July 3, 2007

Book review: "The End As I Know It," by Kevin Shay

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The End As I Know It
By Kevin Shay
Doubleday / ISBN: 978-0-385-51821-5

Okay, I'll be the first to admit it (or maybe not the first, but still) -- that as an overeducated intellectual with a strong dislike for most of humanity, there are moments (lots of moments) where I can get myself worked up into a tizzy over things I probably shouldn't be getting that worked up over, and about which in any case I can't do anything anyway. Global warming? The end is nigh! Police brutality? Humanity is a bunch of savage animals! George W. Bush? Cheese and Rice, don't even get me started! It's the biggest problem with being an intelligent person, in fact; that the sheer stupidity on display all around you at every moment of the day is enough to drive a smart person crazy sometimes, if a smart person allows themselves to be affected to such an extent.

The End As I Know It, by Kevin Shay

So thank God, then, for humorist and former McSweeney's editor Kevin Shay, who manages in his debut novel The End As I Know It to quite squarely take all us intellectual worrywarts down a couple of notches, but to do it in a smart-enough way himself to make it impossible to dismiss him as "yet another of the mouth-breathing swarm." Set at the end of 1998, the story takes a look at one Randall Knight, a touring children's musician and puppeteer who has unfortunately become rather obsessed with the brand-new so-called "Y2K" bug, whispers of which have started getting louder and louder on the dot-com-era web that he compulsively checks at every Kinko's he comes across on the road. How obsessed? Well, for one, he's quit his full-time job as a music teacher at a gifted grade school; and the reason he's done this is so he can make a cross-country road trip instead, alerting everyone he cares about concerning the looming end of the world, and hoping to convince them all to pull their money from their banks and join him in creating a group survivalist camp in the middle of the woods before it's too late.

It's this road trip, in fact, that takes up the majority of the book, and is what saves The End As I Know It from being a one-trick pony (as one would guess might happen in an entire novel about the Y2K bug); because as Shay so brilliantly points out throughout the storyline, there were all kinds of things for intellectual worrywarts to get obsessed by at the turn of the millennium, all of them fairly ridiculous and all of them with their own complicated series of code words and industry lingo. Witness...

--While in Chicago, Randall stays with a group of privileged white undergraduates who believe themselves to be revolutionary Socialists ("Lenin," "shackles," "megamergers"), except that they can't seemingly stop playing their XBox long enough to actually do anything.

--In Denver, he stays with his out-of-work cousin and his wife, who have desperately turned to Amway ("upline," "edify," "Silver Direct") as a way of keeping themselves busy.

--At a kids' show in northern California, he is confronted with a group of angry conservative parents who are convinced that the Harry Potter books lead directly to child Satanism ("Harry Potter + Halloween = Heathenism!").

--In San Francisco, he hangs out with a group of web developers ("branding strategy," "eyeballs," "information architect"), who are apparently geniuses about every single subject except their own industry's upcoming meltdown.

--In Virginia, he buys a laptop off one of the gun-obsessed survivalists ("Dakota Longbow," "DCM Competition," "XM15 E2S Dissipator") of his online Y2K discussion groups, who is convinced that federal agents are following his every move.

--In Washington DC, he stays with his hypochondriac sister and her husband, a political journalist whose entire industry is having a field day because of the Lewinsky scandal ("cigar," "blue dress," "DNA sample").

--And in the background the whole time, his professor father ("tenure," "orals," "publish or perish") is mere weeks away from having his decades-long career ruined for good, because of accidentally plagiarizing a couple of sentences in his first book, written in the middle of a divorce over 20 years ago.

Added together, one can plainly see the main message that Shay is trying to get across; not that the Y2K bug in particular was a silly thing for people to believe in, but rather that all intelligent people are susceptible to irrational beliefs, in some cases precisely because they believe themselves to be too smart to fall for irrational beliefs. And not only that, but that none of these people ever think they're wrong; that even as they're ridiculing Randall for his extremist Millennial beliefs, most of them are also tripping all over themselves in their haste to believe in equally extremist BS, whether that's the idea that Jews secretly control the world's finances or that people will never get sick of Pets.com. And like I said, Shay gets this message across in a remarkable way, which is to say a snark-free one; that by the end of the novel, he's managed to make me feel stupid and guilty for every public drunken diatribe I've ever spewed about the telecom industry (stupid SBC, oh how I hate them SO MUCH), while never reverting to the tired old "listen to me because I'm smarter than you" argument that never works among two intellectuals in the first place.

Now, all this said, there's also two big problems with The End As I Know It, problems that are only technical in nature but that are big enough that they might ruin whatever enjoyment you might potentially be able to get from it, depending on who you are:

--Unfortunately, it's undeniable that Shay has a real weakness when it comes to compelling and naturalistic dialogue, and the flat conversations on display in this novel are likely to turn a lot of people off;

--And then there's the bigger problem; that after two-thirds of a tightly plotted and multilayered storyline, the entire thing sort of falls apart in the last third, with various confrontations and realizations that would be more appropriate for the climax actually happening with a good 75 pages or so still to go. And of course I don't want to go into this in detail, because I don't want to ruin the end of the book for anyone; but let's just say that not only Randall's opinions but his actions at the end of the story tend to belie the internal logic that Shay had been so meticulously setting up beforehand, giving it the feeling of a really funny sketch on Saturday Night Live that no one knew how to finish. And that's a shame, because a mere reshuffling of some of the events that transpire would've been enough to avoid this problem altogether. Good editors of the United States, where are you? Why can no one in your industry seem to do their job well anymore?

Despite these two things, though, I'm more than happy to give The End As I Know It an enthusiastic thumbs-up, because of it being such a delightful read for the majority of the manuscript; and not only that, but I'm willing to say that if bitter intellectuals pay attention, they might just find their entire outlook on life changed a little by the end as well. Hey, it worked for me; the next time I'm tempted to call some complete stranger an air-wasting meatsack, I'll be thinking instead of our misguided hero Randall, and wondering if there's maybe some new area of my own life that could use some improving, instead of just running around dumping on others. Given just how few artistic projects in my life have ever inspired me to think that way, it's high praise indeed.

Out of 10:
Story: 8.8
Characters: 8.1
Style: 6.0
Overall: 7.7

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:56 PM, July 3, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |