The real existential crisis is that we are constantly churning out relics of ourselves — every second of every day, we are dying, die, are reborn, are alive — and in so doing, we live with the baggage of being “casualties” to the events big and small in our lives, too preoccupied to notice much larger, random existential crises, like meteors raining hellfire down upon Earth instantly killing a billion people, largely the inhabitants of North America, Europe and Australia.
That’s the philosophical gist of Nick Holdstock’s 2015 anti-apocalyptic apocalyptic novel, The Casualties. The rub of it all, to quote the quote that Holdstock uses in the middle of the book from Marcel Proust’s, The Fugitive, “The death of oneself is neither impossible nor extraordinary; it is effected without our knowledge, even against our will.”
Indeed, we didn’t ask to be born, and at least in most circumstances, we do not wish to die, or more pointedly, when we die is not when we would “choose,” if we so could. And yet.
The reason Holdstock’s book is a genre-defying anti-apocalyptic apocalyptic novel is that we, as readers, know that in 2017, meteors wiped out a billion people, and the narrator is 60 years into the future, one of the Survivors. That knowledge courses throughout the novel, but it is decidedly not the main focus of the novel. Instead, we spend time with Samuel “Sam” Clark, a bookkeeper, who lives in a small neighborhood in Edinburgh, Scotland, known as Comely Bank.
Sam is a peculiar fellow: He scours old books donated to the bookstore (which are then used to help a charity for preventing cruelty to children) to find the ephemera items left behind, the airline tickets, receipts, birthday cards, postcards, notes, and photos (many of the “found” photos are shown in the book, which was a neat touch). From this, Sam tries to draw conclusions about the “relics” from the past. All the while our narrator 60 years into the future is examining the “relic” that is Sam and the residents of Comely Bank.
Can you really know someone, even from what is left behind in their books or from the books themselves or the conditions of the books? Can even our narrator really know someone like Sam from a snapshot of his life in 2016 leading up to the meteor hit in 2017? After all, as Sam remarks later in the book, “Whatever ‘he’ thought, however ‘he’ felt, was merely one of a succession of selves that did not form a palimpsest, but instead kept peeling away.” The “he” he was in 2016 and 2017 may not even be alive in five years, or a decade, he muses.
Ostensibly, Sam is interested in the secrets of others, and trying to sketch the possible lives those who owned the books, or are in the pictures, lived, but in reality, his parents abandoned him, and he’s hoping to find some sort of “relic” from them to explain why.
But Sam is also interested in the misfits of Comely Bank. Alasdair is the homeless man babbling nonsense under the local bridge, who Sam later learns was a wealthy banker who maybe killed his family in a house fire scheme to get them out of debt. Mrs. Maclean, the headmistress at the school, has a faith crisis, and essentially thinks by doing “good deeds” at her old age, God will finally bestow mercy upon her and take her to heaven to be reunited with her long lost lover. Caitlin has dreadful “cracked” face skin, and because of that, is in a constant state of shame. I can relate to this as someone who also doesn’t have the clearest face skin, either! She also crushes hard on Sam, but Sam is peculiar, as I mentioned, and is almost asexual because of his fear of getting a woman pregnant.
Toby is a gargantuan man-child, who can’t resist the urge to eat and get fatter and fatter. His mother tires of trying to take care of him, so she outsources his care to others. One of those caretakers ends up being Sinead, a nymphomaniac. She uses Toby’s grotesque fatness to essentially ward her off of sex until she also ends up crushing on Sam. (She’s also worried about getting pregnant, having experienced a traumatic abortion.) She’s one of the women able to break Sam of his abstinence. But she more than crushes on Sam; she’s obsessed and wants to drug him into having sex with her.
Trudy is a prostitute who escaped her abusive husband, and in her case, is someone Sam falls in love with and wants to help her escape Comely Bank.
Other, smaller characters are Fahad Asham, who owns a general store and is one of the few Survivors from Comely Bank, despite likely being the one who murdered Trudy, such is the random chance of survival; and Rita and Sean are the entangled drunk lovers with a sordid past who accost anyone who comes near their park bench.
You see, Holdstock is focused on the intimate lives of these people, who are searching for themselves, trying to be reborn again, right before — unbeknownst to them — they are incinerated by a meteor. The “apocalypse” is this interplay, this struggle to live and strive and move through the world. Life is full of min-apocalypses in this way, moments where we feel like our own inner world is ending. I saw someone compare the book’s plot to Titanic and how much of the movie is focused on the lives of those on the ship before disaster strikes. I like that strategy, and that way of bringing the “camera” inward.
Interestingly, though, there is a sense among the Survivors and the inhabitants of countries not hit by the meteors, that the countries that were hit were colonial powers and so, they “deserved it,” even though other colonial powers weren’t hit. Or that, in this new world, 60 years later, things are pretty good! The climate crisis is solved, there are no wars, or much crimes, the streets are cleaner, and so on. In fact, in one passage, Holdstock remarks, “These days we are all so mixed together: The only thing more foolish than speaking of nations is to speak of race.” I do dig that future, but I’d rather not get there at the cost of a billion lives as a trade-off.
And Holdstock reflects upon the people’s attitudes through the narrator by suggesting how grotesque it is to think of the world as “better off” after a billion people instantly died. That idea isn’t new. Watchmen used an existential world crisis to bring humanity together, for example. But I liked its use here precisely because we only get broad brushes at what this new world looks like post-meteor death. That isn’t the focus of the book.
I don’t think this book, judging by its rating on Goodreads at least, is for everyone because of how genre-defining it is, and how oddball it is. But Holdstock’s writing is quirky and witty and interesting and inquisitive and grapples lovingly with these aforementioned existential questions.
To be human is to be a phoenix in a bird cage within a bird cage within a bird cage, dying and rebirthing, and then trying to excavate the bones before dying and rebirthing again before we reach that arbitrary, random demarcation line in the future where we cease to be reborn. And even en masse, as a species, we do that, meteor hellfire or not.