The end of the world can take many forms. If you’re a reader drawn to the apocalyptic strain in fiction, you’ve probably encountered plenty, from zombie apocalypses to a Ragnarök with all the divine trappings. Broadly speaking, end of the world narratives generally fall into one of two categories: those that are scientifically plausible and those that take a more fantastical approach. And it’s usually easy to see which kind of book you’re reading: if a nuclear war ends civilization as we know it, you’re reading a book in the former camp; if the world ends due to the arrival of demons on this earthly plane, it’s likely from column B.
Alan Heathcock’s new novel 40 is harder to pin down. Elements of it seem especially drawn from the current state of partisan divisiveness in the United States; other aspects of it wrestle with more existential questions of belief, storytelling, and faith. It fits somewhere between Peng Shepherd’s The Book of M and Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, tonally and stylistically speaking—and if you’ve read either of those books, you’re likely aware that that’s a challenging space to navigate.
Heathcock has an impressive opening for the narrative: protagonist Mazzy Goodwin, a soldier taking part in a civil war in a near-future United States, awakens after a bomb exploded, seeminglty the only survivor. That in itself might qualify as miraculous, but it’s not the only thing about her survival that qualifies. Mazzy has also grown a pair of wings, big enough to carry her into the air; this gives her the appearance of an angel. Given that the cause of one of the sides in the civil war—a faction known as the Novae Terrae—is explicitly religious, it’s not hard to see how Mazzy’s altered appearance might have an impact on the ongoing conflict.
The novel’s early pages flash back to reveal Mazzy’s decision to enlist in the military for the United States, as well as her memories of being raised by her mother along with her younger sister, Ava Lynn. It’s in these passages that Heathcock also gives the reader a sense of the events that caused the civil war, from natural disasters that devastated the California coastline—a city called New Los Angeles plays a big role in 40—to the political changes, including the defunding of the nation’s national parks system.
This is also when the novel’s most unsettling scene takes place, in which Mazzy encounters a teenage preacher while patrolling a fairgrounds. The young man is accompanied by a pair of lions, and after he and Mazzy speak, he releases them into the audience, where they massacre dozens of people. It’s a shocking moment, one which speaks to precisely how unsettling the nation has become at this point.
The nature of the Novae Terrae movement is also explained early in the book, but it seems (knowingly) paradoxical:
“Their agenda was simple if ambiguous: the Novae Terrae would work to create a world devoid of suffering. In turn, the Novae must always be armed and in uniform, prepared at all hours for a mission they’d be assigned and must fulfill or have their compensation and camaraderie revoked.”
Their plan also involves cryptocurrency, vast fleets of drones, and hydroponic gardening—all handled by the group’s reclusive leader, a man known as Jo Sam. All of this becomes very relevant when, following the arrival of her wings, Mazzy ends up linking up with the Novae Terrae, who have taken her sister into their custody. Here, she begins acting as a kind of figurehead for the movement, even as she becomes increasingly unsure of the morality of either side in the civil war. Complicating matters further is her involvement with what appears to be a resistance movement within the Novae Terrae, though its full scope and purpose remain unclear to Mazzy.
The scenes of Mazzy surrounded by the trappings of power—including a number of actors who have sought to curry favor with the breakaway regime—take on an especially stark tone, as she attempts to keep her loved ones safe without losing her soul in the process. But it also reveals one of 40’s more frustrating elements. “Mama thought I was too bright and headstrong for the military,” Mazzy recalls early in the novel, but the version of her that we see for much of the book feels less proactive than reactive.
There’s also the matter of Mazzy’s wings, which set the whole book into motion. No one seems all that interested in exploring how they came about or what might have led to them emerging at the point that they did. There are occasional moments in the novel where characters allude to massive advances in certain kinds of technology, albeit with very little context. To wit: this scene, where Dewey, Mazzy’s friend and occasional paramour, introduces her to a pair of tigers.
“Dewey explained they were all animatronic: artificially intelligent, but biologically organic. He said he didn’t understand it much, but they ate and shat and slept, did everything a real animal would but mate.”
Heathcock is dealing with weighty themes here, from the fissures of an increasingly polarized country to the role religion and iconography might play in widening those fissures. There’s a great deal in here about militarism, and some late developments have some interesting things to say about class and futurism. But tonally, it doesn’t always come together; for me, the most memorable scenes in 40 were when Heathcock ratcheted things up to an operatic level—that early moment with the lions, say, or the way several plot threads converge at its conclusion. But in trying to split the difference between a psychological study of the trappings of power and an almost allegorical account of where one nation might be headed, 40 doesn’t make as much of an impact as it could.