Thursday, March 05, 2009

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Prodigal Summer is set in southern Appalachia and, in fine southern tradition, the setting is highly significant. One character even describes it as ‘another man in her life’. Thus, it is beautifully and faithfully recreated. The action takes place over a single summer, following the travails of a group of people who are interconnected in ways that are gradually revealed as the novel progresses. There is Deanna, a fiercely independent woman in her forties who lives alone in the mountains and works as a mountain ranger, and whose mission, in particular is to preserve the coyotes who have made their home there. Her solitary existence is shattered by the arrival of Eddie Bondo, a hunter who, it transpires, is seeking to kill the very coyotes she aims to protect. Then there is Lusa, a city-girl who marries into a country family, only for her husband to be killed, leaving her to cope with a sprawling farm and hostile in-laws. Finally, there are Nannie Rawley and Garnett, aged neighbours whose constant feuding derives from love and hate in equal measure. Each of the three stories is told in its own thread, and as the summer unfolds so do matters of love and life and death and heredity and, most of all, of belonging.

Although this is a fine novel, I have two particular issues with it. Firstly, it is all, in the end, just a bit too cozy, too comfortable. It becomes, like the work of a beginner writer who shies away from the genuinely dramatic scene because it is too difficult to write, an exercise in taking the easy options. Everything is resolved nicely. Bad Eddie Bondo finally agrees with Deanna and leaves the coyotes alone. The family come round to accepting Lusa as a wonderful, fragrant, delicious human being; Little Rickie takes his sexual rebuff with an equanimity unknown in any seventeen-year-old of my acquaintance; Nannie and Garnett end up in the embrace we always knew they would. Basically, it is safe, bloodless.

Barbara Kingsolver is sometimes written about as coming from the southern tradition, but Flannery O’Connor would have probably hated this novel. She would have seen it as sentimental and excessively tender, well-meaning but shallow. Her view of life was harsh in the extreme. She once wrote: ‘To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.’ She amplified this on another occasion, stating:

When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness [ie faith], its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and the fumes of the gas chamber.

While not necessarily accepting her view on the source of tenderness (or love, or human devotion), one has to acknowledge that O’Connor was an astute observer of human nature, and she knew enough to realise that the pastoral view of existence is spurious because we are not, and never have been, nor ever will be, noble savages. Thus, having had the presumption to ascribe to O’Connor, forty-six years dead, an opinion on this novel from 2000, I will now compound that by saying, on this occasion, I agree with her invented opinion entirely. I dislike O’Connor’s world and the two-dimensional characters she invents in order to convey her message, but those of Barbara Kingsolver are, in the end, equally cartoonish. The author is trying to say important things about the nature of being, what it is to love and to belong, and to exist in a world divided into predators and prey. That is to say, then, it is an analysis of what it is to be human in a Darwinian world. Yet the world she creates here is not Darwinian; it is sanitised, nature bearing a velvet glove rather than red in tooth and claw. I’m not calling for characters to blind themselves like O’Connor’s Hazel Motes or undergo anal rape in the name of Jesus like her Tarwater, but nonetheless I would find Kingsolver’s a more credible universe if at least somebody suffered. Even Jewel, the sister who has terminal cancer, has the good grace not to die on the page.

And my second complaint it that it is badly infested by what might be described as Coetzee-how-clever-I-am-itis, that Tourette’s-like urge to invest some wider symbolism in a novel by constant repetitions of the same basic themes. In this novel, these elaborations follow the narrative threads for the three main character lines, helpfully pointed up as Moth Love, Predators and Old Chestnuts. We are forever drawn out of the narrative for lessons in biology and in the flora and fauna of the Appalachians, for musings on the balance between predator and prey and the Darwinian progress of life on Earth. Characters give lectures and things happen to them which are immediately understandable on both a literal and symbolic level. This is all done in that arch way of modern literature where little episodes stand symbolic of grand themes.

The Moth Love segments, for example, feature a character who is an expert in moths and contain constant references to pheromones and the odour of attraction, both animal and human; Predators takes as its keystone the delicate balance between hunted and hunter and there is therefore a chase-like relationship between the two characters; and Old Chestnuts, by far the most interesting of the threads, uses the idea of a man trying to resurrect the indigenous American chestnut, which has been all but wiped out by pests, and in so doing the story relates to ageing and the past and its inter-relationship with the future – just as the characters in this thread do.

All of this could just about work if there were only one thread and one set of metaphorical tales to relate to it, but with three of them at play it feels as though on every other page there is a reference which the reader is expected to spot and say, ‘Aha! I understand! That’s very important!’

In the end, it all feels intrusive. It is the author saying, ‘look at me, aren’t I clever, the way I’m weaving all these narratives into a coherent thematic framework?’ This is an obsession in contemporary literature, this clever-clever splicing of narrative and theme, as though plot exists only to explicate theme and theme cannot survive without plot. There is, indeed, a symbiosis betweeen the two, but it is taken to such extremes in this kind of Coetzeean writing that it becomes overpowering and, in the end, that is all the reader sees: a clever writer weaving intricate patterns. It’s the literary equivalent of macrame.

The disappointment here is that it is not even necessary. Prodigal Summer is a fine story, very well told, and it doesn’t need all this conscious fabrication. It becomes fussy, over-elaborate, stifling. The stories of Deanna, Lusa, Nannie and Garnett do not need it. I would much rather have read their stories than Barbara Kingsolver’s attempt to ‘write a novel’. Less artifice, less preaching, more heart.

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