Read: 31 August to 5 September 2013
3.5 / 5 stars
If you're looking for a breezy, feel-good tale, The Man Who Watched the World End is probably not for you, nor will it be your kind of novel if you prefer endings that are neatly packaged with bright, optimistic bows that herald the joys awaiting a story's characters beyond the last page; however, if you like your fiction to be character-driven and insightful even as it teeters on the brink of society's obsolescence, then Chris Dietzel has written the book for you.
The novel begins as humanity's reign is ending. The children comprising mankind's final generation are alive only in the biological sense. They grow older but are human marionettes: silent, immobile, helpless to care for themselves, kept alive by the loving kin or kindhearted strangers upon whom they are wholly dependent. Decades later, these Blocks (so named "because it was as if their condition obstructed them from the world") and their siblings are the last proof of man's existence, reduced to pockets of senior citizens cohabiting in group settlements (though, if our narrator is indicative of the outliers, a handful are watching their and society's clocks run down in the familiar imprisonment of crumbling homes in derelict neighborhoods) as nature reclaims all that the elderly remnants of a once thriving species no longer have the youthful vigor to defend.
We see very little of this, as the reader's glimpse into the quieting world is a three-month period captured within one lonely old man's lovingly, diligently maintained diary. It is through the eyes of this man -- who, along with his Block brother, is the last human occupant of the otherwise abandoned and symbolically named neighborhood of Camelot -- that the audience bears witness to the conclusion of our earthly chapter. Since the world is ending not with a bang, not even with a whimper but a slow exhalation, there really isn't a whole lot to see other than one man's daily ritual of tending to the brother for whom his love becomes increasingly unyielding, hoping for a southward ride from a passing convoy on its way to one of the communal-living sites, and watching the local flora and fauna take back what man has only temporarily claimed. But this is not a story of man vs. nature, man vs. self or even man vs. improbable odds: It is, simply, an account of one man's life that turns flashbacks into a supporting cast and exposition into thoughtful narration.
The elderly gentleman tasked with narrating the end of society as he witnesses it carries the story almost entirely on his own: his brother is in a waking coma, his last remaining neighbors fled right before the novel's beginning, and the animals surrounding his house are more interested in his future carcass than his breathing companionship -- including the wild dogs and feral cats born of domestic pets so many litters ago. All he has are his memories, which are equally parts familiar and tinged with a foreign sorrow, as he was among the last wave of normally functioning children and grew up knowing that most babies born after him, like his brother, would never be shaken from their unresponsive silences.
As he reveals more of his past self and present worries, he paints a picture of a bygone era that is just recognizable enough to be eerie: His memories are just like any of ours, composites of his internal and external memories with a few of his parents' own that have stuck with him over the years, but interspersed with the sense that doors previously unknown to mankind were suddenly slamming shut forever as he and the rapidly diminishing number of "normal" children became the last to tackle the once-joyous milestones of growing up.
It is in showcasing such memories that Dietzel's attention to detail may shine the brightest, as the far-reaching impact of a species poignantly aware that it has no future was something he obviously (and successfully) considered from all sides. From baby items suddenly becoming a defunct business to the government finally summoning the foresight to ensure the last hiccup of humanity will at least be provided for in what should have been its grandchild-rich golden years, the international ripple effect of newborns lacking discernible brain functions is terrifying in both its implications and the ways in which Dietzel summarily dismantled familiar infrastructure. The secondhand glimpses of a world that has seen the last Hollywood film, the final World Series, the disbanding of governments, the emotional ramifications of tracking the youngest "normal" person, and the annihilation of the hope that keeps us moving forward are hard to watch even as past events, but Dietzel writes so matter-of-factly and compellingly that each memory becomes the ultimate example of how our very human curiosity forces us to ogle unfolding tragedy.
There are a few weak spots in what is an otherwise impressive debut novel. The greengrocer's apostrophe -- my sworn enemy -- popped in to say hullo a few times ("Dalmatians and Rottweiler's united"; "if the Johnson's just now decided...") and there were a few homophone issues, like "feint breaths," "slightly older then myself" and "faired better," that drove me a little batty. Less frequent were simple editing issues, such as "the last four decades years" and "He couldn't help but be letdown." Aside from a comparatively few lapses in mechanics, the biggest problem I had with the story itself was the government's Survival Bill, which "provided the last generation of functioning adults with resources to take care of themselves and their Block relatives." As a reader, it sometimes seemed like an easy way to sidestep the survival issues a vulnerable society would face in a more brutally overt end-world scenario; as a writer, though, I understood that tacking on the additional responsibility of a people left to fend for themselves without food, electricity and a reliable internet connection in increasingly hostile terrain would only detract from story Dietzel wanted to tell.
But for every one pitfall, The Man Who Watched the World End had a dozen more successes. It shows an incredible awareness of the human condition, of how loneliness and constant reminders of our fading presence in a world we once lorded over can affect everything from a single man to an entire desperate, dying species. The metaphors were resoundingly spot-on: I couldn't help but read the Block phenomenon as a cautionary tale foretelling the long-term dangers of what happens when children of Helicopter Parents grow up without any idea of how to function outside their protective bubbles, and having the narrator reside in Camelot -- a name nearly synonymous with so much promise and so much lost -- was a subtle yet effective touch.