Madison Palmieri ’22
The word apocalypse typically has connotations of violent, fiery chaos that erupts all at once, wreaking havoc on a modern world and forcing its inhabitants into a new, alien reality. Indeed, this is the basic premise of most apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction. Will McIntosh’s Soft Apocalypse, however, asks readers what it would be like if the world as they knew it ended not with a bang, but a whimper?
The novel centers around sociology major Jasper and his band of friends over the course of 10 years, exploring what life in a slowly-but-surely decaying society might look like. Readers follow them from their time as nomads—condemned as “gypsies” by their more affluent neighbors who have been fortunate enough to keep their homes—to their stint as apartment-dwellers in an initially peaceful but increasingly tense neighborhood and then to their forced return to life on the move. Eventually, the group seems to find a potential safe haven, but it might come at the cost of the little humanity they have left. Jasper and his friends are forced to make their most difficult decision in their 10 years on the run: Struggle to cling to a dying past, or embrace the uncertainty of the brave new world that stands to point the way to a potentially peaceful future?
If Soft Apocalypse could be summed up in one cliché, it would be, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Even though Jasper and his fellow survivors constantly face threat after threat, issues of romance and relationships are always at the forefront of his mind. Throughout his trials and tribulations, he finds himself involved with a number of women: married accountant Sophia, who brings him and his fellow nomads supplies, red-haired, bookish Phoebe, who he loses and finds multiple times throughout the novel, masochistic rock star Deirdre, who steals the only memories of his childhood he has left, free spirit Bird, whose life he saves during an excursion into the wilderness, and his best friend Ange, one of the only people he’s ever truly loved.
While this seemingly continuous flux of romances may seem unrealistic, especially considering the circumstances in which they occur, it is not only incredibly realistic, but also necessary. Given that the novel takes place over the course of 10 years, it is more than plausible that, apocalypse or no apocalypse, Jasper would have this number of relationships, if not more; given that the protagonist is continually placed in situations which test the limits of his humanity, it is more than reasonable that he would seek to cling to one of the most basic elements of our humanity: our capability to love.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, is its handling of apocalyptic disease. Rather than one singular epidemic, there are multiple waves of sickness intentionally released by various groups of scientists-turned- terrorists. The most important, however, is Doctor Happy, which, upon infection, alters the individual’s brain chemistry to alleviate them of the sadness and pain so prevalent in the novel’s world. This disease—or perhaps cure—is the ticket price of entry into the potential haven Jasper and his friends find.
Soft Apocalypse will leave readers guessing what choice Jasper and his fellow survivors make until its final pages: take the proverbial blue pill and live out the rest of their days in a blissful state at the expense of losing who they are, or take the proverbial red pill by refusing the virus and live their lives haunted by what they’ve seen and done?
Overall, the novel forces readers to ask themselves some of the most profound questions about their existence: what does it mean to be human? If one loses their humanity, can they recover it and, if so, how? Is it better to live ignorantly in bliss or face the harsh realities of life? What stance Soft Apocalypse takes on these matters readers will have to decide for themselves.