O’Connell has a gift for channelling the 'sense of looming crisis' that characterises our times, but is able to step outside it, to bring it into focus ... O’Connell exposes their schemes with a likable zeal. His journey to the post-apocalypse hideaway of PayPal founder Peter Thiel is in itself a wonderful piece of journalism ... Having looked on these human ruins, [O'Connell] finds himself, counterintuitively, resisting Ozymandias-like despair. What brings him back to life is the birth of his second child ... Her presence, that 'tiny engine of joy' she represents, is beautifully evoked by O’Connell, in passages that capture exactly that mixture of impossible vulnerability and responsibility, the enforced mindfulness of new parenthood ... O’Connell’s journey...does not always make comfortable reading with the world grinding to a halt outside, but he leaves the reader with that word, which offers the gift of making any future possible: 'unless.'
Some of the stops on this travelogue are so spectacularly scenic that I found myself envious, and not a little bit suspicious: Here was someone who had figured out a way to tour the world by writing about the end of it ... a funny, self-deprecating inquiry into [O'Connell's] own complicity.
Mr. O’Connell’s investigation into end-times paranoia, prognostication and 'prepping' (stockpiling tins, dusting down that bunker) could hardly be more timely—and yet in some ways his new book has already dated beyond anything he could have predicted ... This book’s status as an exercise in anachronism is wholly to its benefit. There is fertile territory between the terror it articulates and the faltering, yet still revolving, world in which we suddenly live. Its success is also testament to its author’s literary flair ... It is smart, funny, irreverent and philosophically rich.
This survey of end-times obsessives, from climate scientists to conspiracy theorists, may strike some readers as unnecessarily close for comfort ... It turns out that the prospect of the annihilation of human life is a richer mine of comedy than you probably supposed ... The variety of end-of-the-world scenarios that O’Connell confronts is sobering ... The rough and faintly random material gathered in O’Connell’s 'notes' is bound together by his brilliant comic style. To get a handle on his cerebral, neurotic persona it might help to imagine a cross between Bill Bryson and David Foster Wallace ... Anxiety, you’ll have gathered, is O’Connell’s natural element ... He is richly scathing of the eschatology-evading comforts purchased by the billionaires buying up land in New Zealand ... a fidgety, fretful but very funny book.
... full of wry humor, and O’Connell is an earnest, self-effacing narrator wise enough to employ filial love as recurrent theme to give his book emotional ballast. His greatest virtue, however, is his talent as a critic and interpreter ... might seem like unsettling reading at the moment, given the great suffering we are collectively experiencing...But there is, counterintuitively, something bracing about reading the book in this context ... will strike some as a deeply cynical insight, but it can also be read as a comforting one — a means of making sense of seemingly uncontrollable forces ... Fortunately for his readers, O’Connell himself adopts a more optimistic perspective near the end of his book. After more than 200 pages of despair and bleak prognostication, he concludes his narrative with a sentiment of great maturity.
... black and ironic...But it is also personal and sincere ... Some of [O'Connell's] encounters are deliciously, novelistically weird ... O’Connell can definitely do a Jon Ronson. He can be seriously funny too ... The brilliance of the book, though, lies in the analysis. O’Connell is bitingly clever ... The most personal part of the book is also the most positive — and this is ultimately, surprisingly, a hopeful book ... This is a classic pilgrimage, then, in that it arrives at a place of renewal. It is a rather hasty one — I wanted to meet more actual end-of-timers — but it is brilliantly done.
... brilliant ... his field notes on the doomsday industry always circle back to personal revelations about what it means to live with apocalyptic anxieties ... The foregrounding of ignorance and insecurity can be risky for nonfiction prose, but here it works especially well because no one can truly have expert knowledge of the end of the world. O’Connell’s consistent attention to his own limited perspective encourages a very modern form of 'negative capability,' what John Keats defined as the power to persist 'in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.'
O’Connell’s personal writing brings to mind Joan Didion’s introductory essay in The White Album, written amid the turmoil of the 1960s ... while Didion’s dread and paranoia lead her to confusion, O’Connell seeks clarity from chaos, and finds it in the very form of apocalypse ... O’Connell evaluates modern society’s ills and launches a sharp critique of middle-class thinking. Catastrophizing exposes a privileged subject who is alert to future dangers but impervious to present suffering; O’Connell understands this notion well because he, too, is complicit. A literary nonfiction writer with journalistic chops, O’Connell negotiates deftly between the personal and the global, but admits also that his frame of reference is constrained by privilege. The result is an acutely self-conscious narratorial voice ... his clear-eyed perspective on injustice and inequality prevents the book from becoming pure self-flagellation.
