JUNE 23, 2018

Reading Behavior 2

“Summer’s heat had never really arrived, nor the cold in its turn, and everything living now seemed to yearn for sun with the anguish of the unloved. The world of sensible seasons had come undone.” – Kingsolver, Flight Behavior


We know that we are inside of what we might characterize as an old-school-meets-new-school social novel when the first fifty pages of a 400 page novel continues diligently to lead up to the promised catastrophe, in this case something (we know, we expect) to do with climate change, as indicated above.

There has been some fairly important debate in the not to too distant past about the need and quality of the social novel – some things to consider are that they tend to be big, complex, and revealing, all attributes that we know doesn’t tend to find as much of an audience as when folks literally had to read for entertainment (think previously mentioned Howells and Wharton). I think it’s important to continue the conversation here, in order to be true and fair.

As a reader, I have already mentioned I like all things Kingsolver, because she is interested in the natural world, and she is utterly talented with language. In a way, that is all it takes for me; but of course she is quite tremendous with character as well. I think way back to the wonderful beginning in her Homeland stories, with such ability to write beautifully and capture people simultaneously. Look back at Henry James or even Dickens for that matter…Updike…all of them, let’s face it, naturals at the art. However, I will say that at this point Dellarobia and Cub feel a little bit like caricatures of something else; perhaps a bit of judgement built up against both? Of course both of these types exist out there.

Thankfully Dellarobia is being provided that double sidedness to her character in which she is admitting to her faults on a day to day level, and also secretly craving some something else. This seems a dynamic set up and interesting. And yet Cub is, frankly, a bit too much of a cardboard cut out. I realize that we need to have that kind of staged counterpoint, Cub’s thick dimness that represents a strand of American backwardness toward climate change. I happen to believe, though, that Cub’s character could have been given another immediate layer of complexity and that, in fact, the plot would have been enhanced even a bit more.

What if, for example, Cub happened to love trees secretly; maybe we come to find out that, as a kid, he used to spend hours up there in those mountains, not necessarily learning anything about them but appreciating them in his own simple way. Now the day comes when the loggers arrive. Granted, in this case Cub might still go along with the project of cutting for cash, but look at the conflict created in a man who might be perceived and dumb, dull and blind, becoming, in his own way, conflicted, but still making the wrong choice and caving into his parents wishes.

I think this tends to capture the essential problems of sustainability a little more accurately: harm we accomplish against nature does not always tend to be one bad person’s character ruining things, but instead has a strong tendency of simply following social and economic culture, which generally doesn’t stop to ponder the beauty of this forest, these trees; instead seeing things still as commodity over community (Leopold’s phrase). What really hurts would be to consider if perhaps Cub wanted to save those trees and had some small inkling of taking that farm over and turning it organic, but that he can’t do it because of hundreds of pressures, like supporting his family, etc.

This reminds me very much of the quandary of so many farmers: inside their souls would they not like to escape the negative impact of mono crop corn farming, indebtedness, and inability to truly care for the soil. I think so. How do you do that though when the money only comes trickling in as you ship off your corn on the train heading east? That is how you pay for giant machines you have on lease and the very life you’ve built around you on debt and future prospects.

I am projecting my own interest onto these characters which is only interesting if it reveals strengths or weaknesses of the novel as it is. As a man reading this book, and who is very interested in sustainability issues, I would say that I am finding this a weakness of the book so far, but that I am also predicting that it become quite useful as Dellarobia moves along her journey deeper into the story.