ENG441b: Contemporary American Literature, Fiction
Prof. E. Joy
5 March 2008                           

The world is repeating itself.  The story of the world is happening again: Apocalyptic Change in Fiskadoro

BOOM!  That’s it; game over.  The end of the world.  The traditional notion of an apocalypse involves total destruction.  Such an ending, however, would be anathema to most story-tellers.  After all, if an apocalypse represents the ultimate end, how can we tell the fascinating stories of the post-apocalypse, the stories of the survivors?  Therefore, writers must redefine the meaning of apocalypse to allow for the continuing thread of narrative.  In Fiskadoro, Denis Johnson presents the concept of apocalypse as a cyclical change separating past from future, affecting both societies and individuals.

Johnson provides a variety of apocalypses in Fiskadoro.  The largest, and in some ways the least important, is the traditional “end of the world” scenario that occurred sixty years prior to Fiskadoro’s time period.  Though we are given few narrative details about what happened, this apocalypse clearly involved an all-out nuclear conflagration.  Miami was destroyed and is now a radioactive wasteland.  Survivors in the Florida Keys are cut off from most outside influences except for the uncertain voice of “Cubaradio.”  Clearly people have survived in other places—Deerfield Beach, just north of Miami, and the interior of Louisiana, for example—but there is no easy or safe way to access these survivors.  Cut off from others, the inhabitants of the Keys forge on with life, creating their own self-contained society.  There are intellectuals and artists (Mr. Cheung and his friends); criminals and charlatans (Cassius Clay Sugar Ray and Harvard Sanchez); drugs and alcohol (the blue tablets and many types of distilled spirits); a plethora of religious beliefs (Quetzalcoatl, Bob Marley, Jesus, Voodoo, and so forth); and even the ubiquitous automobile, here used for furniture and decorations.  Through this apocalyptic societal change, Johnson demonstrates that there are no true “endings,” just an eternal process of waxing and waning, as with a fire: “It catches, then burns, then blazes; it rages and sings, it wanes, it shifts and flares, it burns a little longer and then weakens, whatever it is, and goes out.  But if you lay the small wood across it in the morning, it all begins again” (125).  An apocalypse is not just an ending; something else always begins, thus filling the void.

The conclusion of the novel provides an apocalypse in the form of the end of the quarantine period.  After sixty years, it appears that the “Cubans” are coming.  Whether this will bring death or salvation is unclear, but either way, the world will change.  Once again there will be a major shift, a break with the past, the end of one thing and the beginning of something else.  This change is greeted with mixed feelings; the “Israelites” celebrate but others are fearful, clinging to their known world: “’Something big is happening today.  I wish it was yesterday,’ Mr. Cheung said.  ‘I wish it was five minutes before this minute, when I went around wishing it was a hundred years ago’” (217).   An apocalypse draws a line across history, forever dividing one time period from another, thus allowing the past to be romanticized.  Mr. Cheung wryly acknowledges this fact when he admits that “‘in this past I long for, I don’t remember how even then I longed for the past’” (217).

Encased in the frame story of Fiskadoro, we find the personal apocalyptic tale of Marie, now known as Grandmother Wright.  Over one hundred years old, Marie is trapped in a deteriorating and uncommunicative body.  She vividly remembers, however, her first apocalypse, which started at the time of the fall of Saigon.  Desperate to escape the city, she leaves everything behind, even her own mother.  When the helicopter she is riding in crashes into the sea, she spends two endless days and nights drifting in the water.  Here she is reduced to the most basic elements of existence: “By sunset she was only a baby, thinking nothing, absolutely adrift … indistinguishable from what she saw, which was the grey sky that held no interest, identity, or thought.  This was the point when she reached the bottom of everything, when she had no idea either what she’d reached or who had reached it, or even that it had been reached” (216).  At this point, Marie has truly abandoned everything—consciousness, thought, memory, everything except breath, the “sole fact and thing” (216), life itself.  Though she cannot realize it at the time, this apocalyptic moment marks a dividing point between her past and future.  Saved from the water by a passing boat, Marie is eventually able to make her way to the United States.  Ironically, it is here that she experiences her apocalyptic realization, abruptly bringing into focus the shift in her life story: “Here with her uncle in the quick-stop store she felt she’d reached an end, and she experienced a zeroing-in, a hallucination of purposiveness to her suffering, as if she’d lost her father and abandoned her mother, been raked across life after life, in order to stand here in the enamelling brilliance and receive these things” (95).  At this defining moment, Marie has no idea that there are many more apocalyptic changes ahead, including the experience of society’s nuclear apocalypse.  She will continue to experience this cycle of change for many years, until she reaches the ultimate apocalypse of death.

Fiskadoro has the most important apocalypse in the novel, though it is a surprising one.  He expects his defining change to occur during the ritualistic maiming ceremony carried out by the swamp people.  This experience, however, does nothing for Fiskadoro.  “He was very let down, because everything had been heading toward this, and it was nothing.  His head was a blank, he felt no pain.  Now he was like other men” (185).  It is only when Fiskadoro leaves the swamp people and sees the ruins of Miami that he encounters his true apocalypse.  Here, he identifies with the previously inexplicable words used in the swamp ceremony: “He waited for the two keepers to receive him, and the vigilant guardian to note down each word, and the trumpet-sound.  He bawled out loud for his lost life.  His memory left him and he looked up at the giant desolation in grief and amazement once again, but also for the first time” (188).  It is this event that changes Fiskadoro, making him unlike other men (217).  He is freed from the past, rootless, with no memories to haunt him or hold him.  This presents the possibility of a completely different kind of life.  As Mr. Cheung points out, “You’ve been to their world and now you’re in this world, but you don’t have the memories to make you crazy.  It isn’t sleeping under the moon that makes a crazy person.  It’s waking up and remembering the past and thinking it’s real” (217).  By wiping out his memories, Fiskadoro’s apocalyptic experience ironically frees him from experiencing apocalypse itself.  This change causes Fiskadoro to be “the only one who was ready when we came” (12) and presumably leads Fiskadoro to achieve such a position of importance that people in the future tell stories about his life (12).        

An apocalypse is change, according to Johnson, change on a global scale or change in a single life.  This change does not come easily—it is traumatic and we greet it with dread, clinging to the past and to the known.  But it must come, and come repeatedly.  “Everything we have, all we are, will meet its end, will be overcome, taken up, washed away.  But everything came to an end before.  Now it will happen again.  Many times.  Again and again” (219).  For Johnson, the world truly does repeat itself, with apocalypse providing the momentum for continued forward movement.