I'm willing to bet that Kate Atkinson didn't color inside the lines when she was a little girl. She's a born subversive, and her charming, alarming, crazy quilt fiction catches the reader off-balance. "Normal" categories get messed with: Realism morphs without warning into fantasy; past, present and future are melded and skewed; people are never quite what they seem. These qualities shone in her first and most brilliant book, BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE MUSEUM (the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1995), as well as in two other novels (HUMAN CROQUET and EMOTIONALLY WEIRD), and they are equally evident in NOT THE END OF THE WORLD, a collection of 12 stories.
The narratives are neither clearly connected nor totally distinct (Atkinson doesn't do anything conventionally). Occasionally she recycles characters: The sullen adolescents whom she evokes with absolutely perfect pitch in "Dissonance" reappear, a few years older but still obnoxious, in "Wedding Favors." More frequently, though, a featured player in one story becomes a peripheral character in another; members of the Zane family, a large American clan, thread their way in and out of several tales, as do a self-absorbed celebrity mom and a nanny who is a worthy successor to Mary Poppins. Detecting these links is wonderfully diverting for the reader --- kind of like a Chinese puzzle --- and it also has the effect of unifying the collection. Atkinson's people all seem to inhabit more or less the same eccentric universe, which is Scotland (she lives in Edinburgh) and at the same time another place: more mysterious, less nameable.
Usually I prefer my "magical" and my "realism" well separated, like carrots and peas on a dinner plate. But Atkinson is so adept and her narrative voice so persuasive that after a while I began to enjoy the sudden shifts from ordinary life to fairy tale, from anxiety to horror, from a bad day to the end of the world. Perhaps her inspiration here is the cult show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (to which the characters in several stories are hopelessly addicted), an odd hybrid of teen TV fare and spookier, more complex life-and-death drama. Take "Temporal Anomaly," wherein a lawyer named Marianne has an unusual out-of-body experience, or the amazing consequences when a woman without a boyfriend adopts a stray in "The Cat Lover." Often, the realistic side of her stories involves broken families and deserted children. In "Tunnel of Fish," "Sheer Big Waste of Love" and "Unseen Translation," we encounter three small, wise, almost painfully controlled boys who are among Atkinson's most touching inventions.
What I didn't like was the epigraphs that precede each story. They're wildly eclectic, ranging from Buffy to Emily Dickinson to classical sources (including untranslated Greek!), but does the book really need another layer of possible meaning? They struck me as irritating rather than enlightening, like program notes that over-explain instead of letting the work speak for itself. And because some are highly esoteric, they give the mistaken impression that you must have a daunting level of scholarship in order to gain entry to the book.
The stories in NOT THE END OF THE WORLD are, in fact, completely accessible --- with the exception of the first and the last, "Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping" and "Pleasureland," intentional bookends for the collection. On one level, these two tales are simply a big fat ironic play on the title phrase, since what's happening is that the world (as we know it) is ending: weather anomalies and epidemics and warfare and no more radio or TV or food, zoo animals running riot and museums left unpoliced so "people wandered in and took the artifacts and used them to improve their interior décor."
The Charlene and Trudi stories (in both cases, they are the sole characters) are a weird cross between high-literary minimalism and a high-end shopping list, itemizing everything from tea to perfume to fabric. Atkinson seems to be pointing out how little "stuff" matters when it comes to the apocalypse, while at the same time glorying in the sheer sound and texture of words and objects. She also jams in a great many references to themes and people mentioned in the rest of the book, as if Charlene and Trudi's dying days (and dying world) contain and transcend everything else. None of this really works --- and it is particularly discouraging to encounter it right off the bat (I almost threw the book across the room). My advice: Skip Charlene and Trudi until you've read everything else.
NOT THE END OF THE WORLD is a grand ride, but I don't think it is Atkinson's best. Too many of the stories, despite their obvious virtuosity, wind up getting by on the author's sarcastic, fantastic riffs and juicy language. She could (dangerously, for her own development) be typecast as wacky rather than deep. I hope she writes another novel next --- preferably about a small boy with profound dignity and a well-concealed longing for love.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 22, 2011