The End times. However, before we can settle into this implausibly neat categorization, the narrative makes it abundantly clear that The End has been coming for a while now: staggered, inconclusive, differentially defined and experienced by various people across the globe. For Donny Sorensen, the patriarch of the house, The End finally begins when the lake in their neighborhood dries up one fine day. This incident triggers a chain of occurrences which undoes the shaky foundations of their existing home. As they unfold, the readers follow Donny and Mary-Beth (his elder daughter) traveling together on the road to California. Mary-Beth wishes to donate her vital organs to help Ida, a girl she has fallen in love with. Instead, her liver is forcefully transplanted into the body of Dr Camphor, an anthropologist working on a project about The End of the world.
The novel is structured as a dystopic road-trip. The affinity between the travel narrative and the utopian form is as old as the genre itself, and demands contextualization within the genre’s early origins. Beginning with Thomas More’s eponymous Utopia (1516), and followed up by Burgh’s Cessares (1764), Spencer’s Crusonia (1782), Tone’s Hawaii (1790), and Southey’s Caermadoc (1799), travel narratives revealed how the imperial imagination constructed far-flung colonies as utopian islands. As colonialism demarcated the center and peripheries of the modern world, neo-colonial capitalism operates on a similar hierarchical division of the world along race and class. Through the microcosm of the Sorensen family unit, the author demonstrates the disintegration of the “American dream” which conceals the bloody history of violence and displacement of the natives from their homeland. In so doing, Shinners subtly lays out the connections between colonialism, capitalism, and the current climate crisis, which the characters discover in the course of their journey. In taking to the road, Mary-Beth and Donny must not only confront the devastation in the present but also reconcile with the ghosts of the past, if they hope to arrive at some semblance of a future.
Throughout the story, there is an emphasis on manual labor and toiling bodies– whether Donny’s job as a carpenter who repairs abandoned houses and chapels in their ghost town, or Ida’s exhausting trips to carry water cans up and down the houses of elderly people. The stark physicality of dehydrated and belabored bodies is contrasted with the determined mindscape of the characters who thrive on making meanings in the apocalypse. The novel has three parts, each subtitle an essential step in building a home: “measure”, “cut”, and “nail.” These same steps guide the utopian imaginative arc to create an intentional community which may survive The End.
Towards the end of the road trip and the novel itself, the narration shifts from Mary-Beth’s and Donny’s perspectives to the anthropologist Dr Camphor’s first-person retelling. The author employs a magical-realist literary device in which all of Mary-Beth’s memories are transferred to Dr Camphor’s body during the liver transplant. This also ties the story to its overarching frame, transforming the fictional account into an anthropological history of The End of the world. The effect of this last-minute perspectival switch is somewhat jarring, and lends an ethos of abandonment and detachment to what had so far been an immersive tale.
The novel’s lasting appeal, however, lies in its reimagining of the perceived end as perhaps the last chance to save humanity. This stance aligns with recent writings that reckon with the catastrophic event of Covid-19, most prominently Arundhati Roy’s assertion that the “pandemic is a portal”. The novel’s view is also reminiscent of Ernst Bloch, an influential utopian thinker who combined his Marxist ideas with powerful apocalyptic imaginings in his seminal work The Principle of Hope (1954). Bloch wrote, “the real genesis is not at the beginning, but at the end, and it only begins when society and existence become radical…then something comes into being in the world that shines into everyone’s childhood and where no one has yet been– home.” In probing the question “what does love mean to you?”, Mary-Beth finds not shallow optimism, but hope to carry on in the face of adversities. It is only by rendering all that is familiar as strange, by unhoming the home, that one may begin to comprehend the end times. Their road journey across the American wasteland functions as a rite of passage, to “know thyself” in relation to the other, where the journey signifies both introspection and confrontation, and home becomes a metaphor for an embodied habitus in a redefined community. Home, therefore, is a referent for that place we have never been but always yearned for, the utopian kernel of this dystopian world.
How to Build a Home for the End of the World presents an unflinching look at one of the most fraught questions of our time: what does it mean to live alongside one another on a dying planet? Shinners’ prose expresses an urgent need to reinvigorate not just utopian thought but utopian praxis through the means of creative fiction. The book closes with three dictums that are stated as the findings of this academic report: people survive, the body heals, and love remains, even in The End Times. Infused with such a resolute hopefulness, this vivid account of a dying world inspires one to conclude, in the narrator’s very own style: this novel is not a survival manual for The End Times. But it could be.
Shikha Vats is a Doctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences in the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)- Delhi, India. Her research examines utopian/dystopian narratives, contemporary climate fiction and futurity studies. Her recent writings include a chapter titled ‘Who’s Afraid of Postcolonial Dystopia?’ in Science Fiction in India (Bloomsbury, 2022), reviews and articles published in Contemporary South Asia (T&F), LSE Review of Books and Journal of Literature and Aesthetics.
This review was commissioned after ARB posted the title as available for review. The author and editors had no prior acquaintance. It was edited by Zachary Gillan and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.
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