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Apocalypse for Beginners

by Nicolas Dickner; Lazer Lederhendler, trans.

Nicolas Dickner’s new novel will draw comparisons to his previous work, Nikolski, which was acclaimed in Quebec and France, earned translator Lazer Lederhendler a Governor General’s Literary Award, and took top prize in the 2010 edition of CBC’s Canada Reads. The comparisons are inevitable, not just because of Nikolski’s success, but because the novels have much in common: both are made up of disconnected stories, textured with history, and concerned with road trips, epic journeys, and the end of the world.

Like Nikolski, the new book contains three separate plot strands. The first is the story of the Randall family, whose members are each granted a differing vision of the apocalypse, then suffer breakdowns when those visions don’t come to pass. The second is told from the perspective of teenager Mickey Bauermann, who has the misfortune of falling in love with Hope Randall after her mother’s car breaks down in the town of Rivière-du-Loup. Hope and Mickey hunker down in Mickey’s basement to watch the end of the Cold War on the television news, but when Hope discovers the date of the apocalypse inscribed on a packet of instant ramen, their relationship is put on hold. The third story follows Hope on a journey from Quebec to Seattle, then to Tokyo, as she seeks a prophet to confirm her apocalyptic discovery. The prophet, however, is employed by an elusive company whose headquarters change location every time she gets close to finding it.

Whereas Nikolski’s tripartite plot was woven together to create a richly textured whole, these stories run consecutively, resulting in a narrative that merely skims the surface of meaning and resonance. Granted, that surface sparkles with historical and pop-cultural references, a sweet and subtle love story, and marvellous, quirky fixations (including David Suzuki, baseball stadiums, and the number of lemons required to power an atomic bomb), but the reader is left wishing for more.

History, Dickner demonstrates, is indeed one thing after another. But his narrative would be stronger if it was arranged in some other way.