Donald Calabrese Reviews an Intense and Revealing CliFi Novel of Love in the Time of Post-Apocalypse
The Second History
Rebecca Silver Slayter
In The Second History, Rebecca Silver Slayter tests the bonds of love in a hauntingly original post-apocalyptic landscape. Judy and Eban, a young couple far removed from the cities and societies of the past, must decide whether or not they’ll leave the relative safety of their mountain refuge and search for distant communities that may not exist. The novel is every bit a study of Judy and Eban’s perplexing relationship as it is a portrait of the world following unknown climate disasters and a mysterious infection that degrades mental faculties.
Judy’s animus is to explore, and find knowledge. She grows anxious and restless when her imagination raises questions to which she has no answers. Eban’s fear gives him his keen sense of survival–he finds comfort in “the blue sky, the unchanging gravity of the Earth.” In other words, he’s happy with the things he knows.
But survivors have to move. From the novels of Cormac McCarthy and Samuel Beckett to ancient heroic parables, survivors must keep moving, and so The Second History tells the story of their movement, the relationship that propels them, and their uncertain survival.
The Second History is ultimately an intricately rendered relationship between two very different people. In an interview in the summer of 2021, Rebecca Silver Slayter tells me that she set out “to create a portrait of a marriage or a relationship, but wanted to do it in this extreme circumstance.”
The result is intense and revealing. Judy and Eban’s arguments, their tragedies, and their momentary glimpses of peace, are insightfully hewn from the most basic, and yet most complicated parts of domestic relationships.
Slayter explains how “the person you make your life with becomes your world, in a way,” and how for Judy, “Eban becomes a face for the limitations of her life.”
Throughout their journey, Judy and Eban’s challenges will sound familiar. They endure miscarriages and illness, they bitterly argue the rewards and sacrifices of risk, and they constantly weigh personal dreams against interdependence. Slayter makes a persuasive case that the ubiquitous tensions of domestic life persist from the banal conflicts of middle-class ennui to post-apocalyptic struggles for survival.
Maurice Blanchot opens The Writing of the Disaster this way: “The disaster ruins everything, while leaving everything intact.” Early in The Second History, Eban reflects on one of Judy’s recurring aphorisms: “things happen little by little, then all at once.” Like Blanchot’s disaster, the barrier between nothing and everything, between order and disaster, is barely momentary, and still continuous.
Eban considers this mystery throughout the novel as he stares into the sky. He wakes in the frigid night “shaking with cold. His eyes open for a moment. The sky is black, moonless, pricked with stars.” Here the sky is an opaque barrier through which only slivers of light penetrate.
We get the word disaster from the French des astres, celestial bodies that for early astronomers exist outside the possibility of perception. Later, Eban imagines the sky as “measureless,” “a huge, dark blanket full of holes, thrown over something blindingly bright,” and, mapping the stars, he “creates patterns out of perforations in the vast blanket of unknowingness.”
For Eban and Judy, the great disasters that erased human civilization and brought them to their mountain refuge, the blinding lights behind that black sky, are hidden from perception, lost in the first history and the people who wrote it.
It’s tempting to characterize Slayter’s quiet post apocalypse as ominous. The lonely, plodding crunch of snow under the protagonists’ feet seems to punctuate an all-encompassing silence–as ever, we’re reminded that amidst their solitude, things happen little by little, then all at once.
But the missing history, the indeterminate caesura between them and us is what readers will find ominous. The what happened of the novel remains a fearful secret.
The title, The Second History, already disrupts something known, easy, dependable. History is not something that comes to us successively. We don’t treat it as countable, but rather a continuous current, a surge that has a beginning, and no end.
The novel, therefore, asks us to consider the possibility (perhaps the inevitability) that history, or histories, end, truncated by their own moments, and start again as palimpsests of past inscriptions.