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Accessorized for the Apocalypse

Novels about prepping for disaster recall old colonial tropes
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My Apple dictionary defines “prepper” as a “chiefly North American noun” that means “a person who believes a catastrophic disaster or emergency is likely to occur in the future and makes active preparations for it, typically by stockpiling food, ammunition, and other supplies.” It seems only natural, then, that North American post-apocalyptic novels should contain many scenes that address prepping.

In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the narrator and his son stumble upon an underground bunker filled with things, an experience that leads to a neo-Joycean epiphany:

Crate upon crate of canned goods. Tomatoes, peaches, beans, apricots. Canned hams. Corned beef. Hundreds of gallons of water in ten gallon plastic jerry jugs. Paper towels, toilet paper, paper plates. Plastic trash bags stuffed with blankets. He held his forehead in his hand. Oh my God, he said.

For real-life North American preppers blogging on the internet, though, such representations of the rewards of prepping can result in completely opposite lessons, from deciding that The Road (or, really, the film version of the novel) teaches one that stockpiling food and water may not be enough, to concluding that The Road is quite useless for real-life prepping.

Indeed, Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven is hugely popular in part because the motto embraced by its main cast of post-apocalyptic characters, a troupe that performs Shakespeare and classical western music to isolated townspeople in a ravaged, hostile Midwest, is “Survival is Insufficient.” Nevertheless, it features one of its characters, Jeevan, indulging in some last-minute prepping just before disaster is about to strike, in the form of an epidemic known as the Georgia Flu. Helped by his knowledge of movies with prepper scenes—which suggests a perpetual feedback loop between novels about the collapse and films about the collapse—Jeevan stops in at a Toronto convenience store to gather water, cans of food, pasta, toilet paper, frozen meat, aspirin, garbage bags, bleach, duct tape, vegetables, fruits, bags of oranges and lemons, tea, coffee, crackers, salt, and preserved cakes.

Later in the novel, in the aftermath of the epidemic, survivors at a midwestern airport collect shoes, warm clothes, painkillers, and antacids, their scavenging informed by the painful memory of a young woman who ran out of antidepressants and wandered into the surrounding forest to die. In Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins, the protagonist Luz, who is taking care of a toddler, receives a bounty directed toward childcare that consists of “diapers, rubber nipples, a thermometer, burp cloths, bottle of powder, bottle of oil, tube of rash cream, tube of ointment, a bushel of used onesies.”

Things are arced from abundance to scarcity, reinvented with meaning, imparted with an aura that they do not have in our present.

What does such accumulation of objects within North American novels mean? On one level, it must be fascinating and fun to do this as a writer, rising to a narrative challenge that involves world building out of the imagined collapse of the world. It requires a gathering together of quotidian detail not to produce realism but a variant, a warped realism, an image of our world refracted through future disaster. Objects are taken from everyday lives and projected into the future. The sheer weight and volume of things, an essential part of the North American experience for a while now, is recorded and imagined in a different time. Things are arced from abundance to scarcity, reinvented with meaning, imparted with an aura that they do not have in our present even as they endlessly proliferate on the difference between wages for labor in the global south and the prices supported by the credit-fuelled, consumer economies of the global north.

Walter Benjamin thought that the accumulation of objects in the late nineteenth century had invented a whole new genre, the “soulless luxuriance of the furnishings” of bourgeois apartments leading, for him, straight to the crime novel. “On this sofa the aunt cannot but be murdered,” he wrote. But more literary novels, too, registered objects and brands. When Marlowe, in Conrad’s 1899 The Heart of Darkness, travels up the Congo, toward the Inner Station where Kurtz, “emissary of the west,” has been busy collecting ivory and human heads, he finds, on one of his stops, a Huntley and Palmer biscuit tin rolling around in the gutter.

Journeying into the past, then, instead of into the future, one begins to find other novels where objects accumulate in the manner similar to the prepping carried out in today’s post-apocalyptic fiction. Lists feature repeatedly in novels of colonialism and adventure, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 Treasure Island to Daniel Defoe’s 1719 Robinson Crusoe.

The ship has to be abandoned, so these stories go, supplies gathered, and a stockade erected against “savages” and pirates on an island. There are complications early on in the prepping instinct, as when Crusoe, in the first edition that Defoe produced, strips himself completely in order to swim off his wrecked ship but nevertheless manages to fill his pockets with “Bisket.” Such slips notwithstanding, biscuits are stockpiled, water sources identified, and defences marshaled. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!

For all its talk of progress, capitalism makes even its winners run along the same old grooves.

Today’s preppers seem to know these self-interested antecedents by instinct. Or perhaps it isn’t instinct, but only that for all its talk of progress, capitalism makes even its winners run along the same old grooves. From the white nationalist groups in red states to the liberal elite one percent in the blue ones, prepping plans seem to involve ammunition, food, and survival of the fittest. As one goes up the wealth hierarchy, so does prepping take on its old, colonial scale—whole social groups clustering together—in condos built inside repurposed missile silos, complete with swimming pool, operating room, and even solitary confinement chambers, as if it is a foregone conclusion that the elect one percent will, having survived, take self-interest to its logical extreme and begin turning upon one other in the manner of characters in a J.G. Ballard novel.

As for the tech billionaires of Silicon Valley, even missile silos in the heartland of America, sited carefully against threats from foreign military strikes, ethnic minorities, starving majorities, and climate change may not be enough. So Pierre Omidyar has invested in and colonized multiple prepped locations from Hawaii to Nevada. Peter Thiel, along with other wealthy westerners, has citizenship and property in New Zealand, where life after doomsday will involve golf on a pristine green, the distant horizon, in a manner reminiscent of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, beautiful with its toxic sunsets. Elon Musk, of course, is looking beyond planet earth toward Mars. “No man is an island, entire of itself,” the poet and theologian John Donne wrote in the seventeenth century, when all this was just getting under way. In these visions of the future, though, every surviving man is an island, armed and prepped.