Alistair McCartney’s novel, The End of The World Book, takes the form of a self-referential “encyclopedia” of topics of special interest to the narrator, so while the entry headings include subjects one expects in a reference work, such as Aristotle and Einstein, many topics are purely personal, like “Umbrella, My Aunt Joan’s.” The narrator considers himself “in large part a satirist,” he acknowledges that “there are spaces that satire cannot reach.” At some point not too far into the book you realize that this is an encyclopedia of memory which weaves together fiction, memoir, and cultural commentary, which together retell both the story of the world and the narrator’s life as the apocalyptic future looms over everything.
Herein, section “A”:
The End of the World Book
I want the world and want it as is, want it again, want it eternally.
Although all the names in this encyclopedia are real, as are many of the events, this encyclopedia is a work of fiction, a product of the author’s imagination. No reference to any person or event should be mistaken for the actual person or event. Actually, this encyclopedia is a dream.
According to the World Book Encyclopedia, Perth, Western Australia, the city in which I was born in 1971, and in which I spent the first twenty-two years of my life, is the world’s most isolated city.
For me, this isolation, along with the deep tedium of childhood, was eased, if not erased, by the World Book’s sense of beauty and order.
Every time I opened one of the twenty gold-edged volumes I felt as if I were approaching infinity. Though of course, whenever I closed a volume and placed it back on the shelf with the others, I felt distinctly let down upon reentering the world.
When faced with existence, it seemed the only thing to do was to describe and categorize.
One afternoon, sitting in my bedroom, leafing through volume A—Abel, Abelard, Aberdeen, aberration—I lay on the floor, using the volume for a pillow.
Half awake, half asleep, I lay there, I don’t know for how long, until my mother came in. It must have been dinnertime. Yet somehow, to this day, even though I have been living in Los Angeles, California, for a third of my life, the last third, I cannot shake the feeling that my mother was unable to wake me, and that I am still lying there, my drool streaming onto the gold A on the book’s spine.
ABERCROMBIE AND FITCH
Surely there is nothing more melancholy than the thought of a dead Abercrombie and Fitch model! Except perhaps the thought of one dead model and one living one, best friends since childhood, the model still living plagued with guilt—he must be responsible for the death of his friend—digging a grave, getting dirt all over the butt of his jeans.
Whenever I walk past one of the Abercrombie and Fitch clothing stores, in particular one of the outlets that have those shirtless boys standing at the store entrance, this is all I can think about.
I am not sure if this is the desired effect, but on those cold nights when there is a full moon glinting off the delicate ridges of the boys’ six-packs and the deep rosy pink of their erect nipples, it’s somehow as if those two boys are the only boys left in the
world, or guardians of the underworld, or Sirens, there to lure you in, and, once you have been lured inside, you’ll forget your home and your friends and yourself, until you eventually starve to death, just like in mythology.
In my old age, I’ve grown a bit tired of the abyss. I feel like that part of my life is over and there is nothing more frivolous than the abyss. But every now and then, someone turns up, or something occurs, to renew my interest, and my faith, in the abyss.
ABYSS, DIMENSIONS OF THE
Before I first went to the abyss I expected it to be all primeval chaos, bottomless, unfathomable, immeasurable. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was extremely architectural and very modern; it had been built according to strict dimensions. Everything trapped in its void was sleek and neat and orderly.
ABYSS, GETTING OUT OF THE
Sometimes when I am in the abyss and halfheartedly trying to get out, I tug on the edge, and a sort of underlayer appears, with a lacy trim, just like when I was a kid I’d tug on the hem of one of my mum’s polyester skirts, to tell her something, and I’d catch a glimpse of the lacy edge of her 100 percent nylon slip.
For a long time now, Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia, has been known as the city of churches. The ratio of parishes to citizens is slightly alarming; everywhere you look you see a spire or a steeple grazing the sky. In the 1970s this moniker was replaced by one of a more sinister nature. A spate of abductions, rapes, and murders of young boys led to Adelaide being dubbed the city of boy killers. Delicate corpses were found in champagne crates. Politicians were involved.
Yet for me, Adelaide is the city of my mother, the city in which she was born on New Year’s Day, 1928.
Sometimes, my mother dreams that once again she is back in Adelaide, and the world has ended. She wanders through the city, whose ruins are still smoldering, hot to the touch. She finds herself back at the house in which she grew up, but the house is gone; nothing remains except the long porch that wrapped around the house, and on which she spent many an evening, but which now wraps itself around nothing, as if nothing were a kind of gift.
