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.