Katie Coyle’s Vivian Apple at the End of the World is a brazen jolt of maturity that still manages to hold all the soul and sweetness of great young adult fiction. Instead of building a dystopia out of squandered potential, a routine we’ve seemingly become numb to, Coyle boldly ditches the abstract and reaches for what is already around us to create her universe; a dystopia manipulated out of reality. It’s fantastic and blunt and unsettling, a short read, yet brimming with voice. Themes are plucked from both current headlines and history textbooks, crashing together to form a time patchwork of a novel. The effect is thoroughly chilling– something original yet oddly familiar.
The first time Pastor Beaton Frick foresees the end of the world, people glance and continue dismissively. Yet, as it seems from that point onward, the weather reaches extremes, terrorist attacks rise, and logical reasoning disintegrates. The dominating lure of “the rapture” emerges and brings Beaton Frick’s cultish religion to the forefront of America, with a majority of people putting their faith in Frick and his prediction. Society fractions off into “believers” and “non-believers,” breaking apart families, including Vivian’s, as she watches her parents drift into the new church while she resists. When three thousand people suddenly vanish, her parents along with them, Vivian refuses to accept that the rapture has come. She leaves on a road trip journey with her friends Harp and Peter to find those who have gone missing, trying to discern between beliefs and reality, and what parts are worth holding on to.
The Church of America that Coyle writes is a deeply complex and heightened embodiment of modern outrage: misogyny, homophobia, climate change denial, mass shootings, American exceptionalism, and educational censorship. But its most fascinating aspect is its core of capitalism, this materialistic culture which becomes the strongest parallel to our own world. The insatiable hunger to monetize seems ridiculous and humorous when wielded in the hands of a religion– simple items are branded and renamed, like Spaghetti-Os, which are turned into Christ-Os; tourism booms– Mount Rushmore suddenly becomes a “sacred sight,” a spiritual destination to hit before everyone dies; a Church magazine proclaims:
“Signs That He Is THE ONE: 1. He doesn’t text you back. A boy who doesn’t text you is a boy actively trying to resist temptation! A boy destined for paradise! Bind yourself to him in holy matrimony!”
In Vivian Apple, the lines between parody and dystopia converge. Coyle plots the end of the world as nothing but a mockery of our own.
I found Vivian Apple’s story to be profoundly empathic and jarringly critical of negative religious stereotypes, able to develop shifting layers within a religion like The Church of America, and perhaps more so in its oppositions. A character is carefully placed for each perspective. Harp’s brother Raj doesn’t want to believe yet still prepares for the Rapture anyways. Edie, a young, pregnant girl, is forced to work at a fast-food chain because her husband doubted her faith and left to pursue his own religious calling. The Right Arm are a group of fiery activists who call for change with no backbone. Wambaugh, Vivian’s Catholic teacher, strives to teach her students tolerance and hope. Vivian’s grandparents are full-blown atheists, yet unaccepting of the deteriorating religious America around them, a kind of oxymoron. Harp, the best friend, is a bitter rebel and total train wreck. Peter is a non-believer, yet remains elusive about his religious past.
And there is Vivian, who, from the very start, has no idea what she believes in or where she is going.
As a teenager, I have read plenty of op-eds and critiques on my age group and their digital apathy or delusional empathy– we are a ted talk, social media saturated generation. But I found a harder truth and a warmer identity in Coyle’s writing more than anything else. Many of the lives and sub-characters are stained in what some would dismiss as millennial exasperations and feminist overreaction, but she focuses on those labels fiercely, writing freely and earnestly for a current audience, willing them to pay closer attention. The characters are delightfully diverse. Much of my generation share the anti-capitalist sentiment in her story, delving farther and farther left in panic. They are frustrated with United States education system, which, like the book, is increasingly controlled by big money and censorship. Even before the church takes over, Vivian and her peers lash out at the teacher after being asked to regurgitate “liberal do-goodism[s]” as solutions to “save the world.” (“Volunteer”; “Support Unions”; “End Prejudice”) It’s not enough for them. And as we all stare at the war on Planned Parenthood unfold in reality, Vivian Apple strikes a force in fiction with Edie, a sub-character I personally found to be the most interestingly written.
