Review – Basically Frightened – Vasily Pugh
Post-apocalyptic novels seem to be all the rage at the moment and it’s difficult to find one that offers something different. With that in mind, I was pleasantly surprised when reading Basically Frightened.
Pugh’s dystopian novel tells the story of Buck, a man in his thirties, who is caught in a traditionally apocalyptic world. The effects of a nightmarish plague have wrought havoc on the human population leaving one in a thousand to survive. Buck spends the initial outbreak of the plague in his apartment, and the story joins him as he is deciding that it is time to move on and search for other survivors.
The story is told from Buck’s point of view, but not merely an inner dialogue. It is actively a journal that he is writing after the events have happened. This gives Pugh the opportunity to introduce a thread of self-awareness to the book that is its greatest strength. The protagonist is well-aware of the traditional cliches of an apocalypse and cheerily points out where they are lacking. A prime example of this is Buck’s incredulity that certain masses of the population would hope for zombies in an already dire situation and his relief that he is spared that aspect of an already difficult situation.
There is plenty of humour interspersed throughout the darkest scenes, which could easily come off as trite, but works through the vision of the narrator. A certain encounter with some specific assailants is a stand out example of weaving humour and tension into the same scene.
Pugh does as an excellent job of recreating how a “normal” person would react in the circumstances given to him. Buck is not portrayed as an action hero, and his behaviour is mostly consistent with his bearing of an ordinary person in an extraordinary world.
At points, the narrative does resort to some staples of the genre, there are many scenes and incidental characters that seem familiar to the setting, so we’re never too far from the beaten track. However, some of this familiarity is relieved by the constant references to popular culture within Buck’s chronicle. When the character himself is aware of the tropes being used then accusations of laziness on the part of the author are somewhat unfounded. Rather, the author uses these tropes as a statement. People will behave in the manner that they are taught to by the media that we consume. A generation brought up on Mad Max films will associate that with a post-apocalyptic world and therefore will behave in the manner they expect to see. It’s certainly an interesting way of tackling the matter and does give Pugh the freedom to use these elements while simultaneously parodying them.
The plot itself was excellently worked, hinting at the possibility of greater forces behind events and the larger players in the world. Yet these were just hints, discussions between bored survivors and differing political views. None of this is of direct concern to our protagonist and therefore neither is it to the reader. While I’m curious of the larger picture that the author has in his head, it wasn’t relevant to this tale. The scarcity of resources is a motivating but not crucial factor in events, the origins of the plague are not known or asked about and the government (or replacement known as the Order) are remote, no more than rumour and radio broadcasts.
Instead, we focus on a more realistic view of living in a post-apocalyptic scenario. Political arguments over a communal breakfast, jealous love rivals and overbearing parents all play a part and this gives the book a more authentic than revelationary feel.
There are a few downsides to the novel. I mentioned above that Buck mostly behaves as an ordinary person in this world, but there are times where he seems to break from his established character. Certain action sequences see him turned into the, albeit reluctant, action hero that I feel the author was trying to avoid. That puts a slight dampener on what would otherwise be a very refreshing take on the genre.
Another issue that I note only for its irony are the typos present in the edition that I read. Normally I give a pass to independently published books on such issues, but if you insist on giving your main character a job as a proofreader in the pre-apocalyptic world then you’re just asking me to bring it up!
I’m giving this a thumbs up as an overall read. An indicator that I enjoyed this more than I expected to, and recommend it to anyone that feels the genre is becoming a little tired and repetitive. Pugh brings a fresh take to post-apocalyptia and I’d certainly be interested in reading more of his work.
Reviewed by PD Richmond