by Claire Polders
What lines of communication might reveal themselves to us when the world comes to an end? How will we navigate our alternative lives if such lives are rendered possible? Can intimacies survive a separation in time and space? Such were the questions I found myself asking while reading Adrienne Celt’s fabulous third novel End of the World House.
The story opens with our protagonist, Bertie, and Kate, her close friend since high school, rushing through the streets of Paris on their way to the Louvre. They’re supposed to meet a guide for a private tour and their funny interactions instantly show their complex bond: There’s room in this relationship for criticism and resentments.
At the palace of immortal art, Bertie and Kate roam the majestic halls by themselves, unsupervised, on a day the museum is closed. Bertie’s experiences mirror the absurdity of their situation. The friends chase inexplicable laughter through rooms with impossible shadows and get lost along the way. Celt’s prose is beautifully eerie: “[…] as if a Victorian ghost might at any moment step out from behind a pillar and beckon them toward their destiny.”
End of the World House is a cozy catastrophe novel. The near-future world is collapsing, but it’s not yet such a huge deal for our protagonist. She can move away from unrest and flood zones. Her favorite brand may be out of stock, but supply issues do not yet lead to hunger. And she can still travel with her best friend during a cease fire. The attacks in which people are killed happen elsewhere or in another time; even the death of her own parents leaves her with a papery kind of grief. In hers and our reality, Bertie and Kate enjoy pastries in Paris, much to their own surprise.
But not all is well, of course. Celt cleverly brings the menace to light through Bertie’s heaving emotions. Our protagonist appears torn and unstable, asking herself in vain to grow up. She’s jealous of Kate’s brave independence and hurt by her friend’s decision to move away from her, to another city. The tension between them mounts during their day in the Louvre until Kate goes mysteriously missing.
The next day, the friends wake up in their Parisian hotel room on what appears to be the previous day. Bertie’s memories are vague and distorted, yet not so perverted that she understands her timeframe is warped. As in the film Groundhog Day, Bertie lives the same day again and again in a world that is both recognizable and off-balance. Each time she visits the museum with Kate, the adventure is more sinister and threatening. Painted eyes stare at her while live swallows dive through the halls.
The days always end the same—with Kate being gone—until Bertie’s boyfriend Dylan makes an unexpected appearance. Bertie is only mildly confused about his sudden presence in Paris and proceeds to have sex with him in the museum. I briefly lost touch with Bertie at this point, not following her responses to Dylan’s odd behavior. But this might have been Celt’s intention, for Bertie is losing touch with herself: She’s aware of the gaps in her memory and the prolonged déjàvus without having any remedy to mend her mind. She goes with the flow, then resists and panics, running in circles, sometimes literally, until she slams once again into Dylan. Has time become a loop? It’s not that simple.
Celt has created such an intricate world that she cannot always unveil it without falling back on explanations. At times it made me feel that she had put the subtext into dialogue. Then again, isn’t that what we all do when we discuss the enigma of our existence? I remember many conversations with friends in which we all tried to express the uncanniness of our day-to-day experiences and voice our suspicions that we had lived this life before or were caught in some type of a virtual reality.
Puzzled yet curious, I followed Bertie into her alternative life with Dylan in the USA. Did she choose this life freely or has he manipulated her? Bertie feels that their love was preordained, yet something important is missing. Can it be Kate? How did it happen that they’re no longer friends and fell out of touch in college? Bertie’s dreams are like disturbing memories of other lives, haunting her with what she was forced to forget.
The novel turns into a wonderful funhouse of life-imitating-art when Bertie, dispirited by the commercial logo she’s been paid to render on repeat, becomes furiously creative. She draws a graphic novel about Kate and her living in the End of the World House. It’s a place they invented together, a place where they imagined they would live if the world truly collapsed. Bertie draws them planting beans and corn in the wrong season and dealing with the farm’s “hilarious disrepair.” The way she steals Kate’s image, however, and brings her alive on the page feels like kidnapping. She imagines Kate “knocking on the frame of the cartoon strip, asking to please be let out.”
When Dylan discovers the sketchbook, he gets angry. Bertie is not giving her life with him a fair chance when reaching for Kate. He feels things are falling apart or crashing together. And indeed they do. Soon, Bertie roams the Louvre again, where her cartoons of Kate hang framed on the wall, “as if they’d been pulled here by the magnet of her desire.”
More gripping twists and turns follow, until Bertie finds herself alone in her Paris hotel room. What reality is she living in now? Can she still choose who she meets and loves?
End of the World House is a playful, compelling novel about intimacy and free will, about art as a bridge between times and realities. Celt never tries to give us simplified answers, but does leave us with hope. When one world ends, she seems to say, another begins.