During my sophomore year at Knox College, a favorite history professor of mine presented the class with a simple proposition: retell the Troglodyte fable from Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, but repurpose it for the people who founded our college’s small town—Galesburg. This was a great assignment; an opportunity to touch on the many interesting facets of Galesburg’s founding—Calvinist preachers, abolitionists, the college—and color up the old story somewhat. My version of the “Galelodyte” fable was pitiful, a pull-and-plug story seemingly engineered for the mere communication of Usbek’s lesson from the Letters: a society built on virtue—and not wealth or arbitrary power—will always flourish.
It was boring, ultimately panned by the professor. By moving the scenes from Persia to the middle of North America, I’d done nothing but merely adapt the Troglodyte fable for a new time and people, without exploring less broad, more interesting questions.
Adaptations or retellings of old fables or stories or tales can go other ways, of course. Writers can explore the modern implications involved in the time-place shifting, or abandon the fable context altogether for awhile, using the adaptation more as a theme than a frame.
To wit: Colin Winnette’s Revelation, an adaptation of the biblical apocalypse tale. Except the main characters—Tom, Colin, and Marcus (the protagonist, of sorts), all of whom we follow from age ten to eighty—are less concerned with the kind of supernatural shit that’s going on all around them than with your regular human stuff. There are the fires and the locusts and the dead fish and the four horsemen, but there’s also the next cigarette, or a grueling breakup letter from a teenage girlfriend. There’s the end of the world, but there’s also the grueling feeling of getting old and being sore.
It’s an apocalypse, yes, but the most troubling aspect of it all might be watching your father slowly, somewhat bitterly go in an old folks’ home. And carrying your son across a parking lot full of locusts is just a time to feel proud like a regular father—not to reflect on why there are so many goddamn locusts everywhere.
Winnette has turned the concept of his work upside down; made the framing mechanism itself more of a theme. Rather than retell the apocalypse, he’s set it in the background and let his characters—in a strange, organic way—live and breathe like people who aren’t in the world they’re in.
I can’t say enough about how effective Winnette’s work is in this regard. Going in as a reader, you are well aware that you’re about to read an adaptation of the biblical apocalypse. And while Tom, Colin, and Marcus are horsing around like normal kids horse around, there are fires everywhere—but so what? They’re just trying to smoke a cigarette and waste time. The reader doesn’t know what the characters are feeling about this—especially in the early going when the narration is rather sparse (which lends to Revelation a sort of mystique)—and that’s kind of maddening.
But soon Revelation is less of an adaptation and more its own story; the apocalypse isn’t a frame for the story, just a theme within it. The characters’ worries consume the reader. Soon, the world of Revelation is no longer unimaginable—not because locusts and fires and the four horsemen become, like, foreseeable or something, but because we know we’re all going to mistreat people we love and take them for granted and have regrets and, of course, die.
It is in these moments that Winnette communicates something that’s true and almost insufferably so, facets of our existence that have become as basic as sun up and sun down. It’s powerful, and would be so much less so if Winnette didn’t have such champion restraint.
Of course, there are times when Revelation lags—mainly in the first seventy-five pages or so. But no work is without its faults.
And Winnette is new on the scene! Reading a “first work” so pleasurable is exciting. Armed with such talents—smooth language, a mature knack for plot development, the restraint to let a moment linger—Winnette will be heard from again. And soon.