When my father turned sixteen he joined the merchant navy. It
was the perfect job to get him out of the little town of Motherwell,
Scotland, and a good way to see the world, or at least portions of
it. He liked the waves and the hems of girls’ dresses. He liked the
ocean’s ability to drown out everything.
In 1956, during a stint in the Pacific, my father, James
McCartney, met a woman named Beth Wildy, who would eventually
become his wife. She was gentle and had red hair.
He wrote love letters to her, while he was away at sea. He
wrote in black ink, on pale blue aerogrammes. Measuring eight
by four inches, these letters were scattered in odd places all over
Today, the handwriting in these amorous documents is
virtually indecipherable. The aerogrammes themselves are soft
and deeply creased.
The so-called golden era of gay life is usually said to have occurred
during the 1970s, that decade of unbridled sex, set to a
soundtrack of disco music; the decade leading up to AIDS, or
perhaps leading down to AIDS, like a long set of steps. It is an era
we have designated in retrospect, and we must ask ourselves: were
the men who were part of this era aware of all their gold?
The era is said to have ended with the first case of AIDS in
However, when I gaze into my disco-mirror ball, I see that
we have been looking the wrong way. The golden era actually
begins in 1981, and then, not confined to the space of a decade,
stretches backward like a long gold streak, far away from us, far
away from disco, all the way back to antiquity.
In first grade, when I was taught the alphabet, led carefully from
letter to letter, each letter linked to a word and a picture, starting
off with the classic example of A is for Apple, I was very excited to
be entering language, officially, finally. Although a part of me felt
unsure as to whether I truly wanted to cross over this threshold,
inside, I wanted to turn around and flee.
Perhaps, without knowing it, I sensed what waited for me
on the other side of the alphabet—death, which, if anything, is
not in alphabetical order. This explains that simultaneous thrill
and sinking feeling as I learned to form each letter on the page in
cursive writing, in those exercise books whose lines decreased in
width as I became more proficient.
To this day, every time I encounter the alphabet, within
each letter I detect the promise of annihilation. I continue to be
filled with an overwhelming urge to turn on my heels and run in
the opposite direction, as far away as possible from language.
I know very little about my ancestors, those persons from whom
I have descended, those organisms from which I have evolved.
For all I know, I could come from a long line of executioners, or
labyrinth makers. Records might indicate a startling number of
mental defects and physical abnormalities. I have to invent my
ancestors, just as everyone will have to when we all become
Still, it’s nice to know they are there, preceding me, sodomizing
me, as it were. Whenever I start feeling too heavy, I remind
myself that, like my ancestors, I am just a fact, a fact amongst
facts. I suppose I must bear a passing resemblance to a number of
my forebears, and in this sense, I’mnot even myself, but a ghost—
or a combination of ghosts—stretched tightly over bones.
I preferred it when they called it twilight sleep. When the angels
have to be operated on, the surgeons, who wear long white flowing
robes, like angels, put toy space helmets on the angels’ heads,
to reduce their anxiety. The surgeons part the wings, and then inject
in the soft spot at the base of the wings.
To be perfectly honest, I’m not that into angels. I think they’re
deeply overrated entities. Slabs of meat capable of flight. Though
I like the fact that the term angel doesn’t denote a nature, that
is an identity, but rather denotes a function, just like the term
homosexual. And, like you, I wouldn’t mind fucking an angel,
yanking on its wings, sucking on its wings, cumming on its wings.
There is something obscene about wings. You see this in certain
paintings, like Caravaggio’s Seven Acts of Mercy, where two angels
grapple with one another sideways in midair. One angel’s wings
are much bigger than the other angel’s. His wings are like exposed
genitalia. I’ve heard that wings are surprisingly gristly and that
most angels, like most humans, hate themselves, can’t stand the
sight of their own wings. On Sundays, in their bedrooms, they
take razors to their wings.
Anna Karenina, which is my favorite novel, is not a book of infidelity,
nor is it a book detailing the lives of the Russian upper
classes: it is a book of blushing. On average, a blush occurs on
every third page.
I find myself skimming over the story the way one skims
over descriptions of landscapes, just to get to the blushes. Everyone
in Tolstoy’s book is subject to blushing. No one can avoid
it. Each character finds himself in a moment when whatever is
glowing inside of him is revealed, against his will.
