This Is The Way The World Ends - James Morrow

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

This is the way the world ends
James Morrow
Harcourt Brace Publishers
ISBN: 0156002086 (Amazon link)

There was a recent thread on this book on this group which prompted me to go and find it. I have read a couple of other Morrow novels recently and loved them. The general feeling of the posts I'd read was that this wasn't one of his best and was rather a grim reading experience.

I'm not going to go into this one at length as it seems to be relatively well known book. Let's do the blurb/summary:

George Paxton is an everyman who carves tombstones for a living. Scopas suits are all the rage - survival suits suitable for post-nuclear war living. They come in kiddie sizes too, aren't cheap, and you wear them all the time. George is pressured into buying one, then goes back to return it when he discusses it with his wife - they can't afford it. George wants nothing more than for his kid to have that suit - to keep her safe. (Although what a little kid is going to do after the worst happens is unclear, even armed with a colt .45...)

He meets a strange old woman, who arranges for him to get a suit for his kid in return for some epitaph writing. Both the old woman, and the extremely odd man who produces the golden scopas suit for George's kid Are Odd. To get the suit, George has to sign a contract saying that he is complicit in the arms race. He does, to get the suit. And then the town in nuked. George is whisked off to a sub with some high level military and war planner types. Cue much horror witnessed. Time goes funny too. Then the unadmitted appear - these are the future generations. They promptly try those in the sub, in a similar fashion to the Nuremberg trials. That's it. Oops, frame story: Leonardo (yes, that one) is painting glass slides according to Nostradamus' instructions. George acquires such a slide, showing him and a woman with a little kid in a golden scopas suit. That Will Happen.

Written like that it sounds contrived. Well, it is. There are several clunky plot changes in this novel; the setup is forced, the ending is a bit deus ex, there is a subplot involving vultures and a Revelation which I felt went 'CLUNK!' - but then we're reading one of Morrow's early works. The book isn't about religion by the way, nope, Morrow is discussing nuclear weapons, limitation agreements, deterrence, peace through stockpiles etc. Think Dr Strangelove.

Is it a bad book? No, not really. There are some nice scenes, and overall, I did feel for George, and the other characters are crisply drawn. However, it's not great. Part of the problem is the plot, where one can see the mechanisms being forced to move by the author. The other problem is well, that the book feels mean-spirited. George is well and truly *&^%ed over by fate, as is all mankind. The unborn generations are viciously upset. (Naturally.) At the end of it all, well, it all ends. It all ends badly, for no purpose. The frame story offers no solace. Which is rather the point of a novel about nuclear war I suppose, but still, not a fun read.

I would have been happier had the ideas discussed been articulated within a less forced plot - as it was I felt a bit cheated.

Overall: give it a read if you like Morrow, or find the concept interesting. Otherwise? Go read his later, fantastic works. C+.

Posted: Sun - May 4, 2003 at 07:16 PM