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.