Interestingly enough, it is not Anna who blushes the most
(456 blushes) but Levin (512 blushes). Anna is too busy radiating
and burning. She is subject to an odd glow that goes way beyond
blushing. But Levin blushes to the point of compulsion. Agricultural
theory causes him to blush. The sight of newly polished
boots makes him blush. The arrival of spring sends him into a
heavy blush. Vronsky is the character who blushes the least (one
For 200 pages before her death, Anna stops blushing. She
attempts to blush yet fails miserably. Then right before she is decapitated
by the rushing train, she regrets her decision and wishes
to reverse it, but cannot. It is a physiological impossibility to reverse
a blush. Longing terribly for more life, she enters into one
long eternal blush.
One day back in fifth grade, during recess at Christian Brothers
College, the Catholic boys school I attended, I was playing
handball with my friends when all of a sudden, a boy in twelfth
grade—who, with his raggedy, dirty-blond hair bore a passing
resemblance to the pop singer Leif Garrett—came up behind
me, grabbed me by the neck, and proceeded to stuff a half-eaten
apple down my throat. I felt like one of those geese that French
peasant women wearing polka-dot headkerchiefs force-feed, so
the geese can get all nice and fat and their enlarged livers can be
used for pâté, which is a delicacy.
The boy continued shoving the apple into my mouth,
until one of the priests came down and put a stop to things. By
this time, the Leif Garrett look-alike or impostor had pushed me
down onto the concrete. I remember that as the priest hovered
over me, I got a look up his black gown. I saw that he was wearing
long black socks that went up to just below his knees, and
that his legs were very white, but covered in thick black hair.
His shoes smelled of the pink cakes of disinfectant that lay at the
bottom of the bathroom urinals. I was seized by a desire to suck
on the heavy black hem of the priest’s robe but held myself back.
Up on my feet, I remember that the skin of the half-eaten
apple looked very red against the sky, which was gray and pigeony.
The priest held the apple as evidence, while the older boy claimed
that I had thrown the apple at him. I denied having done this, but
I can no longer recall whether or not I was being truthful. Either
way, I was left with a life-long attachment to red apples.
Just the other day, I was at our local Venice farmer’s market,
surrounded by the usual hordes of white mothers with their
gaggles of white babies. Pausing at a stall selling only red apples,
I picked one of them up, and was taken back, transported on a
rickety horse-drawn cart of red apples, to that incident. I felt an
intense longing to once again be held in that boy’s grip. The
apple in my hand almost seemed to glow, and somehow felt terribly
heavy. When the stall owner asked me if I was interested in
purchasing some apples, his comment dragged me out of my reverie,
and I was transported back on a cart—this time the cart was
wholly devoid of red apples—to the present.
Often referred to as the father of thought, the Greek philosopher
Aristotle was thinking approximately 2,300 years before the
Holocaust; he said that all things, like the Holocaust, could be
understood as unities of form and matter. On the morning after
the Holocaust, in an attempt to understand and explain the
Holocaust, he developed the four causes (material, efficient, formal,
and final), and the three unities (plot, thought, and character),
though, he added, in the end, the head is nothing but a death
camp for thought: we need another language to explain this, a language
of ash and bits of bone. Aristotle taught at a place called the
Lyceum, where they all wore robes with vertical stripes. He lectured
to his boy students whilst strolling around the corridors of
the Lyceum, always walking behind his students; all of the corridors
led directly to the Holocaust, and as soon as Aristotle and
his students had reached the end of the corridors, the hems of
their robes brushing against the end of thought, they would turn
around and walk back.
If there’s one thing I love, it’s asbestos. For me, no other substance
is full of such pathos. The word comes from a Greek adjective
meaning inextinguishable—if only I had that quality—and the
Greeks maybe liked asbestos even more than me, weaving it into
a cloth in which they wrapped the bodies of the dead for the purpose
The other morning I woke up dreaming of asbestos, that
fireproof material. Specifically, I found myself dreaming of the
little asbestos so-called state or public houses that were scattered
throughout Willagee, the neighborhood I grew up in. Painted
pink and blue, there was something almost dainty about these
houses, like petits fours. In fact, these houses were so dainty, the
inhabitants were often putting their fists through the thin walls
in outbursts or fits or drunken rages. Sometimes the holes were
big enough for me to peer through and catch glimpses of what
was going on inside.
