JULY 5, 2018

Reading Behavior 5

“Of these I can claim in adequate measure only the last; I’m drawn like a kid to mud into the sticky terrain of cultural difference. How wondrous, it seems to me, that someone else can live on the same round egg of a world that I do but explain it differently…” Kingsolver, from “The Space Between”

 

5

First and foremost the job of a good literary critic is to be sure to provide honest feedback to the literature; always lay down praise exactly where it is deserved and always make sure to point out perceived deficiencies. With Kingsolver, the critic can very easily fall pray to only praising because, as mentioned in a previous write-up, we are extraordinarily lucky that we not only still have a great and tenacious novelist about in our modern culture, but more specifically – and this is where my own bias will come in – a novelist who more than a little bit interested in nature as subject, more specifically climate change, or deep green concepts.

Honestly, in our age, why more great or true novelists don’t take on this topic is actually beyond me; most less sturdy novelists or young writers tend to plug into the apocalypse and sort of let the drama that is automatically intertwined with this do all the work. That is to say, set up a netherworld, watch it collapse, and watch all of the atrocious behavior that ensues. This heavy handed sort of dramatic reaction is far easier than building up an entire society, picking each bit apart, or elevating portions where they are due.

In other words, the work of the real social novelist is long, hard work and that is why the great ones will be considered literature and why the subgenres will, hopefully, be a passing fad: certainly read by a mass audience today, but without the offering up of cultural solutions, not very useful really.

What Kingsolver says above is quite important in this regard, in terms of both praise and critique. Let’s be fairly clear about Flight Behavior in the early going: it is considerably slow and considerably dull, especially as we realize that up there in that mountain is a living breathing miracle, but we are beset with the trivialities of many characters that we come to perceive are not the narrator’s favorite type.

Cub and crew is not receiving raving reviews; they are, of course, the cultural backdrop that needs to be juxtaposed up against the pulsing habitat of the Monarchs. The blindness that the natives carry any longer for what is true, beautiful, and that ‘indicate’ something is so well established that we are left to wonder if maybe a bit of the Scarlet Letter’s extreme symbolic efficiency could be used here. Say it this way: Kingsolver is asking a lot of us readers, especially in these more attention deficit times, to stick the minutia of a day of congregation, or a day of Dellarobia doing laundry in the house.

We are now beginning to see the more human version of the flight behaviors that are alluded to in the title and the concept as both the family and the stranger are making their way to Dellarobia’s doorstep. This is quite fascinating, there is no doubt, and the imagination begins to work out the reality of what might happen if one of the greatest ecological treasures of Mexico did bizarrely swap spots abruptly; it’s safe to say that the butterflies would not be the only creatures to head south.

The human quotient would be exceedingly curious, there would be followers, there would be scientists, and there would be appropriately believers. But my question here is this: what happens if these scenes of the newcomers began the book? Granted, the plot trick might come off more as a mystery book tendency, but it might provide for some very interesting and immediate tension to depict, fairly quickly, the culture of Cub and family and then show these other cultures represented and arriving. This is not so much a questioning of the choices of a master but more of suggestion mindful of audience – I would like to see even MORE people, of all ages, read this kind of book.

Kingsolver is truly a master of all genres. The language plucked above comes out of exceedingly succinct passages from High Tide in Tucson, where the sentences are purposefully tensile and nearly directive. Behavior is not long winded per se – the narrative style is gestural more than it is elaborate; it provides us with many offhanded sort of remarks that offer some humor and some inside thinking as it were. And yet the social covering of the details, I sense, are more than necessary; in a way trying a little too hard to set the trap for these folks who inhabit this particular scene.

It doesn’t take a whole bunch more description to catch on that Cub is a bumbler, for example, and without the prospect of his leaping out of the confines of flat character into round, it becomes too much, which to me actually indicates an inability for Kingsolver to understand this person for real. She mentions in the same essay from above that she always realized there is no real way to enter into the actual minds of others that tend to be different from one’s one psychology, but that she learned from Steinbeck and merely describing these people from the outside is all that can be asked. Of course this seems to be totally true: description is all the writer can do, but the cardboard characters of the Tennesseans seems a bit of a shallow haul as of right now.

To deny Hester, for example, even a single positive feature seems a little bit out of touch with reality to me. Maybe Hester is everything conceivably loathsome to Dellarobia except for the fact that she is …. the hardest working woman ever know on that farm. If this were the case, Hester becomes a bit more human very quickly; for her to be locked inside the trap of false religiosity, domineering, dim, and built to control, among many others, unfortunately falls into caricature, which could work in a shorter symbolic novel, but one that is purposefully socially inclined, this isn’t quite enough to keep the readers in tune.