Sharon May 4th, 2008
Reading apocalyptic novels is always a weird experience. They are compelling, often startlingly so. And quite often, the “I can’t look away” quality of reading them has nothing at all to do with their being thoughtful, well-written, high quality prose. That is, to put it bluntly, most of them suck, if considered as pieces of writing. Except that they make you want to keep reading.
In the last couple of years, apocalyptic novels have moved out of genre fiction, away from “science fiction” into “mainstream literary” fiction. In some senses this move isn’t really a novelty – much of what we now call “high culture literature” (which was often low culture literature when created) from Boccaccio’s _Decameron_ to Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus” and on to Shelley’s _The Last Man_ to was permeated by awareness of the possibility of either theological or biological apocalypse, usually by plague. That, for a time, we moved our end of the world visions into a little box called “science fiction” doesn’t change the fact that this has been a preoccupation of literature as long as literature has existed.
Still, as “literary” writers like Cormac McCarthy and Philip Roth have been picking up the apocalypse as a genre and making it “high culture.” In some sense, this seems to be because the writers in question have no where else to go. McCarthy, always a lovely but never a cheery writer has a natural affinity for the apocalypse – even his other novels always seem to end in disaster. So perhaps a world where there are no shoes and babies are regularly roasted on spits and eaten is merely a step on. And for Roth, who followed up _The Plot Against America_ with a series of books who could be best summarized as “Zuckerman gets old, impotent and finally, mercifully, dies” the end of things seems to be a preoccupation.
But more than that, the idea that we have nowhere to go but towards some disaster simply makes sense – we are on course for some disaster. There is no question that Global Warming is a disaster in the truest sense of the term, and that we are entering into an unknown place. How could imaginative thinkers not try to conceive of where we are going? We want to know, we want to be frightened and horrified, and also to be engaged by the fantasy that the world could change – in ways that might make us more powerful. That is, underlying the disaster is the notion that all the things that make us feel powerless might fall away, and we might step out like the protagonist of some novel, and make things change.
That is what happens in James Kunstler’s new novel, _The World Made By Hand_, a book I’ve read, and have been trying really hard not to review. The reason is that I’m ambivalent about it, both as a piece of writing and as a piece of peak oil advocacy. For all that I often disagree with him, I think Kunstler is a wonderful writer of non-fiction – funny, smart, engaging. And he has done more than any other writer ever to bring peak oil to the mainstream – none of the rest of us make Colbert or Rolling Stone.
On the other hand, I thought _World Made By Hand_ wasn’t nearly as good as his non-fiction writing. There were things I liked about it – I enjoyed his language, and the “American Novel-ness” of it – that is, Kunstler’s vision doesn’t just involve looking back to the 19th century, linguistically it feels like an American 19th century novel, and it has the same clarity of prose. Unfortunately, it is also overblown and dull at times, also like many second-tier 19th century American novels – think _McTeague_ or something like it. But perhaps that’s not fair – in comparison to other post-apocalyptic novels, Kunstler has written _Moby Dick_ – because it is such a difficult genre, and the competition is so bad. Personally, I think both Roth and McCullers also wrote mediocre novels – and Kunstler’s can go right up there with the best of a weak (although fascinating) genre.
I wasn’t going to write about the book at all, however, but I find that I can’t resist, in part because Kunstler has gone on the defensive, telling us that the problem that some women readers have had with the novel and its gender issues is definitely their fault, not his.
The Oil Drum has a link to Kunstler’s appearance on the Colbert show (which I’m dying to see, but I have dial up and no tv reception and certainly no cable, so I’m doomed until I visit somewhere with fast internet . It also has quotes Kunstler’s response to those who have criticized his book on the grounds that all the women in it are passive fuck bunnies with no brains or interest in the future in any sense. (Ok, that’s actually my analysis, but the quick skim of the amazon reviews I’ve seen has people making much the same case in slightly politer language.) Here’s Kunstler’s answer:
“Complaints have come from many quarters that in my novel the feminist revolution appears to have been discontinued, or that my female characters are not sufficiently valorized. To me, these complaints show an impressive incapacity to imagine that social arrangements might be different under very different practical circumstances. In “World Made By Hand,” the corporate milieu no longer exists. Issues of “glass ceilings” and “equal pay” tend to be irrelevant. All the people in the novel are essentially working within their competence. But the divisions of labor are not what they used to be in the age of WalMart and Time Warner. The major female characters are treated sympathetically as real people with pretty complicated lives.”
