by Olivia Tapiero
translated by Kit Schluter
Nightboat Books, 128 pages
reviewed by Dylan Cook
There’s something refreshingly laid-back about Olivia Tapiero’s take on apocalyptic fiction. Most novels in the genre come off a bit preachy, warning us page after page that X, Y, and Z will be our downfall. Perhaps even more grating, they go through the trouble of explaining exactly how it will end, as if we can be certain of that from our pre-apocalyptic world. Tapiero looks at these conventions and casually walks past them. In Phototaxis, the end of the world makes very little sense. The streets are drowned in rotten meat, suicides spread like they’re contagious, and the only thing that might hold everyone together is a one-man piano performance. She embraces the one idea about the apocalypse we can reasonably be sure of: when it happens, we won’t have any idea how to deal with it.
Given that the novel revels in uncertainty, it’s unsurprising that its plot is difficult to pin down. There are three main characters, Théo, Narr, and Zev, who, for the most part, meander through their lives while trapped in the “levity that precedes catastrophe.” In some unspecific past, the trio was joined by Zev, who served as a kind of cultural and political leader in their community. After Zev disappears suddenly, the friends become estranged. Only when Théo, a concert pianist, announces a long-awaited return to the stage does Narr come out of the woodwork to reconnect with him. But Théo is too busy for friendship since he devotes most of his time to practice. After all, with the future looking so grim, wouldn’t it be nice to give the people something to look forward to?
Apocalypses are never something we wish for—they’re hands we’re dealt. Phototaxis shows us how we might play them.
The novel inches towards this magical moment when a deftly played concerto might lift the veil of suffering off the masses, but we never get there. Théo commits suicide just before his performance, and it hardly comes as a shock. Death forces itself into each character’s thoughts, whether it’s due to the deluge of rotten meat or constant reminders of the famous “Falling Man” photograph. From here on, the novel practically becomes a character study of Narr. She considers what she should do next, whether or not she should also commit suicide, whether or not she should futilely work for a relative. Locked onto her thoughts, we watch her become overwhelmed with the world she’s stuck in:
All I’d need is a tank of gas to work up the courage to immolate myself for no apparent reason. An incandescent, combustible acceleration.
The action will only be possible on the condition of its being seen. The horror I’ve caused in other people is all I’ll have to help me endure a pain that will only go away, according to my research, once the fire breaches my nervous system.
Just as the narrative gives the reader little to hold onto, the structure of Phototaxis is likewise strange and defamiliarizing. This is Tapiero’s first novel to be published in English (a native of Québec, she writes in French) but her third overall novel, and that confidence shows in the risks she takes here. Between the prose, the novel is cut with theatrical monologues and bouts of poetry. The constant play with form makes the term “novel” fit this book like a mismatched Tupperware lid. About half the time, this experimentation feels like a justified complement to its text. The monologues in particular offer the reader a chance to peek behind the curtains of each character, rounding them out slowly. The other half of the time, the whirlwind of seemingly random details produces a head-scratching effect. Why are everyday citizens flagellating themselves? Why are the streets haunted by the ghosts of bison?
The punky answer to these questions is that they don’t need to be answered. Tapiero’s novel is much more impressionistic than it is concrete. The what, when, why, and how are less important than the sense of disgust, fear, and nihilism that pervades this world on the brink of collapse. In his monograph On the Natural History of Destruction, W. G. Sebald wrote that a city under siege, “decided—out of sheer panic at first—to carry on as if nothing had happened.” This novel shows people carrying on because there is nothing else to do. Phototaxis is filled with absurdities and theatrics, but the emotional response to tragedy that it captures rings true. The COVID-19 pandemic gave us our own apocalyptic scenario, and the sheer scale of its upheaval made it difficult to imagine a world after COVID. Now, nearly two years into this reality, the pandemic has become something we live alongside, and the world “after COVID” may never come. It becomes easier, then, to imagine how Narr might step over puddles of meat so apathetically and avoid looking the future in the eye. Apocalypses are never something we wish for—they’re hands we’re dealt. Phototaxis shows us how we might play them.
Dylan Cook is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied creative writing and biology. He currently lives and works in Chicago. He’s often reading and writing, and when he’s not doing either of these things, he can be found working in a genetics lab, lost in the woods somewhere, or at [email protected].
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