I don’t know if [O'Connell's] books are therapeutic ways of working out his anxieties, or if they drive them deeper as he researches more about his topics, but either way, I don’t want him to stop. They’re fun but filling ... for all the air miles (and, he acknowledges, carbon emissions) he racks up travelling to these places, O’Connell’s most fruitful journeys are those inside his own head. He tends not to challenge his 'weirdos', to call them out on their selfishness or racism, but lets them speak and then adds his commentary in, as it were, the voice-over studio afterwards. Maybe this is the best approach, but it would be nice to hear them in defensive as well as declamatory mode ... At its glummest, the book is less inquiry into the apocalypse than a submission to it ... O’Connell shows the same nimble ability to shift between high and low registers – and the same pinpoint accuracy with a well-timed joke – as Geoff Dyer or, in his pomp, Martin Amis. The good news for those terrified by his last book is that it doesn’t look as if the future is going to happen anyway. But if we are all heading down the long slide, at least with O’Connell to keep us company, we’ll be laughing – and screaming – all the way.
O’Connell’s prose is lucid and elegant, the best sort of reminder that reserving for fiction expectations of 'literariness' and beautifully crafted language is witless bullshit. And for a book on anxiety, apocalypse, and death, it’s very funny ... The book’s sharpest idea is threaded throughout in reminders of imperial violence: that, for some, the apocalypse has come and gone and always been—that to imagine apocalypse and survival is a luxury, for what’s genocide if not apocalypse devalued, history if not a series of inconceivable catastrophes? ... What Notes suffers from, then, if anything, is being too timely ... The whole last chapter on its own would be one of my favorite essays I’ve read in three years, doing the maddening, refractive thing good essayism can do with recursive questioning trained on one seemingly obvious idea ... O’Connell’s personal conclusion, orbiting the purpose he finds in love for his wife and young children, is deeply moving, if unsatisfying—I don’t have offspring to rear, nor am I likely to anytime soon, if ever, for many reasons, and when I think about that too hard, despite all my premature fears about parental failure and loss, I weep—but how could it have been otherwise? Whole, stagnant, complacent satisfaction is neither a reasonable objective for a book about the anxiety of being alive, nor one that it promises. A neat universal theory of how to bear witness well would betray the first 200 pages. I don’t know what answer could possibly have satisfied anyone who knows how they, and others, live in this present ... Either we are alive in the last days or we are not, but the inarguable thing, in any case, the interesting thing, is that we are alive.
Rather than assessing the science itself, Notes From An Apocalypse explores how such threats affect individuals. Written before the COVID-19 crisis, it is an eerily prescient mix of confession, political critique, meditation and comic monologue on living in the face of death ... O’Connell probes deeper into our personal psyches. In a tone somewhere between those of writer Samuel Beckett, film-maker Woody Allen and poet W. B. Yeats, he asks what happens when we’re faced with the prospect of both individual and global demise ... offers no scientific analysis of the existential threats we face or how we should respond. Instead, it illuminates the anxieties and delusions we share and oversights we commit, and shows how easily our fears (particularly when enabled by power, money and technology) can cause us to walk away from the disasters we create — to hide, flee, stockpile — just when we most need to engage. In this reflective, hilarious and disturbing page-turner, O’Connell makes a compelling case that connecting with nature and each other is the best way to calm our apocalyptic dread — and it might even increase our prospects of avoiding the worst.
... chockful of this sort of rueful wit ... funny and sometimes enraging ... O’Connell, a witty and perceptive critic and contributor to The New York Times Magazine, is a good friend to have at the end of the world ... O’Connell is a wry and skeptical stand-in for the reader. There is a comfort in his prose. You get the sense this writer is taking time to order his experience, to bring coherence to his anxieties — and, by extension, to some of mine.
