The explosion of tempered glass excites a particular blend of fear and fascination, the break propagating at many times the speed of sound, splitting into progressively smaller pieces that jingle and pop and leap at your legs, frozen in mid-step, long after the first boom has ceased to roar down your auditory nerve.
I’ve been the dumbstruck witness to this peculiar breakage twice. The first time, I had just brought my first son home from the NICU and his father was still unpacking his things in my—our—apartment. While assembling the glass coffee table he had dragged along with him to the household, he (the father, not the baby) overtightened a screw. For a few disoriented seconds I couldn’t figure out what had happened—maybe a bullet had ripped through the windowpane or the stompy upstairs neighbors were finally crashing through the ceiling—but I did learn the speed of my own protective reflex as I pressed the baby into my side and shut my eyes against the glass that bounced off my arm, my neck, my cheek. Rounded bits of greenish glass covered the floor of the living room, crackling as they continued to burst into smaller pebbles for several more minutes. I was secretly thrilled that the table was ruined, but that was tempered by thoughts of projectile acceleration and vulnerable flesh and previously unconsidered ways to die.
The second time I was living in Manila with my—then, now—husband and our baby, who was bigger but a baby all the same. I was sick, one of those tropical diseases Americans abroad think they’ll never be the ones to catch, and not especially happy to be where I was, but this was the future out of all possible futures that had stuck. Tired of firing up our miniscule oven in the abundant heat of February in the tropics, I had sought out and purchased the only slow-cooker within miles of our apartment, which had been difficult to effectively describe to the poor salesperson who helped me find it and extraordinarily expensive, I realized, when I did the currency conversion in my head. It was my second time using the device; the baby was asleep. I pulled the lid to the thing from the cabinet, turned around, and dropped it directly on the tile floor. It blew to bits with a crack like a shotgun. One of our cats tore out of the closet and into the back bedroom. I stood and listened and swore like a motherfucker; the baby kept sleeping. I tracked down every last bead of glass for fear he would take it for something delicious to taste.
A couple of months ago, I picked up a copy of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days (Aller Tage Abend), translated from the original German into English by Susan Bernofsky, as a birthday present to myself because I still know how to have a good time. That night I stayed up too late reading, stuck on memories of breaking glass and barely suppressed fears about pasts that could have been and imagined futures that still could be.
[Note that Susan taught me everything I know about translation, and I admire her immensely, professionally and personally. This is not an unbiased review, or a review at all.]
The End of Days is a novel of tremendous energy that splinters off into sub-stories and sub-stories of sub-stories, and a gorgeous and terrifying meditation on history, politics, ontology, and time. It won both the 2014 Hans Fallada Prize, and the final International Foreign Fiction Prize in 2015, before the IFFP merged with the Man Booker International Prize into the megaprize it is today.
The beginning is an emotional bombshell: the death of an infant and her parents’ inability to act in the moment in any way that might save her. The baby’s mother imagines, in delicate detail at the graveside, all of the potential lives that were lost upon her daughter’s death—those of the little girl, the grown woman, and the old lady she might have become. The fragmented narrative spiderwebs off from that devastating blow, propelling the stories of those potential futures and possible deaths of the infant as she survives progressively longer in life, then dies again, then picks up again at the pivot points where death might have hinged on a single decision. Rachel Martin’s NPR interview with Erpenbeck tells us that it’s four lives, so let’s call it four. (Martin also, bafflingly, mentions twice that the book was translated from German into English without mentioning by whose efforts that occurred. We can do better, book people.)
Minute changes—choosing to walk down a different street for instance—have profound effects on Erpenbeck’s characters. It’s a familiar thought experiment for the habitual worriers among us, those who suspect that everything can be lost as quickly and haphazardly as it was gained. (Life spoiler: yep.)
While each life concludes at a pivotal moment, ending first in a death, then, following an intermezzo that imagines a different choice and a different outcome, continues under altered circumstances and an extended timeline, each existential recalibration continues to crackle with fragments and echoes of the previous lives as the story moves forward to that once-infant’s final, inevitable end. Erpenbeck has mapped out this anxious ground with great imagination and erudition, and a strong undertow of entropy. What we do matters and doesn’t matter. What we don’t do matters and doesn’t matter. No action is without consequence, and a life is simply an accumulation of those consequences. No action happens without leaving its imprint on the future, but the importance of those actions are mitigated by social and natural forces as much as familial and individual, and even the largest lives will be dimmed and obscured by the unstanchable flow of history; history will be subject to the distortions of time, and time is, well, time: imperfectly perceived and largely up for unanswerable debate, at the moment.
Books seem to have a way of showing up when we need them most. Reading and writing are a communion; we learn the secrets to drawing continuity from chaos, for feeling out the fractures under the façades that wall us in, and, in the auspicious arrivals of ideas, we make meaning of our blind hurtle through our allotment of days.
One night, not long after I’d passed another half-decade mark, and so was already primed for contemplation of the many-forking paths of life, I finished The End of Days. The next day, the end of Bookslut was decided, and the day after that, a friend—not an especially close one, but one whose continued existence in the world was a comfort and who proved to be a hinge on which the rest of my life has hung—died young.
“A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days.”
I’m won’t tell you to hug anyone or count anything or to profess a feeling before time flumes past. I won’t say, after 35 years of hoarding for myself the resources required to power such an existence, that life is short or precious; all of those selves we throw off behind us don’t come cheap. I will say that I’m so pleased that I could pause here for a moment, doing my very small part for the books that I love, and I hope that you all splinter off from here to very splendid things.