…and I like it!
James Howard Kunstler may be best known for his social commentary in such books as The Long Emergency (2006), and, my enduring favorite, The Geography of Nowhere (1994). However, he evidently remains at heart a novelist, or as he puts it in interviews “a prose stylist”. He has devoted his last two book-length efforts to exploring, in novel form, the consequences of the “Long Emergency”, an series of apocalyptic events and shortages he envisions for America, focusing on one small town in the real Washington County of Upstate New York. Although all his books are filled with humor (sometimes overlooked by professional reviewer), this turn away from nonfiction towards speculative fiction would probably be viewed as an unexpected departure for most writers on urban theory and resource economics/politics. But it should not come as such a surprise to his long-time readers. Not only did Kunstler find his original calling as a
fiction writer* (though more as a satirist of contemporary mores than a speculator about the future), but attentive readers of his earlier books, even those who only have read his nonfiction books of the last two decades, would recognize a commonality: cultural and (in the broadest sense) spiritual concerns underly his critique of society and its resource issues, not the other way around. In other words, Kunstler, in his original journey from novelist to the “political” writer of The Long Emergency and his popular blog, was originally motivated by his observations of dysfunction in American social structure and his deep-held belief in the spiritual impoverishment of American life. In searching for the causes of this impoverishment, he was first led to look at the way Westerners, and particularly Americans, have degraded public space (The Geoegraphy of Nowhere, 1994). Next, in searching for and proposing solutions (Home from Nowhere, 1998, and The City in Mind, 2002) he was led to consider what future arrangements people might make in urban living, particularly fixing his attention on the New Urbanist movement. Finally, at some point in the research and thinking for these books, it seems that he was led to believe that resource scarcity and societal collapse would overwhelm the best laid plans, and that more primal forces such as basic concerns for survival would ultimately determine the future of American living arrangements, rather than well-intentioned movements such as the New Urbanists.
These “World Made by Hand” novels, of which The Witch of Hebron (just published, 2009), is the second of a proposed quartet, are therefore, not a departure for Kunstler, but a return to his basic concern with the spiritual quality of life. In some respects, the first novel, The World Made by Hand (2009), was caught in between its need for exposition, setting forth the nuts-and-bolts of how the characters of Union Grove got into their predicament and pre-modern state, and the need to tell an engaging story that hooked readers (many of whom only knew Kunstler from his preceding nonfiction) and initiated them into the series. As a consequence of this, and also perhaps because Kunstler himself, being somewhat rusty from fiction writing, seemed to have some difficulty making believable and natural sounding dialogue to fit the unfamiliar post-Apocalyptic situations, this first book came off as a bit labored and stilted, and its more spiritual sections, such as the visit with the “Queen Bee” of the New Faithers in Chapter 55, and the supernatural killing of the villain Wayne Karp in Chapter 62, seemed a bit like curious sideshows leading nowhere in particular. With the second installment, The Witch, Kunstler has not only overcome any lingering problems with dialogue and storytelling, but has settled upon the spiritual life of the Union Grovers as his main theme. Far less hobbled by the need for exposition and explanation of the “back-story”, the “adventure” chapters of the story read more smoothly as a “ripping good yarn”. Not that Kunstler doesn’t continue to lavish detail upon detail in his description of the neo-primitive lives of the imagined future residents of Washington County, particularly, of their cuisine, but he does it, as he explains it himself, mostly to establish an tactile and emotional connection with the reader.
While reading The World Made by Hand the first time, when it came out, I imagined that my eventual reviews of the series would mostly focus on the plausibility of the imagined scenario for a future America that is laid out in the books. Now that I have read The Witch and gone back and reread the first installment with a more considered attitude, I see that engaging in such quibbling would just be missing the point. The novels should command our attention not so much as a “prediction of the future” than a “thought experiment” wherein Kunstler imagines how a society would be rebuilt along lines perhaps less dazzlingly complex and varied as our own, but more spiritually satisfying for those who live in it. What precisely does this mean? I guess you’ll have to read the books to find out, and I highly recommend that.
At the moment, though, I have to go out to hear Kunstler himself give his “book tour” talk (which has reached my city this evening), and find out if any of my speculations about his purposes in writing these books are borne out by what he says.
UPDATE 10PM : I’m back from the book reading. It was mostly pretty much as you’d expect. Kunstler at this stage is more into reading/acting out scenes from his latest book than talking about the Long Emergency. And who wouldn’t be? I don’t blame him, because America is not listening to his message or the environmental “movement” more generally, except in a kind of “it’s the thought that counts” manner. Plus, perhaps more so than being a “spiritualist” at heart, he’s really at root a theatre person (and even less than a spiritualist is he really a technical theorist or historian in the vein of Mumford or Jane Jacobs). That’s why I crossed out and “starred” my assertion that he got his start as a fiction writer: he really got his start as a theatre person, a story he has lavishly told in his memoirs. And theatre and the theatrical thrive on, well, the mysterious and otherwordly.
I think that’s really the heart of the current book series: Kunstler mourns the diminishment of the mysterious otherworldy, and potentially supernatural (though not overtly supernatural–think seers rather than people who make the sun stand still), in our technocratic society. It is the return of these things to their “rightful place” that he really celebrates in his World Made by Hand. In fact, he said as much, in what was probably the most candid and profound moment of the evening: that characters such as brother Jobe and Mary Beth Ivanhoe are introduced into the series, despite the fact that they may cause discomfort to some of his more “rational” readers, to drive home that the loss of modernity and return to primitiveness, entails the loss of the enlightenment and its worldview. Unlike so many others, he just happens to see, and celebrate the “positive” side of the coin in that. That is one of the things that makes his recent fiction so much more compelling than most other post-apocalyptic writings, and raises it to a higher literary level, as well, in my opinion.del.icio.us |Digg it |ma.gnolia |StumbleUpon |