O’Connell’s apocalypse looms but never touches down. Intended as commentary on the current moment, it now reads like an artifact from a gentler era ... The preppers he spends time with say nada about epidemiology, and his conclusions about finding the joy in life aren’t trammeled by caveats about finding the joy in life … while sitting alone in a house as twinned cataclysms of a public health disaster and widespread financial instability have left huge swaths of the world isolated, impoverished, and staggeringly vulnerable ... The book is an outsider’s diary of encounters with a niche subculture, but in the time it took between writing and publication, the subculture’s behaviors are far easier to understand, while the everyman interloper is, frankly, exponentially less relatable. Spending hours a day discussing shelf-stable goods is no longer outlandish. Spending weeks bopping around the world, though, mingling with lots of new people—how outré! Reading O’Connell’s travelogue is like pushing hard into a bruise—painful, albeit masochistically satisfying. He goes on so many trips! ... It’s easy to turn away from pessimism about the future when it’s safe to fly around the world, to camp with strangers, to lean in and ask the person you’re interviewing face-to-face to repeat themselves ... If anything, though, the timing of its debut makes O’Connell’s book more relevant, not less. Notes From an Apocalypse is a gentle argument for coming to terms with the precarity of life, published in a moment where people are facing its fragility in an immediate and ungentle context ... O’Connell’s book reaffirms something that feels endangered—it’s still worthwhile to reject nihilism and turn toward joy.
... not the book you’re expecting—but unquestionably the book we all need during the seismic shift of COVID-19 ... A prelude to our own time, the bunkers and compounds of O’Connell’s investigations take on extraordinary significance for a current reader as they’re presently in use. However, O’Connell’s criticism of the preppers’ rampant individualism and the Mars colonizers’ elitism suggests that only a collective display of strength can truly address an apocalypse.
... charming, anxious, and tender essays ... O'Connell is interested in the feeling of apocalypse, not its precise mechanics. He rarely bothers with perfunctory explanatory glosses, the whowhatwhenwhere writers usually have to do before the more interesting why. His chapter on visiting Chernobyl, hilariously, never stops to explain what exactly happened there (nuclear catastrophe, Soviet Ukraine, 1986). He also does not attempt to explain the science behind climate change ... O'Connell takes for granted that we feel as he does, that apocalypse is just in the air ... O'Connell is frantic with meaning-making, like one of those medieval Christian mystics who saw the rapture portended in every pebble, every bird ... a reminder to ask what else we can be — and for whom — in the meantime.
Reading this book in the midst of the pandemic, I found an invaluable companion to this moment, one that expertly describes the ethical choices we now face ... O’Connell is never didactic or heavy-handed. But his book clearly offers an ethical choice to those of us scrolling through memes—'dank with foreboding,' as he puts it—in our beds and on our couches. We are how we prepare for the apocalypse, O’Connell suggests
A few months ago, it might have been easier to dismiss prepper culture and to read O’Connell’s book as an entertaining dispatch from the fringe. But to read it now is to reckon with the ways in which disaster stalks the everyday, ever capable of surprising us ... despite his own anxieties about the future, [O'Connell] is often moved to make flippant remarks about the preppers’ actual plans for survival ... This is a book any self-respecting neurotic will appreciate. It also feels distinctly pre-pandemic in its approach ... Then there’s O’Connell’s sometimes frustrating condescension toward his subjects: At a moment when practically all of us have become preppers on some scale, it’s hard to enter fully into the spirit of judging preppers for their anxieties ... not every prepper is necessarily a bigot living out a frontier fantasy.
O’Connell is not only a sharp observer but a master at parsing the various subtexts underneath the surface rhetoric of these apocalyptic movements. This witty, profound, and beautifully told story will appeal to doomsday worriers and nonworriers alike.
There’s a lot of area to cover between not yet and too late. O’Connell zigzags across it many times, but he sticks to well-trodden paths, from relatable observations about his own ultimately hypocrisies to theoretical interpretations: the apocalypse as patriarchy, as white-supremacy, as colonialism, as genocide, as luxury consumerism, as a projection of the individual’s anxiety about his own death ... A guide’s job is to show you what you expect, just more so: a representation of reality that emphasises what you always believed. It rarely has much to do with the guide’s own life ... for much of the book, O’Connell doesn’t portray himself as a critic, or an author – he portrays himself as the protagonist of a novel. He can’t help but frame the story as a reluctant hero’s journey, a mid-life Bildungsroman ... As he peppers the text with explicit literary references, he also finds himself in situations that quietly imitate art ... Signs, symbols, explanations of those signs and symbols, and incredible coincidences abound, so often that I suspected O’Connell must have compressed, massaged, or otherwise altered what actually happened to fit the story he wanted to tell. At first, I wondered if his high-flown language was a wink at the gravity apocalypse inspires in people; as the book went on, I had to admit he was mostly serious ... But most damning is his treatment of other people, which reveals a more significant hypocrisy than claiming to care about the environment while still using an iPhone, the production of which destroys the world ... To treat these stories as prophesies is to miss the point of fictions completely. They’re supposed to be like life. By attempting to make the reverse true, to make reality fit into a fiction, O’Connell hasn’t really overcome his apocalyptic imagination.