Half awake, yet still dreaming—the state I find myself in
most of the time—my mind also wandered to memories of the
gray corrugated asbestos fences that separated all the houses from
one another. This particular kind of asbestos was very soft. There
was talk that the poorest people in our neighborhood used it to
make sundresses for the little girls and underpants for the little
boys. In my reverie, I saw our asbestos fence—how much daydreaming
did I do leaning up against that fence? The image of
the fence was so real I could almost taste the asbestos.
However, as soon as I was fully awake, I slowly remembered
that asbestos was a thing of the past. Years ago, ever since
the advent of the terminal condition known as asbestosis, all the
asbestos fences in my neighborhood had been razed and all the
asbestos houses destroyed, replaced with structures built out of
I took some small comfort in the fact that whereas the actual
asbestos structures may be long gone, my memories remain:
in regards to time they are incombustible, just as in antiquity,
during the ritual of cremation, the fire would eat away at the
forms of the dead, grinding their bodies down into a fine powder,
yet the asbestos funeral cloth would miraculously withstand the
intensity of the heat, the fire merely serving to clean the cloth.
I am peering through a keyhole, into eternity.
Experts say that one of these days we can expect another asteroid,
very similar to the asteroid that killed all the dinosaurs millions
of years ago: bits of dark, murky green brontosauruses, hairy but
muscled legs of cavemen, and ridiculously large jaws flew everywhere.
It was positively dinos, the Greek word for terrible. Now
we can only learn about dinosaurs from their fossils, just as one
day, if people in the future want to know anything about us, they
will have to study our fossils, which will seem as monstrous as
those belonging to dinosaurs. Perhaps people will no longer be
interested in us, though, and our fossils will just sit there, gathering
This asteroid that we can expect, any day now—in fact, we
should brace ourselves for the asteroid—will probably be quite
like the one that in 1917 crashed into Siberia and incinerated two
thousand miles of good and lush Siberian forest. All the snow
covering the ground in Siberia lifted up, very high, and then
came back down. It—the asteroid—will most likely look all silvery
and shiny, like those silver foil asteroids in cheesy black-and-white
B movies, but it will be real.
Even if it is very small, like Eros, my favorite asteroid,
which is one of the smallest, and perhaps that is why it is my
favorite—at fifteen miles long and five miles wide, it is the runt
of the litter, and I guess I take pity on it—it will still do great
Eros was identified and computed in 1898, forty years before
the beginning of the Holocaust, which itself can be seen as a
kind of asteroid that crashed into Europe and the Enlightenment
and Western culture and hollowed it all out, leaving a big
crater. It—Eros—was discovered by a German astronomer by
the name of G. Witt. Eros’s last favorable approach—which is
when asteroids come close enough to the earth to be seen, but
not so close that they smash into and mangle us, which would
be unfavorable—was in 1931, two years before the appointment
of Adolf Hitler and the beginning of the erosion of Western
But perhaps our asteroid is yet to be discovered, and if you
browse the color catalogue of asteroids, and flick through the
1,570 asteroids inside, you will not find our asteroid. This is no
There is an asteroid out there with our name on it, just like
our mothers wrote our names on the inside collars of our gray
school shirts with non-erasable Magic Marker, to avoid confusion.
This asteroid is special because it will destroy all boys, only
boys. There will be no confusion. When it hits us we will fall in
love with it. Its arrival is imminent.
I haven’t seen an Avon lady in years. In fact, I’m pretty sure
that, as a species, Avon ladies are now officially extinct. The last
Avon lady was seen in 1994. When Iwas a kid, there were plenty
of Avon ladies. Our Avon lady would trudge around our neighborhood,
weighed down by all her cosmetics. Burdened by cosmetics.
She would knock on our door, and my mother would invite
her in. I’d watch silently as mum and the Avon lady, stooped
over the cosmetics, talked in earnest, conspiratorially, about the
Awe is a state located somewhere between reason and death. It
seems that I’m almost always in a state of awe over something.
Ayatollahs, Aztecs, azaleas.
When I am in awe, I open my mouth very wide. Bits of
the world rush in and get stuck in my teeth. Stars get trapped in
my brain. I point at things. I leave my jaw ajar.
Pretty soon, this begins to take its toll. My finger becomes
arthritic from all the pointing. My jaw begins to creak like the
hinge on the door of a haunted house.
But still, it is very easy to live in awe. To locate yourself in
awe is not difficult at all.
Leave a comment
No comments yet.