I love a good post-apocalyptic novel. The Road shook this young father to the core, and over the years I’ve enjoyed watching the world destroyed countless times over in various ways: alien invasions, plague, escaped biological weapons, economic ruin, gamma ray bursts, and nuclear weapons, just to name a few. The breakdown of society is a favorite theme in my own writing as well. My novel The Lords of Harambee is about a peacekeeping operation on a hellish world torn apart by economic ruin and genocide, and my current work-in-progress is about the rapid dissolution of an empire. It isn’t the ruin I necessarily enjoy; it’s watching human beings stripped down to their essential nature, then fighting to survive and to build something new and good.
So I’ll never shy away from a promising post-apocalyptic novel, but when I downloaded the Audible version of The Grapes of Wrath, that was hardly what I was expecting. I had fallen in love with East of Eden a couple years ago, and was looking for an equally powerful experience. I had read “The Grapes of Wrath” in High School and despised it, but I’ve spent my adult years rediscovering and falling in love with many of those books I’d been too young to appreciate. So when I returned to this novel, I had some idea of what was in store. However, I was deeply surprised, midway through the book, when I realized I was listening to one of the greatest post-apocalyptic novels ever written.
This is a beautiful and compassionate book, and the Audible version is phenomenal. Despite a huge cast of characters, the narrator brings each of the main characters to life with a diverse range of believable voices, and does an excellent job managing the many secondary characters. I couldn’t wait to get into the car at the end of each workday, so I could listen to another segment. But make no mistake: this novel is also brutal. In the Audible version, the listener has more than 21 hours to witness the tragic dissolution of the Joad family. By the end, I just wanted it to be over. I didn’t remember much about the book from High School, but I did remember how it ended, and I knew it wasn’t well.
There are no alien invasions or stray asteroids, but this is John Steinbeck’s apocalypse. It is nothing less than the destruction of America, and the members of the Joad family are the classic post-apocalyptic survivors, inching their way across a tortured landscape in search of a better future. Merciless corporations, a runaway financial system, and weak or oppressive government institutions have conspired to make life unbearable for the average American. While the upper crust of society grows impossibly rich, the masses eek out miserable lives, simply trying to survive. Many of them don’t, and we watch their downfall in painful slow motion.
Steinbeck’s critique of capitalism might be overstated. After all, the 20th century was not exactly a race to the bottom, and our lives today are substantially better today thanks to the innovation made possible by a capitalist system.
However, Steinbeck’s devastated world looks uncomfortably familiar today, at a time when something is so clearly broken in American society. We live in an era when wealth disparity is growing rapidly, and when neither capitalism nor the American government serves the common interest. The middle class is disappearing, and the masses struggle to stay afloat in the face of the new economic and political reality: crushing debt, unaffordable higher education, disappearing jobs, dysfunctional governance, totalitarian surveillance, unjust legal systems, and dwindling government services. Thankfully most of us aren’t reduced to the misery and desperation of Steinbeck’s world, but the novel is haunting and familiar for those of us who are worried about where our country is headed.
With all that said, Steinbeck makes one significant deviation from most post-apocalyptic novels. In the majority of these novels, humanity descends into Mad Max barbarism; every man is for himself, and every stranger is a likely enemy. Many of today’s survivalists, who anticipate a rapid collapse of society, hoard food and ammo so they can ride out the end of the world in fortified isolation. But as John Robb pointed out in a blog post I’ve since lost track of, collapsing societies don’t always turn every man against the others; in most cases, neighbors band together to survive. As national institutions crumble, local ones become essential. Read the news about Syria, and you’ll read stories about neighborhoods forming local councils to tackle urgent problems and women smuggling medicine into besieged communities. Anyone who has visited a war zone will testify to these remarkable stories of compassion and bravery. This is how human beings ride out the end of the world: with every act of terror or tyranny matched by an act of courage or kindness.
“The Grapes of Wrath” illustrates this beautifully. Despite the horrific world that Steinbeck has created, the weary, destitute refugees show extraordinary generosity to one another. No man survives at another’s expense. Every last crust of bread is shared, every favor returned. At one point Ma says, “I’m learin’ one thing good…If you’re in trouble or hurt or need – go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones.” The contrast between rich and poor in the novel is striking, and perhaps exaggerated–but it also rings true, just as Orwell’s treatment of poverty did for me. Steinbeck succeeded in unsettling this reader’s conscience.
So when you’re planning for the end of the world, don’t limit yourself to stockpiling ammo. Consider the possibilities for cooperation, generosity, and kindness despite the terror. And if you’ve had all of the Zombie fiction that you can possibly handle, consider a less orthodox interpretation of the Apocalypse. Steinbeck’s slow unraveling of American civilization will make you stop and think, and it will absolutely make you feel.