... a very dark depressing journey, which fortunately ends on a note of hope. Mark O’Connell is a very self-conscious writer. He is aware of the contradictions in everyday life, the conflicts in his own being, and the privilege he enjoys as a white, middle class Irish author. His examination of where we seem to be heading exploits all of those things in his own personality ... a very different premise for a book, but O’Connell is an intelligent analyst, and he makes it work.
... combines far-reaching analyses of the predicaments we’re in now, from sociopolitical and philosophical angles, with relatable, often funny, and ultimately hopeful personal moments (including affecting passages on raising young children). A more-than-companionable guide, O’Connell sets out to understand how we live under constant threat of climate change and political terror, and finds that the answer is, more or less, we do.
O’Connell, a Dublin-based journalist with a brilliantly wry style, seeks to entertain rather than scare. This is, instead, a light-hearted look around the World’s End; the Book of Revelation with a Bill Bryson touch ... For all his light touch, O’Connell does wear his politics slightly heavily. Much as I sniggered, I yearned at times for proper grillings of his subjects, rather than just sketches of comedy Right-wing villains ... if coronavirus does prove to be the apocalypse, buy this book first (if your shops are still open). At least you’ll die laughing.
... refreshing candour ... While [O'Connell] doesn’t succumb to the disturbing fashion for anti-natalism, though he looks seriously at this world view, he does repeatedly point out one’s personal culpability for climate change. This is well intentioned, but you might argue that self-flagellation lets the states and corporations laying waste to the planet off the hook – the idea of a carbon footprint, after all, was popularized by BP ... filled with a colourful, largely reprehensible cast; these people are simultaneously idiosyncratic and predictable in the way grotesques tend to be ... O’Connell is at his best when curious and enquiring, and he proves a perceptive interviewer, sensitive to the roles history and individual psychology may have played in apocalyptic world views ... O’Connell is sharp to the point of deflating those he encounters, ridiculing them and the 'libertarian lizard-brain' by predicting a post-apocalyptic world akin to Mad Max but populated by roaming bands of Rotary Club members ... It feels as if O’Connell knew where he wanted to go, what sorts of people he wanted to meet, and what impression he wanted to elicit, before he set off. That is not to say that he is lacking in self-awareness ... One wonders whether O’Connell is searching not for epiphanies but a kind of comfort, absolution or escape...Yet he is acutely conscious that he is involved in everything that is unfolding ... This dual sense of dread and compassion, and the struggle between them, powers the book. His final chapter, set during a heatwave so intense that wildfires are breaking out in the Arctic Circle, is moving and reflective.
These vignettes offer a fascinating insight into a species obsessed with its own demise—and into the ways humankind is trying to confront the hard-to-bear reality of climate change. These range from the absurd to the poignant. Along the way, Mr O’Connell moves nimbly between scenes and eras, skipping from the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz to a history of the Grand Tour. It helps that he is funny, too ... Readers, for their part, will emerge feeling doomed—yet oddly uplifted. 'The fact that the world is continuing on as always—that the sun is shining, and the bees circling the clover, and the tomatoes ripe in the fields—doesn’t mean it hasn’t already come to an end,' Mr O’Connell reflects. One of the strengths of his book is that it simultaneously makes the reverse of that proposition clear: the world is ending, and, as usual, it is carrying on. Notes from an Apocalypse was written before the covid-19 pandemic, but it offers a timely if eccentric consolation all the same.
[O'Connell] is a funny writer ... With two young children, he very tenderly wrestles with the ethics of parenting in these ‘uncertain times’. These moments are particularly moving. Like all of us right now, he’s been going through it, and while we are staying inside, with planes grounded, it seems extremely timely to be joining him as he faces his own nihilism with environmentalists at a re-wilded wilderness reserve and questions disaster tourism at Chernobyl. This is fascinating, relevant material and O’Connell has made it a great book. It’s a personal journey and his personality is what shines here. It’s scary for sure but I also found this to be a wildly entertaining and strangely comforting read … maybe even hopeful?
