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Spotlight on: Last Week's Apocalypse by Douglas Lain

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Last Week's Apocalypse by Douglas Lain Douglas Lain, Last Week's Apocalypse

To be completely honest, I didn't know all that much about Douglas Lain's work before diving head first into his debut collection. I originally came across him via his LiveJournal and found him to be witty and articulate, not given to the sort of logorrhea that plagues some other writers who keep online journals. This piqued my interest in his fiction and I downloaded "Music Lessons" off his website (he has since replaced the full text with an excerpt). It was on the strength of this remarkable piece of prose that I requested a review copy of Last Week's Apocalypse.

I must confess that I could not be called a fan of modern science-fiction. The kind I like went out of style in the 1950s, along with the demise of a little old-time radio program called X Minus One. (Coincidentally, Lain uses the body of an old radio to house a magic shredder is his hopefully apocalyptic "Shopping at the End of the World.") "These are stories of the future," Fred Collins announced weekly, "adventures where you'll live in a million could-be years on a thousand maybe worlds." Really, though, they were stories written for a general audience: character- and conflict-based tales that just happened to include a fantastic element.

"Music Lessons" struck me in much the same way that those stories did (and still do): sure, there are aliens, but Lain's story mostly centers on a minimalist composer's struggle with his sanity. Lain's combination of interviews alongside first-person narrative shows us different sides, all of which are confusing and disconcerting and more than a little creepy. (When Mr. Rogers showed up, I just about lost it.) It's fiercely intellectual, but with bees and gorillas.

If there is a "Douglas Lain" type of story, it probably involves the protagonist's descent into madness in some form. But just as often it's the world that's gone mad -- merely causing Our Hero to think he is the only one. I haven't read one yet where the reader goes crazy, but "The Suburbs of the Citadel of Thought" probably comes closest. In it, characters go about doing the bidding of the author -- normal enough behavior, only this author (who bears a significant resemblance to Lain himself, even mentioning his story "Instant Labor") keeps breaking through to explain his motives and insert related thoughts. It's a combination of fiction and reality I was not prepared for.

(I wasn't aware of this before, but I guess I don't like my books to address me personally. I found it made me vaguely uncomfortable, and found myself wondering if the Douglas Lain ca. 1999 who wrote this could see me through the pages, if I had somehow dropped into a Douglas Lain story. By the time I reached the end of "Suburbs," I had a headache, but that could have been from the dry air of the commuter train. Whatever the cause, I had to put down Last Week's Apocalypse, and I didn't pick it up again for a week, choosing instead to read a couple of Westerns and watch a lot of Moonlighting, just to clear my head.)

It's obvious that Lain is a father from the tenderness with which he treats his child characters (his characters are often fathers and/or have high-profile jobs in advertising, cartooning, sales of Time-Life Books, etc.). Teaching Noah in "Subliminal Son" to speak properly is a wonderful construct upon which to hang a story about memory, primarily its loss. "Instant Labor" (the earliest story in Last Week's Apocalypse), suggests that Lain appeared on the fiction scene fully formed. He seems to have already found the voice and style that would serve him so well over the years. (It was even published in the legendary Amazing Stories; you can't beat that for an auspicious start.)

There is little that is common in Lain's fiction; surprises awaited me at nearly every turn of the page, whether from the plotline itself ("The Sea-Monkey Conspiracy" with its school for Manchurian Candidates combined with photography and John Philip Sousa) or from the way it was told ("On a Scale of One to Three" uses a clever style choice, a questionnaire as a method of reminiscence, and I loved his reference to Van Halen's "Jump" as a "suicidal anthem."). Throughout, he shows a sharp sense of humor and a memory for time and place as exhibited through pop culture references, all told with an accessible narrative style, familiar like a friend telling you about a dream they had. His protagonists, while they obviously have problems, seem like the kind of people you see everyday and would not hesitate to strike up a conversation with.

The only story not previously published elsewhere, "I Read the News Today" opens with a quote from the author of The God of Small Things, but then bits from "Hey Jude" and Help intertwine with this story of an author of a book not-quite-about the Beatles, his wife, his synesthetic girlfriend, and his doppelganger. (My description makes it sound like a Greenaway-esque love quadrilateral, but there's no boy tenor.) "'Identity is a Construct' (and Other Sentences)" closes out Last Week's Apocalypse with a story of self-realization and the problems that it can cause. Lain sets up a wonderful premise, using his narrative to present only part of the whole story, and I very much enjoyed filling in the rest myself. A less ambiguous ending (or one less open to interpretation) would have made it ideal, but it's entirely possible that I just didn't get it. (After all, all I know about Philip K. Dick, the author that has most famously influenced Lain, is what Richard Linklater spouted over a pinball machine at the end of Waking Life.) I am almost surely not the target audience for Douglas Lain's fiction, but I unabashedly admire his skill at what he does, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. These are stories I'm going to want to revisit again and again.

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