One of the best rules of literary criticism is this: never trust an author’s claim that what you are seeing is really, certainly, definitely your fault, not the author’s. Now believe it or not, I’m in sympathy with Kunstler’s claims that women’s lives will not have much to do with the kind of capitalist version of feminism seen in the essay. I’ve written on that subject quite a number of times:
That is, I do think Kunstler is broadly right, that the version of feminism that succeeded within global growth capitalism is unlikely to continue, and that, without making a strong effort to retain social changes, women are likely to lose social gains and protections as they get poorer. I don’t have a problem with a depiction of a society that views women as more vulnerable to sexual assault, more subject to violence, and with less political power in some ways than we have now – all of those are real possibilities.
So this is not the part of Kunstler’s statement that I think is wrong. The problem is that the criticisms I’ve read, and the ones I’m inclined to make have nothing to do with the loss of feminist gains and equal pay – Kunstler is waving a big old straw man about here. The problem with his book is that it is completely untrue that “The major female characters are treated sympathetically as real people with pretty complicated lives.” Or rather, they are, in their fractured limitation treated quite sympathetically, they just aren’t *people* – they are literary functions who exist to a. compete to have sex with the narrator and b. suffer and c. serve meals.
Despite Kunstler’s suggestion, I don’t think it is unreasonable for readers to want some of his women to be rich and complex enough to be actually called real characters, rather than a plot function, or to suggest that in the future, the occasional woman might have an area of competence other than baking and nudity. Or that if they don’t, the reasons for that might actually be explored, or the characters might think about them, rather than simply assent to the idea that their world made by hand is the size of a pea.
There are people in novels, but those people have nuance, and subtlety, and complex motivations. They have thoughts and feelings that get explored - that’s how they get to be people in our heads, even though they exist only on paper. We get caught up with them. It is not possible to do that with any of Kunstler’s women. For example, we meet Jane Ann, one of only two female characters articulated enough to even distinguish from one another, when she arrives bringing bread and her body to the narrator. She is the wife of his best friend, who arrives weekly to have sex with him, because she is depressed and her husband is impotent.
Now there really isn’t anything wrong with the early characterization of Jane Ann, but the truth is that we never get more than this bit of surface and Robert (the narrator’s) speculation about her. He is kind and unjudgemental about her desperate expressions of grief, which conveniently take the form of bringing him food and sex - he’s also not very interested in them, and clearly, neither is the book’s author, because Jane’s non-existent interiority is never expanded upon. We get a flash of jealousy here, a bit of suffering there, and she’s gone, left to occasionally send over meals. She’s a plot function. What is almost forgiveable about this opening sequence is that the narrator, Robert, is nearly as disconnected and resigned as she is. The difference is that redemption, community and reconnection are for men, not women in Kunstler’s world.
The only other female of note is Britney, the wife of a young man who is shot and killed early on. And this, of course, begins the redemption of the otherwise apathetic Robert, as he involves himself in her life, eventually takes the 23 year old as a lover and now has “a family to look after.” And that, we are told, in echoes of Frost, “…made all the difference.” Looking after her means protecting her from sexual assault, and reassuring Britney shortly after her sexual assault of the essential goodness of humanity. One might not think that this would work, or even be a compelling bit of writing, but fortunately, Britney is always written much as other authors might write mentally disabled children.
“There’s goodness here too.
“Where is it?”
“In all the abiding virtues. Love, bravery, patience, honesty, justice, generosity, kindness. Beauty too. Mostly love.”
“I’m afraid sometimes that we drove all those things out of existence.”
“No, we carry them in our hearts. They’re always with us.”
Welcome to the post-apocalyptic Hallmark Card. Fortunately, most of the book is considerably better written than this.
The good thing (for the characters) is that the women apparently don’t *want* anything more than this – they just want to know that goodness and bravery and love are somewhere, residing in the good, brave, loving men who they cook for. And having heard that, they can go back to making pie and getting naked – because they show no interest in the events of the town, in the struggles for political power or social power.
It isn’t just that feminism has disappeared, it is that women as people have disappeared, and they are more deeply immured in their homes than the angel in the house ever was. Even under the Taliban, women had secret lives and showed signs of resistance to their complete disempowering – these women just aren’t interested enough to resist or act. They may have been raised in a reasonably equitable society, but the disaster has stripped them down literally, and all they want now is sex with the middle aged narrator, protection, sex with the middle aged narrator, to cook, and to have sex with the middle aged narrator.