Edie is sweet and more than a little naive, unfitting next to the tough, hardened trio of Harp, Peter, and Vivian. But her pregnancy, unconfidence, and obliviousness, which our media today will slant and deform into the “impressionable teenage girl” is not a sob story desperately asking for pity, nor is it there to make the main characters look humble, detouring to offer her help in the midst of their epic plotline. Edie is a genuine voice– after all, she is not written to be likeable; she is written to be listened to. It is easy to write about teenagers wanting to prove a point, good or bad. It is easy to pander to certain generations in terms of characterization. But Coyle’s approach is sturdier, less loud and more observant, with no softening of Edie’s unworldliness, of Harp’s ugly alcohol addiction, of Vivian’s frequent, abrupt rudeness. The characters are ugly, lacking finesse and flatter, but never undermined. They are overwhelmingly whole, carefully constructed, voices vibrating and crashing tidal waves on one another. Teens are not always likeable– Coyle maps that out without hesitation –but maybe they are worth listening to either way (as humans are) even if it takes a little digging.
This is not her first tackle of the subject of teenagers, however. In contrast to Vivian Apple’s underlying warmth and sweeter tones, her short story Fear Itself is wickedly dark, detailing the unattractive friendship of three girls and an emotionally abusive boyfriend– a magical wax figure of FDR that comes to life. How the three girls interact with each other is very real; they are undeniably mean yet resiliently protective and attached to one another. The shallowness and narcissism of teenage girls is a sticky obsession with America, as maybe you can recall the group of sorority girls taking selfies at a baseball game that sparked national outrage, probably making an appearance on your Facebook feed. Yes, that shallowness and narcissism definitely exists, but the fact that it is so satisfying for others to point and laugh at is dangerous; teenage girls can talk about their experiences with abuse as sincerely as they like, but everything is subverted, and Fear Itself understands this struggle wholly. By making the boyfriend a magical wax figure of FDR, it immediately sounds ridiculous and almost humorous to the ear– who would even believe that? The same manipulation is deftly reflected in her attack on capitalism in Vivian Apple. The insatiable hunger to monetize seems ridiculous and humorous when wielded in the hands of a religion– Christ-Os? Ha!
Coyle handles our assumptions well. She knows what we like to trivialize.
Vivian Apple retains the smartest messages of Fear Itself, especially the sense of urgency. But the core of female friendship is wielded in a strikingly different light; in Vivian Apple, the bond between Vivian and Harp cuts through the novel like sharp glass, severely and purely. Coyle’s greatest feat is her ability to keep that juxtaposition of sinister setting and loving friendship while having it not be off-putting or unfitting. It is a witty, heartfelt relationship in which neither of them make the best of decisions. And it feels as if one does not ground the other, one does not necessarily bring out the best in another, nor is one the main character while the other is not. They both support each other and they both crash together, and they are different from each other entirely. If there is any indulgence in the book it is their friendship, which is worth yearning for. There is Wambaugh and Vivian’s relationship as well, a bright presence of sanity amid chaos and turmoil. And, of course, there is still classic notes of YA, a pattering romance lilting to the side of the plot between Vivian and Peter, keeping flecks of innocence within the dense pages of menace.
Although Vivian Apple’s journey is based around the setting of evangelical religion, it is similar to books like John Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back in the way that religion, in actuality, is not the main focus of the story. Or, rather, the question of whether God is real or not, whether someone is a “believer” or “non-believer,” fades to irrelevancy. From the very start, Vivian is asked: “What do you believe in?” Her struggle to answer this question is dragged across the book while she searches for her parents, meeting new people, and the whole time she sees believing in something as isolating and dividing. She sees belief as choosing a definite definition for herself, fearing it will consume her identity in a world where one’s religion holds the highest judgment. She’s got it wrong.
Believing is not confinement. But failing to empathize, is.
Peter bluntly tells Vivian at one point: “Don’t be the kind of person who sees groups instead of people.” It is so simple, yet so vital, capturing all the ideas floating through Vivian’s journey, from the anger at painless “liberal do-goodism,” to the resistance of religious stereotypes, to the focus on teenage representation, to the striking bond of true friendship. And at the end of the book, Vivian is able to say that she believes in her friends, but more importantly, that she believes in herself.
Yes, Vivian Apple at the End of the World is a story about empathy. But it is also, in its young adult way, a story about bravery. Maybe those two things are not so far apart after all.