Apocalypse sync

Fiona Maazel ponders reincarnation and drug recovery against an end-times backdrop.

Fiona Maazel

Fiona Maazel Photograph: Tobias Everke

Following the recent rash of postapocalyptic novels such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse, the casual observer might be quick to dismiss Fiona Maazel’s debut effort, Last Last Chance, as just another despairing narrative capitalizing on people’s morbid fascination with cataclysmic scenarios. Those curious enough to see past the book’s superficial similarities with that genre, though, will find themselves immersed in a bleakly funny, occasionally heartbreaking work in which the threat to civilization as we know it—a “superplague”—is only one element in a freewheeling story of drug addiction, recovery, loss and redemption. At a café near her Park Slope home, Maazel, 33, enthusiastically reflects on her decision to merge diverse story lines. “At one point in the book, the drug addicts are indignantly saying that they weren’t going to get upstaged by this devastating plague,” she explains. “This is a big part of being an addict, being selfish and only concerned with your own problems. I thought, This will be fun, to watch these people so actively deny the apocalypse’s imminence.”

Maazel, a former managing editor at The Paris Review, says that the book began as a short story. “It’s kind of embarrassing: I showed it to my mom, and she suggested that maybe it would be a good starting point for a novel,” she recalls. “I guess because she’s my mom, I rejected this idea out of hand. And then, on the sly, I proceeded to investigate the possibility that I might be able to come up with a novel.”

The parents in Last Last Chance are not nearly so helpful. The book is narrated by Lucy, the well-meaning, pill-popping daughter of a Norwegian-American tycoon named Isifrid, who herself nurses a serious crack habit and preaches the Norse gospel of Odin and Ragnarok to anyone within earshot. Lucy’s dad, a recently deceased scientist, has been blamed for releasing the organ-melting plague that’s destroying entire cities. Lucy’s problems don’t stop there: The man she loves has married her best friend; her half sister Hannah has joined a Christian fundamentalist group; and her alcoholic sometimes-boyfriend Stanley is on a quest to find a surrogate mother for his dead wife’s eggs.

The only semblance of stability in Lucy’s life is her quasi-Buddhist grandmother, Agneth, who channels the family ancestors and believes in reincarnation. “I came upon the reincarnation stuff by accident,” the author says. “Writing about all of these past incarnations struck me as an awful idea, but I thought that, thematically, I could get away with it—this principle of coming back reinstated with the same qualities you had in a previous life, but with an opportunity to make use of what you learned and to do something different. It’s practically a cornerstone of narcotics recovery.”

Eventually, Lucy and Isifrid road-trip down to a middle-of-nowhere Texas rehab center—a destination that becomes more appealing in light of the increasingly virulent epidemic. As they and the other detoxees hole up and attempt to wait out the apocalypse, fear and loathing set in—and there are casualties. “I wanted to explore the ways people will react in this extreme situation where everyone thinks they’re going to die,” the author says. Maazel does a good job capturing big-picture catastrophe, but she’s primarily interested in Lucy’s personal disasters. “This is a very small story—about this girl trying to recover from her narcotics addiction—projected onto this background that is quite large.”

Maazel is quick to acknowledge her good fortune in having had teachers like Jim Shepard, and her work displays some of the same apparently random imaginativeness that works so well in his short-story collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway. Her shotgun style fosters an air of anarchic improvisation that suits the desperate subject matter. “I’m very impulsive,” she explains. “I would just write something for the hell of it and think, Either I have to pursue this and make good on the implicit promise of what is written, or get rid of it. A lot of the book came to me that way.” The novel’s seemingly arbitrary plot twists resonate, though, because they’re driven by lithe prose, crackling wit and a deep appreciation for the absurdity, spiritual poverty and occasional nobility of Americans in a time of extreme crisis. As Maazel’s story lines intersect and coalesce, they hint at what might be the bright side of the apocalypse. Last Last Chance has plenty to say about disaster and selfishness, but it’s even more about the prospect of new beginnings.

Last Last Chance (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $25) is out now. Maazel reads Mar 26, 2008.