I guess I’ve been an apocalypse slut since I was very young; a doomsday addict since I first set foot in a church and heard John of Patmos’ grim, metaphor laden vision of hell on earth. Yet, even now, even as an atheist in 2011, I still can’t get enough of that good ol’ end of stuff. From asteroids and comets with ‘Earth or Bust’ tattooed on their underbellies, to stories of super volcanoes and earthquake storms, the Grand Narrative of our end always seems to draw me back towards its horrific verse. This isn’t just a personal obsession, though. It would appear that the rest of the world is foaming at the mouth to be told the same story. Well, I say the same story, but truth be told, while the ending is always the same, the vessel that carries it is often varied. AMC brings it to you via zombies in The Walking Dead; various movies, mini-series, and books have already turned the story of 2012 into history, no doubt capitalizing off the event a few years before it is even supposed to take place … just in case; numerous all-day news channels seem to predict the end in a hundred different ways each day; and, from the realm of indie publishing, Sherrida Woodley’s Quick Fall of Light has brought us an odd tale, indeed; it stars a not-so-extinct passenger pigeon nicknamed ‘The Blue Meteor’ and those who pursue it during a fatal outbreak of bird flu.
Unlike most apocalyptic visions, the book focuses more on its cast of characters than it does on the collapsing world that they live in. This isn’t to say there are not some truly haunting visions. For instance, there is a great section on the slums of Dharavi in India, where corporations have left the poor to fend for themselves in the face of non-discriminate plague. Yet, the larger portion of the novel takes place inside the heads of its characters: the widow of a dead ornithologist, a corporate hit man, and an Olympic Peninsula logger who turns up, perhaps a little too conveniently, at the book’s onset. There are other characters, to be sure, but they are not given the same attention as these three. For a small book, this seems to work out OK, and by the book’s end you truly feel as if you’ve been a part of their interwoven lives.
The main point of interest, though, which bypasses the book’s apocalyptic plague and its small yet in-depth cast of characters, is a rare passenger pigeon. This is where the book takes on its odd note. The cast of characters are obsessed with not only this pigeon, but passengers in general. And although this reader is not as ornitho-obsessed as a true fan might be, I did learn some interesting facts about birds, pigeons, and the mindset of what I can only term as ‘bird freaks.’ The excitement, mystification, and general attitude towards pigeons in this novel does boarder on the obsessive at times, I will say, but, overall, the writing is good enough that one finds oneself getting sucked into it rather easily during its more poetic flourishes. A blurb on the book declares Woodley’s writing style somewhere between Michael Crichton and Rachel Carson, which, I think, is apt. At its best, it is far more beautifully written than Crichton, yet it never does achieve the page-turning fury of a good sci-fi thriller.
As for the arc of the plot, it had enough twists and turns to move me along the ridge of its near 300-page length. It is partly a mystery, partly nostalgic for romance, and partly a thriller. It follows the voyage of a passenger pigeon across the apocalyptic US. Alongside the pigeon, whether they know it or not, are the widow and logger, and in pursuit of all three is the hit man. While this chase is drawn out, the reader will jump between the present and past lives of the three, and will come to unravel the mystery they all share. Intermixed with this, are a few scenes dedicated to the prime antagonist (the head of a pharmaceutical company), and other scenes of the plague. The ‘story’ is not very long. It is, however, swelled and prolonged by deep, lengthy dives into the character’s minds. This makes the plot’s development slow, and rather stinted.
All in all, it is an enjoyable read, and, when it was finished, I couldn’t help feeling that I had read something a little different. I couldn’t then, and I can’t now, quite put my finger on it, but the narrative worked a strange, Voodoo magic on me. This being said, it wasn’t necessarily a page turner, and took me more time to get through than it should have. The obsession with pigeons, though admirable, was a little more than I could take in at times. And for a book about the apocalypse, it could have brought the immensity of that word a bit more to the forefront of the plot.
When it comes to the apocalypse, I still can’t get enough. I moved on from Quick Fall of Light to other dark narratives: vampires, terrorists, zombies, nukes, aliens, disasters, etc. Yet, in all of these, I can’t help but always see myself beyond the visions, somehow surviving whatever end may come. Almost always, there is some small yet endearing human act that saves our species no matter how great or awesome the disaster. And maybe that is the draw. Maybe it’s that not very often is a story written that snuffs out all human existence completely, and so we keep looking. From Vonnegut’s “Big Space Fuck,” where humanity shoots “a rocket ship with eight-hundred pounds of freeze dried jizzum in its nose” into space, to Stephen King’s The Stand, where mankind nukes Randall Flagg, evil itself, from what is left of the earth, it seems there is always a final, saving act. Does this act happen in Quick Fall of Light? You’ll have to read it yourself.
But, Avian Influenza, you say, that was so thirteen years ago.
I thought so, too. But then I read this: Egypt Confirms New Human Case of Bird Flu
Quick Fall of Light
Gray Dog Press, 2010
For information on how to obtain a copy, visit: http://www.quickfalloflight.com/