After a Violent World of Parker/Existential Ennui Westlake Score cross-post, it's back to the post-apocalyptic prose. And this next novel concerns a very different kind of apocalypse, one which is somewhat simpatico with the name of this very blog, and has gained an added significance in recent months...
Only Lovers Left Alive by Dave Wallis was first published in hardback by Anthony Blond in the UK in 1964, under a dustjacket (designed by T. O. Elmes) boasting a terrific wraparound picture by made-to-order reportage photographer Bruce Fleming:
As with the Pan paperback of Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, I actually saw this particular edition of the novel in the British Library's science fiction-themed "Out of this World" exhibition over the summer, and was inspired to track down a copy. And there aren't too many copies of the Blond first edition around: AbeBooks has just three listed at the moment, and just seventeen copies in total of any edition, the majority being either the 1964 US E. P. Dutton hardback or the 1965 US Bantam paperback (the book's been out of print for years).
(UPDATE 31/1/12: Ah, the awesome power and influence of Existential Ennui; the total number of copies on AbeBooks is now down to seven, and there are no longer any copies of the Blond first available...)
The covers to both those edition are worth a quick look – the Dutton edition because of its similarity to the Blond first, and the Bantam paperback because... well, take a gander:
How's that for hyperbole on the Bantam cover? And there's one other edition that's especially interesting, too (at least to me)... but that'll have to wait for (hopefully) the next post. For now, let's deal with the novel itself. And Only Lovers Left Alive is certainly a unique take on an end-of-the-world scenario; the apocalyptic event in this instance is something of a slow-burner, a creeping existential ennui (hence my comment at the start of this post) which gradually infects the adult population of the planet.
This sense of the pointlessness of existence is made plain right from the get go: the novel begins with a schoolteacher (which, I believe, was Dave Wallis's other occupation) finishing his lesson and then listlessly throwing himself from his fifth floor classroom window. As hopelessness and despair spreads inexorably among the adults, suicide becomes endemic, eventually assisted by "Easiway" pills, until, by the close of Book One (titled "Everybody's Doing It"), one by one, the kids' parents and guardians have all topped themselves, leaving the young – personified by Ernie, Kathy and the Seely Street gang – to fend for themselves. Book Two ("I'm the King of the Castle") follows the Seely St. mob as they at first revel in their newfound freedom, and then, in Book Three ("Northern Spring"), do their best to adjust to a savage new world order.
Wallis's low key, unfussy prose helps to ground what is, at root, an extraordinary scenario. The mundane, humdrum manner of the adults' surrender to despondency is all the more affecting because of the matter-of-fact way Wallis describes it. One of the more memorable episodes in Book One concerns Kathy's mum, who, having previously told her daughter she wouldn't commit suicide ("Not likely"), leaves a note explaining why she has, after all, killed herself. It's the practical parts of the note that are the most heartbreaking – "I've been saving up tinned stuff... I'm going away to do it so you won't have the fuss, dear" – but her last line is as pithy a summary of the "why" as you'll find in the novel: "I wouldn't do it, really, if I wasn't just so sick and tired of it all".
With the recent riots in Britain there's been much talk in this country of "feral youth", and Only Lovers Left Alive certainly chimes with that. But Wallis goes further, detailing the establishment of a new feudal way of life for the kids and the beginnings of a new society. There are obvious parallels here with William Golding's 1954 classic Lord of the Flies, which was for many years – may well still be – a set text in British schools; it's even possible that Wallis himself taught it and consequently drew inspiration from it. But Only Lovers Left Alive is no pale imitation: it's a powerful novel in its own right, and one which deserves to be rescued from semi-obscurity.
I've got more I want to write about Only Lovers Left Alive, but seeing as this post is in danger of becoming unwieldy, and since, as I hinted earlier, I've got another edition of the novel winging its way to me, let's leave that for the next post-apocalyptic post, in which I'll be exploring some other aspects of the book and delving into the mystery of Dave Wallis. And if the edition I'm waiting for fails to arrive in time, well: we'll just have to make do with a Violent World of Parker post instead...