Opinion writer

(Credit: HMH Books for Young Readers)

This piece is the last in a week-long series about the end of America in fiction. For the full archives of the series, check back here throughout the week. 

Considering how America might meet its demise is usually an exercise that leads us to take ourselves extremely seriously. We’re the world’s greatest superpower, so what will happen in the vacuum we leave behind? What will it be that causes our demise? Our financial hubris? The power we’ve granted the police? Our mesmerization by tech gurus? The return of Jesus Christ himself? The clack of my laptop keys sounds a lot like the inevitable gnashing of teeth that accompanies this subject.

And this agita is one of the reasons I wanted to end Act Four’s week devoted to the end of America by talking about David Macaulay’s children’s book “Motel of the Mysteries.” Macaulay is probably best known for his beautifully illustrated explanatory books, including “The Way Things Work,” “Castle” and “Pyramid.” Those books often had their funny side notes, but in “Motel of the Mysteries” Macaulay turns positively wicked, bringing his British-born sensibility to bear as he skewers the idea that America’s greatest accomplishments will be recognized for what they were long after they’re gone.

In “Motel of the Mysteries,” America has been destroyed, and largely covered up, by a mysterious catastrophic event that the book suggests is related to rising pollution levels. Archaeologists speculate over the little that remains, deciding that our freeways were signals to aliens and that fast-food neon signs were totems to our most important gods. But everything changes when a trust-fund-enabled dabbler, Howard Carson (an obvious riff on Howard Carter, who discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt) accidentally stumbles on the site that becomes known as the Motel of the Mysteries, and mistakes a humble roadside way station for a critically important tomb and religious site.

The fun of “Motel of the Mysteries” is not that Carson and his colleagues treat the motel and the human remains they find there with disrespect. To the contrary, they treat everything from a “Do Not Disturb” sign, to a shower cap, to a bathtub plug as precious and meaningful artifacts, and do their best to place them into a coherent narrative that explains the great civilization they believe they’ve deciphered.


(Washington Post illustration by Kat Rudell, iStock)

In some cases, they get certain things right, but for the wrong reasons: Carson, for example, becomes convinced that the motel’s television is an altar and was the subject of intense worship by the inhabitants of the room. And other times, he and his colleagues are disastrously, comically wrong, turning toothbrushes into ceremonial earrings and the paper seals on toilets into important documents.

America’s being remembered, all right, but for none of the things that we see as important about ourselves. The Gateway Arch in St. Louis has become the new Blarney Stone, a cheesy attraction tourists kiss in the hope of good luck. New York’s skyscrapers are all but buried; only their top floors poke out of the earth, giving a tiny hint of their former majesty. And our founding documents are nowhere to be found. The remnants of our supposed greatness in Macaulay’s version of the future are actually the most mundane, routine things that made our lives function in the twentieth century. Our true innovations and accomplishments are lost.

There’s another, subtler swipe at us in the book, too. When American fiction considers the end of the country, we tend to assume our own crude, arrogant form of domino theory: that when we go, everything else will swiftly follow into the abyss. Our agonizing about our fate is often just another way of explaining that we don’t believe the planet would last long without us.

But without ever addressing it directly, Macaulay puts the lie to that egocentrism. For all America’s been destroyed by this undefined catastrophe, in “Motel of the Mysteries,”  the rest of the world seems to be getting along pretty well without us. Archaeology and tourism continue. The contamination that buried America’s great cities hasn’t spread, and in fact has settled down enough that people can visit and explore it.

Of all the post-America stories, this is the scenario that might actually be most unnerving: that we turn out to be nothing more than a curiosity or a footnote.