Reviewed by Jenny Mounfield
The End of the World—A Tale of Life, Death and the Space In Between
by Andrew Biss
Price: $0.99 (USD)
With no experience of life outside his parents’ home, Valentine is told by his mother one fine day that it’s time he left the nest and embarked on a journey into the great mystery that exists beyond the front gate. Somewhat put out by this pronouncement, Valentine reluctantly leaves the only world he has ever known for the first and last time. Mere streets from home, he is set upon by a mugger. He flees and soon finds his way to a ramshackle establishment aptly named. The End of the World, run by the equally ramshackle Mrs Anna. This somewhat sour woman relieves Valentine of most of his money and informs him he can stay. The following morning, anticipating a full English breakfast, Valentine heads for the kitchen and meets Luka—“My name is Luka—I live on the second floor.”—the first in a series of oddball guests.
Unkempt and decidedly maudlin (for good reason), Luka lectures Valentine on the insignificance of his hunger in the face of the world’s atrocities—of which she has first-hand experience, having had her stomach blown apart by a neighbour fighting for a greater Serbia.
“There is no food. You must go hungry like the hordes of wretched souls you never gave a second thought to—except for the few guilt-ridden seconds when reading your newspapers and chewing your toast, only to turn the page to smaller tales of smaller pains that caused you smaller sadness. Here you must go hungry. No matter how you saw yourself before, here…here you are nothing…nothing special.”
Chagrined by this encounter, and still hungry, Valentine takes matters into his own hands. Opening the fridge he is struck by a blinding light and the sight of a tall, bulbous-bellied man climbing from the space where the bacon and eggs should be. He of the fridge, Hank Raith, proceeds to sell Valentine on his certain to make a fortune idea of TV screens surgically implanted in the foreheads of uninteresting individuals desperate to capture the attention of their fellows.
“Imagine it. You’re just itchin’ to impart all the tedious detail of everything that’s hangin’ heavy on your mind to one of your co-workers at happy hour in the local bar. They’re bracin’ themselves for an hour or two of clenched teeth and thinkin’ to themselves “Won’t he ever shut the hell up” when suddenly, to their great surprise and delight, you produce a convienient palm-sized remote control that gives them the freedom to choose between all the latest news from CNN, up-to-the-minute sports action from ESPN, or a thought-provoking costume drama from your very own BBC, all at the touch of a button.”
Relieved of the last of his cash, Valentine barely has time to recover his senses when Monsignor Dave bursts forth from the kitchen drain and appoints himself saviour of Valentine’s immortal soul. I’ll spare you the existential debate that ensues.
Surreal and unreal, The End of the World is very much Alice in Wonderland meets Beetlejuice (1988 film starring Geena Davis and Michael Keaton). Having begun life in 2009 as a play, it comes as no surprise that the bulk of this novella is dialogue. To fully embrace the novella format the plot really could have done with further development (It tends to read like a script minus stage directions.) At times long-winded, Biss handles his characters’ utterances well. Though for the most part loathsome, these characters are all interesting, and each imparts something worthy of deeper thought.
Human-kind has pondered the meaning of life and death for millennia and arrived at an infinite list of possible answers. Indeed, without these so-called answers and their accompanying questions no religion could exist—not to mention students of philosophy and a good portion of the world’s literary works. While it’s unlikely anyone could possibly write something new on this subject, what Biss has done with The End of the World is to create characters who express various viewpoints on what I assume Biss sees as the most noteworthy issues affecting our species, and rather than give us the answers—which, of course, he doesn’t have—encourages us to chew on these questions for ourselves. In this he has succeeded.
This ‘jerky for the mind’ is just the right length. Any longer and I would have lost interest. The writing style is humorous, deceptively light and drier than dust. The story’s ending is a little too pat for my liking: I’d have preferred something more profound. Still, The End of the World has been tied up in a neat little package, which is sure to please those who prefer to be offered answers rather than more questions.
Playwright Biss has created a generous body of work that has been produced in cities across North America and Europe. He has attracted numerous accolades and awards. With some fine-tuning he could do well as a novelist, if he so chooses.
About the reviewer: Jenny Mounfield is the author of a three published novels for children, her most recent being, The Ice-cream Man (Ford Street Publishing www.fordstreetpublishing.com) as well as a number of short stories for both children and adults published in print and online. She has reviewed children’s fiction for e-zine, Buzz Words since 2006 and has recently completed her first novel for adults. She lives in south-east Queensland Australia with her husband and three teenage children.