“Apocalypse How? An Existential Bestiary” by Adrienne Celt

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This book is about as offbeat as it gets. Apocalypse How? sits somewhere between Beckett, Sartre, and an Aardman Animations cartoon, and the good news is it’s brilliant.

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The book consists of stand-alone cartoon strips, four panels each, starring all the animals of the ark. The twist is that they talk and think as if they’re the guy or gal next door going through an existential crisis. So you get a Heidegger-influenced ostrich contemplating being and non-being; a newly hatched chick pondering, “I’m new. What does it mean to be new?”; penguins riffing on the perils of jogging; depressed donkeys; paranoid turtles; and polar bears envisioning their demise.

Occasionally, shafts of poetry break through. A giant black bear says, “The wind is telling stories about me. The grass retracts when I try to walk on it.”

But mainly it’s talk.

I have no idea whether Celt made up these dialogs, but many of them sound like something you overhear on the street, in a laundromat, or at a bar – snatches of conversation picked up, out of context, on the antenna of a writer with an impeccable ear. So much in this book skirts the thin line between profundity and absurdity, and contemplating that line is part of the reader’s pleasure. At times, I found myself thinking, “I don’t get it” and then I realized that’s the point: our innermost thoughts aren’t always “gettable.”

The cartoons themselves are pleasing black-and-white line drawings in ink. There are a few sparsely rendered background details – a branch, a splash of water, a dark sky – but the animals take center stage.

Anthropomorphism has a long, noble literary history stretching from the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm through Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, all the way to Orwell’s Animal Farm. Unlike those works, Celt has no narrative here, but these vignettes contain hints of backstory, and the animals – often paired up – sound like long-married couples.

As with Orwell, the effect of Celt’s work is that by having the dialog come out of the mouths of non-humans, she perversely sheds light on our humanity. Our preoccupations, vanities, and splendor are all here, and the humor is as dry as a stick. This is as it should be. Existentialism can’t laugh at itself, but it does deadpan like a dream.

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