In Allegra Hyde’s new short-story collection, “The Last Catastrophe”—the successor to her 2022 novel, “Eleutheria,” and 2021 collection “Of This New World”—we are introduced to a series of different Americas in the undefined near future. In her speculative America, characters wrestle with the effects of technology and global warming from what the back cover describes as “‘global weirding’—planetary and social disruptions due to climate change.” From a couple who dresses up in a moose costume to lure the last five moose to Canada to an algorithm that delivers a group of women what they need most from observing their online behavior, reading “The Last Catastrophe” is akin to watching an episode of “Black Mirror.” The stories are strange and dissociating and unapologetically bizarre.
Hyde is a strong-voiced writer with an energy that pulsates on the page. This control of language amplifies the story’s speculative elements. Shorter stories such as “Endangered” are more atmospheric in nature, and others marry a more traditional short-story structure with the strange. In “Chevalier,” the narrator is frustrated by her friend Eddy’s attempts to stand out in their small town—an attempt that is successful after she grows a unicorn horn in the middle of her head. Like most of the stories, “Chevalier” takes place somewhere in middle America, though wisely, Hyde chooses not to glorify New York City, where Eddy eventually finds herself. The characters might experience certain small-town clichés, but Hyde is not interested in making a mockery of them.
A personal favorite is “Cougar,” where forty-something LeeAnn from Dallas is sent to the Udall-Meyers Treatment Center for Digital Disorders. These disorders include “Documenters,” who “become paralyzed by the possibility of doing anything… without photographing or filming the act” to InstaQueens, who “[come] in with muscle tone—though as soon as they were away from the mirrors of social media, they tended to have hygiene issues.” LeeAnn herself is in denial about the effects of her own disorder, which is initially kept from the reader, and the ending of this story is as satisfying as one might find in one written by George Saunders: “Her pulse quickened. Her blood ran hot. She wasn’t going back—she knew that now—despite the terror of what approached… LeeAnn breathed in deeply. She was Present. She was here.” Though this ending feels inevitable from what we have read, it reaches unexpected emotional heights.
There are perhaps a few stories that could have been tightened or omitted and at times it’s hard not to wish certain stories had lasted longer. In most cases, this is due to Hyde’s rich worlds, but in some cases, she might have spent more time developing her themes and characters. In “The Tough Part,” for instance, a troubled couple embarks on a quest to save the world’s remaining moose by dressing up in a moose costume and leading them to Canada. This quest is inspired by their extremely precocious four-year-old daughter, who can’t imagine a moose-less world. Most of the nine-page story is focused on describing the bizarre quest that the couple is embarking on, and although we are given glimpses at the conflicts in the characters’ relationship, it is more surface-level, and neither character is particularly developed. Melissa, the wife, is upset that the narrator husband has given up his DJ career to become “a cruel, self-obsessed real estate investor feeding from the poisonous hands of capitalism” and these characters feel less sympathetic than ones in “Cougar” or “Chevalier.” Though Hyde was clearly most interested in exploring the story’s delightfully strange quest, she might have benefited from adding a few additional glimpses at the characters’ relationship. But perhaps this was intentional, as a serious passage toward the ending is a welcome surprise: “The tough part is looking at the other moose and wondering whether they are even moose at all, or just other pairs of humans in moose costumes. Maybe there were never any wild moose left. Maybe we are all just people trying to show our children that we care enough about them to keep a species continuing on.” While not all of her stories have the same emotional resonance as this story and “Cougar,” Hyde is at her strongest when she uses her fantastical settings to make new observations about our world today.
Hyde is a writer utterly her own. For readers interested in the speculative and short stories outside the usual subjects and forms, “The Last Catastrophe” is one to add to the shelf.
“The Last Catastrophe: Stories”
By Allegra Hyde
Penguin Random House, 288 pages
Mara Sandroff is a fiction writer, critic and essayist based in Brooklyn, New York and Tucson, Arizona. She recently earned an MFA in fiction from New York University, and she is an alumna of One Story’s 2019 Summer Writers Conference and Kenyon Review’s 2021 Writers Workshop, a 2021 finalist in Tucson Festival of Book’s Literary Awards, and a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in the Emerging Writer Series of Roxane Gay’s The Audacity. Currently, she is working on a novel that explores Jewish identity, intergenerational storytelling, and a young girl’s coming-of-age in a world that is (possibly) coming to an end. Write On, Door County will support her novel with a residency in December 2023. Find her online at marasandroff.com.