JUNE 22, 2018

Book Club Daily Responses

“…I grew up running wild in the woods with little adult supervision, studied biology as a college student, and then went to graduate school in biology. I am one of thousands of species that live in this place, and I don’t ever forget the other ones are there.” – Kingsolver, from a “Conversation with Stephen L. Fisher”

One of the more enriching ways to read a book is to simultaneously write about it in response, either as notes or in a more fully articulated way.  These are nothing more than elevated notes — therefore, there might even purposefully be an error here and there; a misplaced semi-colon, even a wrong turn in predictions. Only at page 45, it’s obviously impossible to do much more than size up the book, so to speak, to make some speculative remarks about what seems to be coming, or to comment on early style or maybe even some of Kingsolver’s previous works.

I used to teach Kingsolver’s short stories, titled Homeland, what I felt then, especially on initial reading, were a fantastic blend of realisms.  It is covered somewhat in the more public critical response (non academic) that close readers tend to be leary of novelists taking on too overt of political or environmental concerns within their fiction; the fear is always, just as with the Jungle, for example, that style and human character will be superseded by the axe to grind.

This is a difficult argument to work through because, as with all high quality novels – that is to say, non surface level, and carrying depth – all novels, all the time represent ideas underneath the creating of the characters. In a way, this is impossible to avoid because the writer has to create minds, as Kingsolver reminds us in her own interview, and those minds are only ever going to become just so complex on paper; you need the real thing, in person, to become real. Therefore, every action and motive assigned to each character must relay something about that person, there is no real choice. Random motions and pieces of dialogue are not going to work for a serious novel.

And so, if Dellarobia comes to represent a backwoods, country ‘type’ so to set up a character that is instinctually dismayed by her surroundings and seeks transcendence, this works as both a legitimate character trajectory and will also likely serve nicely as a foil to the non growth trajectory of Cub, her husband who is more limited in his thought process. It’s true that this foil character creation can immediately look political at the outset – much has been said in the recent past about backwardness in America, sometimes especially in the south, and this segment’s opposition to environmental concerns, but it all becomes far more compelling knowing that Kingsolver is not merely using a political program to set this up, but of course has lived the dual life in the American Southwest and then the Appalachian region. We sense, based on her background, that she would do what is necessary to both ‘call out’ perceived bad behavior by these types of characters in real life, but would not prejudge all in one basket, so to speak. We trust that she would also admire much of the rural south and an agrarian economy, as featured so well in her great family memoir of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

In a roundabout way, what I am getting at is that if the ‘novel as political / activism’ is handled by the right novelist, the thoughtful, experienced, authentic, then, frankly, the novel is enhanced, not diminished, I think. To put it another way, if we think about what so often makes the modern novel is all of the opposite qualities just mentioned: a kind of surface description, with somewhat random actions, and that don’t harken back toward any ideas at all. Pick up any hardcover novel, by some very less known author, and begin to read, and we see a kind of hollowness playing out, which is extremely disappointing considering that is has been true in our past that our novelists are looked upon as our cultural bellwethers. They are the ones who are supposed to put their mind’s fingers on the pulse of things in culture and capture it on the page. Think of William Dean Howells or the great Edith Wharton. These were very real, talented, and invested novelists showing us ourselves. If the modern novel, short on substance, is any indication of our times, we live in a kind of shallow and random environment, a lot of breath and image but little substance. This is a major bummer.

I am thankful for Kingsolver’s providing us with some ‘there there.’ I would go one step further, to finish this short reaction: the single most under represented substantial topic in novel writing today is sustainability concerns. We received some of this treatment in movies like Avatar, but really sustainability could serve as its own branch of literary production, much in the same way as existentialism once did, or democracy, or even other topics such as Marxism, naturalism, determinism, and right on down the line. I will be continuing to look for this tension between believability in character and the ‘program behind it…’ interested.