Beard attempts to keep his fiction unidentified, but the object in your hands wants to declare itself a novel.
The first thing Steve Beard wants you to know about his book, Six Concepts for the End of the World, is that it is an experiment in form and research quite outside the established strictures of the novel. It exists in the space between genre, discipline, fact or fiction where “Unidentified Fictional Objects” reside. This is a great deal of weight to put on a slim volume that could have used some formalization to reach its potential. Part satire and part media critique, the book’s occasional brilliance gets blighted by the form Beard shackles it to, one that hinges on a loose narrative structure from which the concepts of the title are examined.
The plot involves two filmmakers, the narrator and his partner, Haubenstock, and their need for funding. The duo wants to make an art film about the end of the world and enter into a Faustian bargain with a group of drone scientists who need inventive end-of-the-world scenarios to test their algorithms.
A residency is agreed upon where the filmmakers collaborate with the scientists over six sessions. Haubenstock films the sessions for posterity while the narrator takes his notes from the day and creates the scenarios for the drones and hopefully his art film. The six disciplines that inspire the sessions are technology, sociology, geography, psychology, theology and narratology. While Beard is correct that “Field Notes on a Residency” isn’t a recognized literary form, the diary is, and that’s the structure he’s chosen. Where he attempts to make his work shine is in the research he threads and historical callbacks he weaves through all his disciplines and apocalypses. Cleverness proves an unsustainable resource, and what invigorates the Technology and Theology doomsdays burdens the others, but that may have something to do with Paul Virilio.
Beard knows Virilio’s intellectual body but recognizes that many of us who will hold his book in our hands lack such familiarity, so he makes his narrator as ignorant as, say, this reviewer, and we get to learn together. Virilio was a Christian anarchist and architect obsessed with war due to a childhood on the northern coast of France where he experienced the Nazi takeover of his country and its equally violent liberation by the Allies. It is his belief that technological advancement coexists with the potential for accidents. For example, the plane crash can’t exist before the plane, and the invention of the train invented derailment, as well. He also believed that television changed our concept of space and time and that the speed with which images are spread publicly causes conflict. These technological determinist critiques inform Beard’s narrator’s end-of-the-world scenarios and serve as an introduction to Virilio, but Beard doesn’t shy away from the old academic’s more radical, less interesting faith-based apocalyptic thinking. Virilio believes in the End Times, angels, demons and that the war between good and evil is upon us. It is no wonder that the Anti-Christ scenario in the theology chapter felt so inspired.
Where Beard tries most to defy form and gain his chops as an experimental writer is in his many doomsdays. An oppression of ideas comes to exist and makes one yearn for the relief of characters talking or a place in the narrative to take a breather. At times, you cannot highlight the sections you’re enjoying fast enough, but long stretches follow where you become unmoored in a concept that feels far away from resolution. The inconsistency is maddening, but Beard does offer moments that stick with you. There are suicide bombers that work in pairs to film and livestream their deaths, Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard turn up at the same Thelemic ritual where Hubbard steals ideas for Scientology and the survivor of an alien abduction gives a firsthand account of the experience. Experimentation takes courage and certain amount of daring, but it can often put in stark relief the aspects of form the author is trying to avoid. Such is the case here. Beard attempts to keep his fiction unidentified, but the object in your hands wants to declare itself a novel.