Where would you want to be at end of the world?
With your loved ones or good friends? Favourite bar? The restaurant that serves your steaks just so?
Most people, understandably would choose the first option if for no other reason than when everything is at its apocalyptically worst, you are with the people who, for the most part, make you feel at your very best?
But when the nuclear bombs begin falling like confetti all across the globe on cities as diverse as London, Berlin and Albuquerque in Hanna Jameson’s gripping humanistic thriller The Last, San Francisco-based historian Jon Keller finds himself at the Hotel Sixième in Switzerland far from his wife Nadia and his two daughters.
The conference he is there to attend is another in a long line of a academic obligations that he has chosen to attend over being with his family without relations are fraught, the result of a few too many years of prioritising work, and the sexual allure of college undergraduates, over his nearest and supposedly dearest.
He is, as anyone would be, traumatised by watching the destruction of cities like Washington DC and New York City, which vanish in puffs of cataclysmic dust and debris, taking the world, so the survivors at the hotel almost rightly suppose, right along with it.
“The thought had occurred to me once or twice: would killing myself really be that bad, considering? Did I want to see where we – and humanity as a whole – ended up? Did I want to see how things got before they – if they – ever got better?
But the idea always repelled me. As long as I could continue to be useful, I’d stay. I wouldn’t voluntarily throw my life away. I’d never think badly of those who decided it was too much, because it was. It is too much. But I could have been in San Francisco when those bombs fell, I could have been in Mississippi with my parents, and I was in neither. I had ended up in one of the few places that escaped total devastation, and the idea of creating more by giving in to despair seemed ungrateful somehow.” (P. 131)
But the news channels wink off one after the other, the internet goes dead, their phones power down and suddenly he, and those who opt to stay at the hotel – many don’t, choosing to take their chances in a new, wholly dangerous new world – are plunged into a void of information, of civilisation, cut adrift from a nuclear-ravaged planet where the people they know and love might be alive, or more tellingly, might not.
What does that absence of everything do to a person, to a society, even one as small as the twenty people who remain at the hotel under the leadership of long-time employee Dylan, a man who is calm and unflappable but who might be hiding some unsettling secrets of his own?
Jon, and fellow survivors just as wilfully independent and often combative post grad student and fellow American Tomi, keen photographer Englishman Rob, windowed doctor Tania, Aussie bartended Nathan who’s working at the hotel for one very personal reason, hotel chef Sophia and drug-taking musician Adam have no choice but to muddle their way through with no rules to govern the next step forward.
There are basic rules of human decency still in play of course, and when it comes to dispensing justice, these are observed, even if the resulting punishment does not fit with pre-apocalypse norms, as they are when matters of food, heating and all kinds of other basic needs are considered
What really sets the cat among the end of the world pigeons is when Jon discovers the body of a murdered young girl in the water tanks on the top of the hotel, and sets off to discover who killed her, even if, as Tomi and others suggest, there’s really no point in a world where the rule of the law is a questionably elastic concept at best.
But Jon persists, believing that at a time when so much has been lost, something of the old, the good and the just must be saved, must be propped up and allowed to exist much as it always has.
Riven by great regret about the way he parted from Nadia, valid and imagined concerns about the people with whom he now shares his life, some who become friends, some who do not, Jon’s quest becomes as much about finding a killer who may still be among them (certain evidence suggests that is the case) as it is about bringing and retaining order in the small section of the world he not inhabits.
A study of the way humanity acts under pressure against the backdrop of an end of the world whodunnit, The Last is a finely-tuned novel that deftly peels back the layers of civility to ponder the question – what are we like when the trappings of civilisation are taken away from us, suddenly and with great trauma?
Thankfully Jameson accedes to the fact that while the The Lord of the Flies/The Walking Dead option is always possible since humanity has shown a propensity for letting everything go to hell as the slight provocation, people are more apt to rally together and trying to not just survive, though that is clearly the first order of business, but to live.
It’s a theme beautifully explored in Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel which posits that beyond the chaos of the initial breakdown of society when even the best of us might be tempted to indulge the less noble aspects of our character, we are capable of pulling things together and moving on no matter how bleak things may appear at the time.
“‘People must be living somewhere,’ Dylan said, as she [Tomi] drank some more. ‘Somewhere, the army might have survived. Government might still be going. It’s easy for us to forget because the internet cut out here so early, but Jon, you said even students back in their hometowns were alive.’
‘Well, maybe that is worth doing,’ Tomi said. ‘We need to get back to where we have a cellphone signal. Give us enough time online, I bet we could find something. If civilization has survived somewhere, it’s probably going to be on the internet.’
I laughed involuntarily. So did Rob.'” (p. 263)
Certainly, while their experience of the nuclear hell that is unleashed upon the earth is ameliorated by being in a hotel with food reserves, water tanks and generators, things do appear bleak for quite some time.
Beset by personal anguish and external pressures and worries, the likes of Jon and Tomi and Dylan and Tania and a great many others, find themselves drawing close, pulling apart, seething with paranoia and suspicion and embracing each other over alcohol, drugs and a desperate need for connection, meaningful or otherwise.
As studies in the apocalypse go, The Last is a masterfully restrained piece of storytelling that acknowledges the true horror of the situation at hand, materially, existentially and emotionally, while also admitting to the durability of the human spirit which may stagger back and flail helplessly in the first washes of life taking a nightmarishly downward turn but which rallies eventually.
It doesn’t rebound of course in neat and perfect ways as many of the scenes in The Last will attest – we do not act according to script-perfect cues and our reactions are never the ones we would to have in our possession – but it will come back and with it, hope and a sense that maybe things can get better.
But even happy endings, such as they are at the end of the world, are imperfect, and even as Jameson weaves things together satisfactorily at the narrative’s close, we are left all to aware of the fact that nothing in life is perfect, something that holds true all the more when it has come so very close to not existing at all anymore.