It’s a compelling premise: confronting the end of the world. But that’s not quite what O’Connell does. He doesn’t so much confront the end of the world as write a travelogue that’s a combination of a close-up look at subcultures of privileged obsessives and disaster tourism ... It’s unfortunate that Notes veers off course in this way. O’Connell’s writing is often beautiful and profound ... O’Connell is also an acute social observer, as when he notes that the preppers are ultimately motivated not so much by survival as by a desire to enact an idea of masculinity they feel society has deprived them of ... as the ending of a book purportedly about grappling with the end of the world, it smacks of deliberate delusion.
What saves this engrossing work of reportage from being a form of ‘apocalypse tourism’ is O’Connell’s wry self-awareness and his penetrating analysis of the ‘prepper' (those preparing for the end) narrative as an escapist, masculine frontier fantasy dressed up as hard-headed realism.
The laughter one experiences while reading Mark O’Connell’s new book is the laughter of someone watching their home burn down while they stand on their front lawn in their underwear, seeing themselves—in all their absurdity—reflected in the windows of their soon-to-be-ash abode ... The book is in some ways a kind of antidote to ‘the flattening effect of the online discourse’, the sheer banality of the apocalypse ... Much like his first book, O’Connell’s character studies—warm, open and often hilarious—are the heart of the book. He has a knack for drawing out, or honing in on, profound remarks made in passing by those he meets, which often feel like the weighted and perfectly balanced quotes chosen by Joan Didion ... The chapters each feel like individual essays (likely because at least some of them were at some point), drawn together into a kind of accumulation of angst, mounting fear, absurdity, hilarity and gravity. Although they knit well, the understandable desire to close each chapter with a succinct aphorism—a style that so often defines our perception of the essay genre—sometimes leads to resolutions that can feel trite in the wake of what has come before ... Some of the structural promises of the opening chapter feel perhaps a little unrealised ... the sense of individual stakes feels in some ways entirely contained within his children, his family. Perhaps this is not a failing at all, but a stripping back of priorities, of fears, to those most innate to us. By the end, these are all that truly matter ... O’Connell’s pilgrimage to Peter Thiel’s apocalypse ranch deep on the South Island of New Zealand is fascinating, yet, on the whole, slightly anti-climactic ... The book is frequently sewn together with lines of such poetic perfection they almost fracture the reading experience. The wit, the essential nature of almost every word, the construction at the level of the paragraph and at the level of the 140-character, aphoristic sentence, has been honed since the first book, refined so that the balance in each chapter is always delicately poised between the affable and observational and the aesthetic and intellectual. The two are never mutually exclusive ... This is in many ways a deeply American book. We begin to understand more and more as the chapters progress that the modern conception of the end of human civilisation appears to be a distinctly American one ... One criticism of the book may be that throughout its exploration of the potential ends, and its intimate encounters with those tangled up in the logistics of those endings, there is little in the way of recommended solutions or counter-actions to these entropic forces, little if any tangible calls for organised pushback. I’m not sure, however, that this is the kind of book to facilitate those appeals; there is little we can do to stop preppers from rating the best camping materials; little we can do to stop the privatisation of space travel. The book’s lasting effect is more so one of reawakening, of reprioritising, of drawing the global into the essence of the personal, and making it all the more real for doing so.
Readers who agree that the U.S. is 'a rapidly metastasizing tumor of inequality, hyper-militarism, racism, surveillance, and... terminal-stage capitalism' will be equally terrified and bemused by O’Connell’s musings, while those who are less credulous about narratives of ecological apocalypse will find much to dispute. The result is a wryly humorous if somewhat overwrought rumination that’s more a symptom than a diagnosis of Western civilization’s apocalyptic discontents.
An around-the-end-of-the-world tour in the company of a smart, funny, and thoughtful guide ... self-awareness around his project enables the humor O’Connell uses to cope with horror. His wry tone is effective in exposing the ridiculousness of many of the survivalists and technolibertarians he encountered ... It might be a bit much if O’Connell weren’t able to offer a sincere and life-affirming response to all the grimness: Things have always been bad and about to get worse. Nihilism can follow from that, but it doesn’t have to. A contribution to the doom-and-gloom genre that might actually cheer you up.