The Last Man is just as depressing as it sounds. It’s a book by Mary Shelley that was panned on release but has gained a following in the last couple of decades as an important early example of post-apocalyptic literature. It’s also a fascinating look at Shelley’s emotional life, since the main characters are very loosely based on Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Claire Godwin.
The Last Man is told from the viewpoint of Lionel Verney, the impoverished son of a nobleman. Lionel is loosely, and again I emphasize loosely with regard to all of the characters, based on Mary Shelley. He becomes close friends with Adrian (shades of Percy Shelley) and Lord Raymond (Lord Byron). Lionel’s sister, Perditia (Claire Godwin) falls in love with Lord Raymond, and various love triangles ensue. There’s a revolution in Greece and political turmoil in England, and a lot of personal drama, until a plague hits and suddenly everyone has to focus on survival as one by one everyone dies.
The structure of the book is such that we know two things from the very start of the book: humanity is not going to die out, but everyone Lionel knows is going to die and the world as he knows it is going to end. There’s no victory in the book, it’s a just a long, long death march into misery. Any time something happy happens, it’s bittersweet because we know it won’t last. To read this book is to ponder the following quote from its pages: “What is there in our nature that is for ever urging us on towards pain and misery?”
There are early hints of trouble, but the apocalypse doesn’t really get under way until over the halfway point of the book. A plague strikes the Middle East, then begins moving into Italy, then into Europe. Anyone who has ever read a plague book or a zombie book will know exactly how this goes – in fact, other than a lack of guns and gore, the book matches up quite well with The Walking Dead. Think how well a quote like this could apply to the heroes of The Walking Dead, or 28 Days Later, or WWZ: “I spread the whole earth out as a map before me. On no one spot of its surface could I put my finger and say, here is safety.”
The plague is described as a disease, like flu, but this book was written before germ theory. That means that no one quarantines the sick – instead everyone bands together for safety, and keeps watch over the sick, and hover over dead bodies a lot. No one washes his or her hands. I was overcome with a furious desire to throw bars of soap at everyone. One of the leading ideas about how disease happened at the time when Shelley was writing was that disease spread through ‘miasmas’, basically through bad air. So the steadily dwindling group of survivors travels around in an attempt to escape miasma, wandering into uninfected villages, and insisting that anyone uninfected join the party, which of course means that no one has a chance to escape contamination.
I’m not gonna lie – this book was a slog. I’m glad I read it. I was fascinated by how Shelley wrote about her contemporaries and I was interested in the early science fiction angle. But this book is both flowery in the Romantic style and horribly, horribly depressing. No reviewer is truly impartial, and no doubt I was influenced by the fact that I read this book during the two-week period in which David Bowie died, Alan Rickman died, and a dear friend of mine died. But by any standards, this book is an exercise in exploring the totality and inevitability of loss. With every step Shelley’s hero took, my heart sank lower and lower until I just wanted to climb into bed. The endless need to scream “WASH YOUR HANDS” did not help my reading experience.
So, do I recommend The Last Man? Well, sort of. The writing style is flowery and extravagant, which is not to everyone’s taste today, and the plot is unremittingly depressing. I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed it. But from a literary history perspective, it’s fascinating, and many of the passages, especially those about grief, are beautifully written. The panic of Lionel’s wife when her children fall ill is devastating. Lionel’s desperate search through empty villages, and his delusions that maybe someone is left to welcome him, are haunting. The early sense that the rich are hiding in their mansions, believing that they are protected by their money, resonates all too well today. Just be prepared that this is not a light-hearted romp through a romanticized Merry Olde England. As a survivor of countless losses, Mary Shelley paints an all too vivid picture of being the sole survivor of a group that thought itself above all suffering.