New Year, New You: Books that Blow Up the World

Debriefing after The Last Jedi, my friend Charlie noted that the film had been concerned with trying to save the future of a fictional universe by blowing it up. After decades of adding layers of story (and merchandising opportunities) to the same totems and heroes, both within that galaxy far, far away and in our external fandom, we’re seeing Disney’s savvy attempt at a hard reboot. Kill the supreme leaders; force-ghost the Jedi masters; break Anakin’s lightsaber in half. Burn some…sacred texts? (I’m sure the true fans knew about those.) Roll out the new action figures; Star Wars is pivoting into (relatively) uncharted space.

I hadn’t noticed this, because Star Wars speaks directly to my id and though I’ll follow a plot if they give me one, I am mostly in it for a combination of nostalgia and aesthetic. But Charlie’s point got me thinking deeper than haircuts and droid sound effects, about the slightly trickier hoops to jump through philosophically (sorry, I’m a Trekkie first). Maybe largest among these is the reframing of a franchise about hope to make room for failure—not just tactical or strategic but personal, and not just from the guy you already knew was gonna become Darth Vader. As filmmakers, as world-builders razing a fictional universe down to its base elements, how do you decide which beams are load-bearing? What do you keep, and why? What do you toss, even if at first it seems crazy to do so?

I promise I’m not just here to talk about Star Wars. I keep seeing this in action, now—sometimes thoughtfully executed, sometimes less so, but so many works I’ve encountered lately seek to establish a world and then blow it up or turn it on its head. It’s both easiest to see and most complicated to map in matters of adaptation, like Kamila Shamsie’s novel Home Fire, which reimagines the plot of Antigone in a vastly different modern setting. But I’m also interested in how a catastrophic reboot works within a single work. Following up Home Fire I’ve been reading Y: The Last Man—a comic with I premise I’d heard summarized (every man and male mammal on Earth dies at once, except our protagonist and his pet monkey) that I was goofily shocked to begin reading and find that the central “gendercide” (oy) doesn’t occur until the end of the first issue. But of course. It’s a story about the loss and confusion after a catastrophic event—how else is the reader to feel that loss and confusion unless she’s been made to feel at home in the world before it ends.

I’m infatuated now with books that do this a little more quietly, in form rather than plot. Often, this means shifting perspectives suddenly, from one point-of-view character to another. I can’t think of a book I’ve read recently that did this more memorably or with more of a splash than Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. But I was set back on my heels in the POV-shifts after the first section of Home Fire as well, and in Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho. I just finished Lily King’s Euphoria, and gasped aloud at the turn at the end of the first chapter—after a tight 13 pages establishing us on Nell’s shoulder, she see’s a man across the room, and there’s a one sentence paragraph in its own section to end the chapter, a narrative baton-pass and sucker-punch in one: “Without her glasses, my face would have been little more than a pinkish smudge among many, but she seemed to know it was me as soon as I lifted my head.” And hello, Andrew!

When well executed, this kind of move a skillful way to set the reader back on her heels, raise tension in the universe—we don’t have only one surrogate, one ally in this world. More importantly, we can’t ever turn the page confident in our prediction of what or who we’ll find on the other side. In a novel with a successful point-of-view shift executed at just the right moment, giving us enough time to feel settled but no more, the shift itself can feel climactic and imbue the rest of the book with energy. Maybe a fitting thought for the New Year—how to build fiction by reframing it; when to set an intention and then when to blow it up.