Not as Nice as You Think
On Barbara Kingsolver and the problems of socially responsible novels.
In this preoccupation with the function of fiction, Kingsolver finds herself some interesting bedfellows. The question of what we want fiction to do, if it’s the head, the heart, or some blended soup of both, that makes it important, preoccupies the “serious” novelists too. “Sick of sound of own voice. Sick of trying to make own voice appear on that white screen. Sick of trying to pretend, for sake of agent and family, that idea of putting words on blank page feels important,” Zadie Smith wrote, in her reply—and quasi-capitulation—to James Wood’s famous charge that she and other postmodern novelists were “hysterical realists.” Wood himself had complained that the excessive incorporation of what he called “social reality” led to novels that dated quickly, and moreover “that know a thousand things but do not know a single human being.”
Which is funny, because if there is one thing Flight Behavior knows well, it’s people. That comes from Kingsolver’s frankly exceptional skill at rendering the smaller human dramas that result from the big, societal themes she’s embracing. That becomes clear in Flight Behavior’s final third, where less is left to say about butterflies than about what their end means for the characters she’s set afloat watching them. There are remarkable moments of moral clarity in there, as when Dellarobia tests the camaraderie of Ovid’s beautiful, cosmopolitan folklorist of a wife:
“Well, yeah,” Juliet said, “that’s kind of the point, that outsiders won’t get it.” She looked at Dellarobia, moving her head slightly from side to side in some secret girl signal, as if they were in league. Dellarobia felt herself resisting the invitation. Juliet went to yard sales for entertainment. She’d seen the coral reefs. Which according to Ovid were bleaching out and dying fast, all over the world. Preston would never get to see one. Dellarobia felt like taking a tire iron to something, ideally not now, ideally not herself. She got up to clear the plates.
Author Barbara Kingsolver
Photo by David Wood
In that paragraph so many things are going on. There’s the way class can curb not just your aspirations, but your geography, in a literal and even irrevocable way. There’s a lover’s jealousy of a rival. There’s a failed appeal to the sisterhood. And finally, a resignation that there’s nothing to be done but clear the table. Every time I came across a moment like this, in this book, I kept hoping that Kingsolver would stay with it, but we were soon back out in the woods again, trudging through snow-covered everything. I wanted her to go back indoors.
Put that desire back in the context of debates over so-called “women’s fiction,” and I sound like a hypocrite, I know. But my point isn’t that the Kingsolvers of the universe “belong in the kitchen”; it’s that they have a remarkable ability to open small, emotional, personal issues up to other levels of the world. We can all agree that such a maneuver requires techniques more subtle than stapling three pages of explanation and heavy-handed allegory into a manuscript, but it does not make it either impossible, nor something only the Greats are capable of.
Kingsolver, after all, shares her problem with no less than Jonathan Franzen, the “Great American Novelist” himself. Freedom suffered from the author’s tendency to tighten his collar and sermonize about cerulean warblers and the ills of the Internet. (In fact those passages tended to be counterproductive, in that they revealed Franzen’s ignorance on the latter score, with references to “hot-linking,” etc.) The best work in Freedom was in the long “autobiography” of Patty Berglund, where Franzen dropped the teacher act and went for the gullet. It suggested that the novelist saw himself oscillating between two poles, the personal and the social, rather than finding a way to connect them.
For its faults, The Poisonwood Bible showed that Kingsolver had less of a binary conception of world and book. Far better than in Flight Behavior, she wove rather than yoked her themes together. Sure, characters launched into disquisitions on the history of the Congo at the drop of a hat. But the dramatics were put to better service, perhaps because they were autobiographical; she has said that the novel, about a family of unprepared missionaries, was inspired by her own childhood experiences as an expatriate in Africa. But the ravages of colonialism are more carefully threaded into the Prices’ lives than climate change is into Dellarobia’s.
No less than Sherman Alexie has labeled Kingsolver’s work “colonial literature,” not least because she has written at length about Native Americans. He apparently made that pronouncement without reading her books, but in any event I think he is not wrong. He was merely pointing out that the act of writing, of telling a story, is in itself political, a stance with which Kingsolver obviously agrees. The critic Lee Siegel once railed against her, in the New Republic, accusing her of “Nice Writing,” of always advancing inarguable politics by concentrating on the sufferings of the marginalized. Though Flight Behavior might not convince him otherwise, it does show that Kingsolver, like her Dellarobia, understands that it’s more complicated than “sufferings” of the “marginalized.” There is sharpness there too, if you bother to look. By the end of the novel, the redemption, however cheaply bought, only comes by halves.
Correction, Nov. 3, 2012: This article originally misspelled the first name of Flight Behavior's protagonist.
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. Harper.
Michelle Dean is a writer and recovering lawyer in New York.