The thing is, novels are novels – they are speculative, and it isn’t necessary that they perfectly represent the world. While I disagree at times with Kunstler’s vision, I respect his right to have it. And the novel is essentially a piece of genre fiction – a western overlaid neatly on an upstate New York futurism. From the riders galloping into Albany to root out corruption to the return home to root out corruption there, Kunstler has lifted a genre that historically treats its females a plot functions – there to get raped so that our heroes can go shoot the bad guys, there to serve up pie and remind us all of what we’re fightin’ for, there to get naked and remind us of the rewards of fightin’.
What’s a disappointing is that Kunstler clearly could give us more than that – but he’s clearly not interested enough in the women in his story to bother. And since he’s not interested enough, I find it interesting that he’s bothered to mount a defense of them now. Whenever authors start telling you how real and complex their characters are, they almost certainly aren’t. And it is weaker novel because of it – frankly, Kunstler, perhaps because his lack of engagement with many of his characters, fails to engage many of his readers. That these readers he misses are disproportionately female simply makes sense – it isn’t that women can’t identify with male characters, or don’t experience pleasure reading about them, but there is simply a dearth of people to identify with.
Ultimately, I think what’s perhaps most fantastic and speculative about the book may also be its weakest point. As many writers point out, and I’ve discussed here: http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2008/01/is-it-really-tough-to-be-guy-in-hard.html, historically when society collapse middle aged men have had the hardest time dealing with the complete reinvention of their world. Stories from the Depression are rife with men who left to ride the rails or simply to get away from responsibilities they could no longer live up to. Dmitry Orlov observes the same thing about Russian men during the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Kunstler turns this historical convention entirely on its ear – the only functional beings are middle aged men. The young men are bleak and angry, and without initiative, if they aren’t actually dead or missing. The women are dead from the neck up. All of the powers in the society are older men, who have expanded and consolidated their leadership positions – Brother Jobe, Stephen Bullock and the narrator. The only ones who are able to survive and go forward in the new world are the old, mature powers. This is both radical and unlikely.
It is hard not to see some of this as a wish-fulfillment fantasy. But I also see it as something else – the recognition that peak oil is going to call into question our present gender roles. I’m reminded here of a study I once saw (and can’t locate to cite) that suggested that children in homes where gender roles were not strongly differentiated were more attracted to things like Barbie dolls and GI Joe than kids who live in families with strong traditional gender roles. The reason suggested was that kids at some point need to figure out what it means to be male or female, and that in the absence of some real definition of their gender identity, they go looking for what the culture has to offer. The results of the study didn’t suggest it was better to have strong gender roles – just that it is a normal part of development to try and figure out what it means to be male or female.
And in a sense, Kunstler’s Western, I think operates mostly as a strong assertion that masculinity, post peak, like everything else, is going retro, and that maleness is going to be something important. And its need to assert this seems something like the needs of those children to find some extreme to explain what it means to be a girl or a boy. That is, when his character says that having someone to take care of has made all the difference, he is telling the truth – that this book is in part about finding a way for older men to live in the future as men, a future they are unlikely to navigate easily. It is easy to mock, to say, “Go back with me boys, the women are young, nubile and always in shape, the food is hearty, there are guns and horses and the lines of power are always clear.” And that is part of the truth.
Another part of it is this – adapting to a radically changed world is going to involve people finding a way of understanding that world . Taking away people’s maps of the world means giving them new ones. Obvious, accessible maps with large print are good, particularly for those already in reading glasses. That is, the more that we can say “the future will be like these familiar fantasies you like” the easier it is for some people to imagine going forward. It is tough, however, on those who don’t usually imagine themselves as the guy with the gun on the horse.
I think the biggest limitation to Kunstler’s imagination, which generally is a potent and powerful force, is that his answer is always that we should use old maps, perhaps perfected a little. Thus, Kunstler has a hard time envisioning a world that is a hybrid, with people simultaneously shaped by the high energy past and alive to the low energy reality. Instead, Kunstler just erases from his world not just women’s power, or the effects of feminism’s changes on the culture, but women entirely, creating a bare world of men in middle age, working through their losses without the pesky intrusions of real female characters or younger men to press against them, adapt better, push their limits.
And perhaps that’s what it would take to fully integrate the older men to the newer world.