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Notes from an Apocalypse Reviews

Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O'Connell

Notes from an Apocalypse

A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back

Mark O'Connell

3.91 out of 5

10 reviews

Category: Non-fiction
Imprint: Granta Books
Publisher: Granta Books
Publication date: 16 Apr 2020
ISBN: 9781783784066
  • The BooksellerEditor's Choice
5 stars out of 5
Caroline Sanderson
17 Jan 2020

"Terrifying, but blissful"

I loved To Be a Machine, O'Connell's first book, which won the Wellcome Book Prize. Now he surveys how the less blase among us are preparing for the apocalypse. His end-of-days quest, related in utterly distinctive, sardonic-meets-innocent-abroad style, takes him to South Dakota, where he tours the bunkers only vast wealth can buy; a conference in LA about life on Mars; and Scotland, where he takes part in a Dark Mountain retreat. He also watches far too many YouTube videos featuring right-wing US survivalists. Terrifying, but blissful.


4 stars out of 5
Nicholas Lezard
13 Jun 2020

" a bleak, if well-written and insightful book."

O’Connell is at times very funny (about his fear of moths, and Stephen Pinker’s hair) but on the whole this is a bleak, if well-written and insightful book. And what better time to read it than when we are having our noses jammed up against the fact that organised society is indeed a fragile construct?

4 stars out of 5
19 Apr 2020

"Mark O’Connell entertainingly explores the ways life on Earth could all go irreversibly wrong"

Notes from an Apocalypse feels more like a collection of discrete essays than To be a Machine did, and O’Connell shows the same nimble ability to shift between high and low registers – and the same pinpoint accuracy with a well-timed joke – as Geoff Dyer or, in his pomp, Martin Amis. The good news for those terrified by his last book is that it doesn’t look as if the future is going to happen anyway. But if we are all heading down the long slide, at least with O’Connell to keep us company, we’ll be laughing – and screaming – all the way.

2 stars out of 5
15 Apr 2020

"...reveals a more significant hypocrisy than claiming to care about the environment while still using an iPhone"

In order to create the illusion of seamlessness between his experiences and his thoughts, he’s constantly “realising” things in scene, or else considering them, remembering them, being struck by them, or having them occur to him, though it seems likely he came up with them when reporting was done and he was toiling at his desk. I’m sceptical they just appeared in his mind while he was zoning out at the Heathrow Yo! Sushi. Perhaps these are intended as little apocalypses, to suggest that serious thinking can lead to a break or rupture in one’s life... “It’s just like Harry Potter, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Matrix, and Contagion!” social media users marvel when a news item resembles the plots of those stories. To treat these stories as prophesies is to miss the point of fictions completely. They’re supposed to be like life. By attempting to make the reverse true, to make reality fit into a fiction, O’Connell hasn’t really overcome his apocalyptic imagination. He has just passed it off to someone else.

4 stars out of 5
Colin Freeman
11 Apr 2020

"if coronavirus does prove to be the apocalypse, buy this book first"

Convinced that the planet is beyond redemption, and nostalgic for the pre-industrial era, these folks make Greta Thunberg sound cheery. One woman even has a homemade iPhone case, fashioned, she says, “as a Neolithic craftsperson” would have done it. This stuff is surely ripe for O’Connell’s considerable satirical powers, yet beyond pointing out that Neolithics didn’t have iPhones, he reins it in. He even buys her claim that with her knowledge of fungi, she could survive in the wild if she had to. My money would be on the survivalists with their guns.

4 stars out of 5
9 Apr 2020

"It can’t be overstated what witty, thoughtful company O’Connell is"

It can’t be overstated what witty, thoughtful company O’Connell is when exploring these peculiarly 21st-century dilemmas.

At bedtime, he reads his two children The Lorax, Dr Seuss’s 1971 kids’ classic of ecological ruin caused by rampant consumerism. O’Connell encourages his son to rethink if he really needs another Lego Minifigure. His son (clever boy) asks if daddy really needs to drink so much coffee.

What to do? O’Connell has an ecologist friend who half-jokes that the cure for climate catastrophe lies in ‘an imminent establishment of some kind of benevolent global dictatorship to limit carbon’.

3 stars out of 5
Jennifer Szalai
8 Apr 2020

"Some of the stops on this travelogue are so spectacularly scenic that I found myself envious, and not a little bit suspicious"

What he offers instead is a funny, self-deprecating inquiry into his own complicity. His therapist makes an intermittent appearance; at one session, O’Connell starts telling her about internet memes and ends up talking about the psychologist Steven Pinker’s hair. He reads his young son the Dr. Seuss story of the Lorax, a gentle creature who presides over a landscape that’s been stripped bare for the rampant production of consumer items called Thneeds. O’Connell wonders what his own Thneeds are, and the human cost of what it takes to make them. He ruefully imagines the people who harvested the beans for his coffee, and the factory workers “who made the smartphone on which I listened to leftist political podcasts as I walked, drinking the flat white.”

  • The ObserverBook of the Week
4 stars out of 5
Tim Adams
5 Apr 2020

"O’Connell has a gift for channelling the “sense of looming crisis” that characterises our times"

The disaster scenarios the quest is concerned with are mostly the terrors of climate change. Pestilence hardly gets a look-in, although you are occasionally given pause by prophetic allusions to our current circumstance. One surprising voice co-opted into Musk’s belief that we need to colonise Mars as a “backup planet” is Stephen Hawking, who argued that “to stay [on Earth] risks annihilation. It could be an asteroid hitting Earth. It could be a new virus… For humans to survive, I believe we must have the preparations in place within 100 years.”

4 stars out of 5
James McConnachie
29 Mar 2020

"The brilliance of the book ... lies in the analysis. O’Connell is bitingly clever."

Luckily, this book is better than that. It is black and ironic, much like Mark O’Connell’s previous offering, To Be a Machine, which was about people hoping to become immortal through technology. But it is also personal and sincere. O’Connell describes it as a “pilgrimage”, a journey into his own profound anxieties about environmental collapse and the triumph of the nastier kinds of capitalism. Fittingly for a pilgrimage, there is plenty of travel. O’Connell views lavish bunkers in South Dakota, gawps at the PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel’s end-of-times retreat in New Zealand, attends a conference in Los Angeles about colonising Mars, undergoes a week-long spiritual retreat in the Scottish wilderness, and tours Chernobyl on a bus.

5 stars out of 5
James Marriott
26 Mar 2020

"a fidgety, fretful but very funny book with which to while away the days in self-isolation"

The rough and faintly random material gathered in O’Connell’s “notes” is bound together by his brilliant comic style. To get a handle on his cerebral, neurotic persona it might help to imagine a cross between Bill Bryson and David Foster Wallace. O’Connell’s best paragraphs wade grandly into the intellectual deep end with long clauses and polysyllabic jargon before comically losing confidence in themselves and splashing anxiously back towards the shallower waters of self-deprecation and doubt.