PARANOIA may be America's new national pastime. From the JFK assassination to the moon landing to Watergate to weapons of mass destruction, we've become a culture utterly addicted to the concept that things aren't what they seem. And hair-trigger mistrust of the establishment is no longer merely the domain of certifiable wack jobs. Thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet and its infinite supply of unfiltered (and largely unverified) information, we are all just a few keystrokes away from becoming wack jobs ourselves.
Even the White House has gotten knee-deep in the conspiracy business. Under the rubric of "the war on terror," the administration's sky-is-falling rhetoric has turned us into a nation of submissive scaredy-cats. And to what end? Osama, Saddam and Katrina may have slapped U.S. morale into submission, but having endured this horrific trio gives us a bit of perspective about the end of the last century. From today's bleak vantage point, we can look back at the 1990s and smirk at the notion of Y2K anxiety -- when the mere ripping of calendar pages represented a countdown to catastrophe.
Kevin Shay takes an amused, loopy traipse though 1998 and millennial angst in his debut novel, "The End as I Know It." In case you've forgotten, Y2K's worst-case scenario involved a complete technology breakdown that would occur when the clock struck midnight on Dec. 31, 1999. With the planet's computers on the fritz, the civilized world was sure to completely unravel.
We all heard the stories, yet most of us barely blinked. It's not that the threat was pooh-poohed as lunatic hype; it just seemed low on the plausibility meter -- computers couldn't possibly fail us, could they? As with most potential catastrophes, we chose willful ignorance over action. Whatever information we did process was filed away deep in the recesses of our brains, in the rear of the queue, far behind death in that dark pasture of denial.
Shay's protagonist, Randall Knight, was an easy mark. A restless 25-year-old puppeteer and musician who'd recently been dumped by his girlfriend, Randall was in need of distraction. He found it on the Internet. Information about Y2K sent his life spiraling off its axis and he joined the ranks of paranoid conspiracy freaks waiting for the end of the world. He was just the sort of freethinker who could be swayed by the millions of bytes of "documentation" and "proof" that floated through cyberspace proving Y2K's chaos theory.
With fewer than 500 shopping days till Armageddon, there was little time to waste. Randall quit his job at a Boston public school and hit the road on an apocalypse tour of the country to spread the word and prepare for doomsday. "Hundreds of years from now, the scholars of whatever society arises from the ruins of ours will look back on this moment in history and proclaim: What ... was that?" Randall says, with the smug satisfaction of someone with the foresight to plan ahead.
Shay turns Randall into a Johnny Appleseed for the Doom Generation, a small but fervent minority who believe that mass awareness is just one Ted Koppel segment away from legitimacy. He drives solemnly across the country in a beat-up Oldsmobile with a righteous sense of mission but also a heavy dose of gallows humor. "Country roads, take me home," he sings. "Or at the moment, I'd settle for 'country roads, don't cause my fiery death.' "
Though Randall finds reinforcement in Y2K chat rooms, he quickly learns that life outside cyberspace is less forgiving. He traverses the country, making pocket change with his puppet shows at schools across the land. He wants to warn his friends and family that the "facts" he's discovered online are perfectly rational. But he becomes frustrated; at each stop, his subjects are too busy wallowing in their neuroses to pay much heed to Y2K.
Shay paints Randall as a weirdo, but at least he's self-consciously weird. The author's twist, though, is that however odd Randall may be, everyone he encounters is more warped and utterly clueless than he. Along the way he meets Amway zombies, dot-com freaks and Game Boy-addicted socialists. It's just that his obsessions are less socially acceptable. Thus he treads softly: "Zealots have given zeal a bad name, and even if the sky really does happen to be falling, only the soft sell stands a chance."
Randall encounters the real zealots when he spends Thanksgiving dinner with fellow travelers who've moved to West Texas to prepare for post-millennial life off the grid. The truly wacked-out family functions as a bucket of cold water to his face. Patriarch Claude's skin has turned gray from sucking down water infused with colloidal silver, which he ingested thinking it would have health benefits. It's a mirror into Randall's future and he doesn't like it: "I don't want to spend every waking minute of what now passes for my life obsessing over power plants."
Still, millennial deprogramming is a gradual process, and in spite of the inevitable love interest (really the only conventional element in this quirky story) and a family intervention, Randall relapses before finally finding peace of mind.
Despite its thin premise, Shay takes "The End as I Know It" into sublimely multilayered directions. The story's not bursting with bold twists and turns, but its pleasures come in the casualness of its characters, a peculiar vibe that's at once absurd and human. The author, a former online editor of McSweeney's, has crafted a subtle satire whose impact is felt only upon completion. Family, relationships, identity are all smoothly framed around the concept of the end of civilization. It shouldn't work but it does, and it actually makes a lot of sense -- that the maddening road through paranoia can lead to the ultimate truth. *