A PERPETUAL STATE OF AWE | Jen Knox.
⇒Snow is certainly one of the most symbolic objects in literature, and one of the most versatile. I was once in a workshop where we were discussing a story that featured snow, and the professor went on a five-minute tangent listing all the ways snow could appear or figure into a work of literature. Snow can be blankness, death, burial, comfort, permanence, erasure, purity, innocence, rebirth… and so on. If the Eskimos have a bunch of different words for snow, poets and fiction writers have even more figurative range when it comes to this seemingly straightforward element.
As we slog through another winter of varying brutality here in the Northeast (I’m in Philly, where it hasn’t been so bad, unlike upstate New York or Boston or many other places), I have encountered a great number of winter-themed stories on various literary websites. It’s seasonally appropriate, after all. I’m sometimes disappointed, however, when a writer takes on such an archetypal natural motif as snow and wastes the many opportunities it presents. Gladly, this is far from the case with today’s featured piece from the Atticus Review, “A Perpetual State of Awe” by Jen Knox. Ms. Knox takes on this figurative and literal force with a great respect for its many possibilities and allows this snow to create layers upon layers upon layers of meaning. She uses this element to full effect here.
The plot is fairly simple, on the surface. A woman and her son Joshua are trapped in their Ohio home during a decidedly apocalyptic blizzard. It’s been snowing for weeks and they are trapped indoors by layer upon layer of ice and snow. What began as a happy series of days off from work and school has become a nightmarish survival scenario, a sort of homebound, maternal rendition of McCarthy’s The Road. The internet is down. Television and electricity are down. Food is dwindling. Cold-induced numbness and hallucinations are taking hold. Oh yeah, and we have a personal parallel for this survival narrative as well: the father, John, has recently separated from the mother/narrator, his whereabouts and safety questionable at best. The son, Joshua, is forced to assume greater responsibility, but he has problems of his own. The story climaxes and resolves in a very metaphysical, hallucinatory manner that will leave the reader with a few different interpretations.
Make no mistake, this is no ordinary apocalypse narrative. Obviously, there is no shortage of apocalypse stories in literary and popular media, to the point that any author or filmmaker who chooses to take on an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it scenario risks cliche and derivativeness at every turn. We are constantly bombarded with infestations of zombies or permanent night or an epidemic of fires or mass chaos or millennial storm. Ms. Knox is taking a lot of risks with this story simply because she’s attempting to create something original in a well-trod narrative space.
I suppose the appeal of the apocalypse narrative is its ability to literalize internal landscapes of pain and loss, its objective correlativeness. We also have to think about the appeal of any literary scenario that pits a character against an overwhelming disaster, that character pushed to his or her mental and spiritual limit, which is when the human condition is rendered most starkly. Apocalypse and disaster strip away the niceties and amenities and cultural/technological cushions of modern, Industrialized-nation living, which–let’s face it–have made modern existence so horrifically detached from our natural state. And then we have to think about the post-9/11 appeal of the apocalypse scenario as well: we already live in apocalyptic times, but it’s an apocalypse filtered through mass-media theatricality and social-media posturing, which sort of detach us from the imminence of our own cultural self-destruction, and blah blah blah blah blah.
Sorry for that tangent.
Those are some things to think about when reading this story, I guess, but you don’t have to consider these wider implications. Read this piece as a story about a mother and son struggling for survival, a premise that will never grow old no matter how many such narratives are written. Like stories about snow, the mother-son core of this piece is timeless, and in the right hands, can always be rendered in a way that is fresh, authentic, and poignant.