R.B. Russell, Waiting for the End of the World (PS Publishing, 2020)
It is the end of days. The end of things. The end of time.
This was the last book on my “to-read” pile.
The last review I’ll ever write for the Manchester Review of Books.
And so how does R.B. Russell face the end? Well, with a curious ambiguity.
Waiting for the End of the World is, as you would expect, a novel about apocalypse. Initially, a personal apocalypse – “revelation,” from the Greek: a secret, long hidden, is finally revealed.
The corpses are lifted from their graves and slouch towards Jerusalem.
But then, as the novel progresses, we move from a comfortable realism, full of reflection and pity, into a new revelation; the revealed world of the spirit.
Time shifts. Visions speak. Angels, not meant to be seen, are seen, and they converse somewhat like Terry Pratchett characters.
The world that Russell has done so much to convince us is our own slowly subsides into a multidimensional set of alternate realities, where Abbeys appear and crumble to dust all at once, and a time-travelling millennialist cult show up at each turn.
Geography gives way to theography. World to spirit.
The millennialists are called the Children of the Cross. They follow a charismatic African leader called Phillip, who they insist on calling Jesus.
Phillip does not consider himself the Second Coming, but this does not stop his disciples. Some, like Gabriel, will contradict him, to his face, about who he is and what his coming means.
Ultimately, Phillip reveals his power; doing so out of frustration, as his followers try and tell him what he means. He insists that he does not know what he means. He doesn’t know why he is still alive, or why he seems to appear and disappear through time and space without rhyme or reason.
Our protagonist, Elliot, is unconvinced of Phillip. He remains unconvinced, in fact; choosing not to believe even after witnessing miracles and angels and all the rest.
Just as some can believe without seeing, Elliot can disbelieve despite seeing. Sight is no guide, perhaps. Phillip, the purported messiah, says similar.
Both Elliot and Phillip share names that can be spelled with only a single “l”, but both are spelled with the double. This ties the two together. Mirror images. Second comings.
The structure of the book moves us as if towards a final revelation but, as we approach its end, there is slippage. Our capacity to suspend our disbelief is tested: first by tonal shift – from realism to allegory – and then by meta-breakages, clear contrivances, and the resolution of irresolvable elements.
The final effect is troubling. But is this not the point of an apocalyptic book? A cosy resolution hardly seems at one with a book called Waiting for the End of the World.
We are left to ponder the essence of endings. The Bard told us not to expect a bang, but only a measly whimper. Would we even hear a whimper today?
Endings are faceable but the unending…
What is the end has gone past, and we are just here…
All things have their time and place within the world, and the best we can hope for is to be present.
Endings are never quite endings, nor beginnings fresh starts…
It’s the books – the books that train us!
Starts and ends. Starts and ends.
You spend your life
For a perfect ending and
You’ve just missed it.