Not as Nice as You Think
On Barbara Kingsolver and the problems of socially responsible novels.
Illustration by Noah Van Sciver
Mention Barbara Kingsolver, and the first reference my mind coughs up is not the experience of reading any of her books, including her latest novel, Flight Behavior. In the third season of The Sopranos, Carmela Soprano visits her daughter Meadow at college. The two aren’t estranged, exactly, but Meadow’s foray into the Ivy League has changed all of her points of reference, and an off-balance Carmela is scrambling to re-establish contact. “I’m reading the new Barbara Kingsolver!” she says, brightly. Cue Meadow, sighing and fighting eye-roll: “I so wish I had time for fiction.”
As always, David Chase’s laser wit cuts in several different directions. That moment is not a manifesto about literature; it’s a comment on a teenager’s pretensions, a mother’s grasping. But his choice of Kingsolver is right on. In addition to being a giant best-seller, Kingsolver is the winner of a National Book Award, the Orange Prize, and the National Humanities Medal, and is a regular on the lists of other prizes and honors. But she is not, typically, viewed as playing on the same field as many of the English-speaking-world’s greatest authors. This is not simply a matter of gender; Kingsolver is rarely even mentioned alongside Zadie Smith, or Alice Munro, or even her likeliest boon companion among today’s “serious” female novelists, Ann Patchett. We could quarrel over whether or not this is a side effect of her acceptance of the scarlet O. But surely we all agree that somewhere, somehow, it’s been decided that Kingsolver belongs to the province of Escape, not Importance. On this one point, we are all Meadow Soprano.
Ideally, I’d like to hit this point of an essay able to tell you that the dismissal of Kingsolver is wrong, wrong, wrong, and that her new book proves it, that it is a new masterpiece of moral fiction for the modern age. The new book isn’t. But Flight Behavior’s failings, and its small successes, are just as connected to this question of writing fiction that matters as any book of Munro’s or Roth’s. Admitting it to the conversation is the key courtesy it demands.
Petty things first: Flight Behavior is the story of a woman named Dellarobia Turnbow. If you’re stumbling over that name, I’ll say that I join you, and also advise you to steel yourself. Other characters in this book have names like Ovid Byron, and there’s a father-and-son set referred to as Bear and Cub, and children have rich-Brooklyn names like Preston and Cordelia. I know nothing of the naming conventions of Southern Appalachia, where the Turnbows make their home, but I do know that these names come across as a distraction in this text. If they are indeed gestures at authenticity, they fail.
It’s not a matter of subjective aesthetic, either. The cutesy names contrast quite starkly with the kind of book Kingsolver wants Flight Behavior to be. She is not writing a chipper, feel-good story about a plucky young woman who saves the world. Her aspirations are subtler than, say, Kathryn Stockett’s. In the opening chapter, she gives Dellarobia a quasi-religious vision, predicated on the arrival of a flock of monarch butterflies in the region. The beauty of that sight belies the sinister fact that the “King Billies,” as one local calls them, are there because climate change has messed with their instincts to migrate south. The miracle is actually a harbinger, and not of another miracle.
So already at the end of the first chapter, we’ve hit a speed bump. There’s no saving those butterflies, we know, from the get-go. The problem with writing a novel about climate change—and Kingsolver is not the first to attempt it—is that the issue is fundamentally abstract. There is very little one person can do to stop the icebergs from melting. That is not to pronounce against everyone doing their part; it’s simply to say that as a dramatic engine, climate change doesn’t have much of heart. It’s all indifferent gears in there.
That leaves Kingsolver with a curious deficit of suspense, and even plot. So she stuffs 400 pages with information about monarchs and their habits, stringing them between tales of the disintegrating marriage between Dellarobia and Cub, and her growing affection for Byron, the scientist who’s come to investigate the phenomenon. There are also interstitial comments on the class biases, and pure economics, that are preventing Dellarobia’s extended family from seeing the crisis before them, and acting accordingly.
What results is unwieldy and, at times, dense. There are, of course, people who enjoy fiction that largely serves to deliver information. The legions of fans of historical fiction, and even to some degree science fiction, attest to that. But the need to devolve so frequently into exposition and description of inert landscapes jars the reader out of a moment. No amount of stylized prose can cover that, though Kingsolver gamely tries. In some cases, she tries a little too hard: “The fir forest when she reached it had its own air as always, dark and still. Within its snow-flocked boughs she began to pick out snow-laced colonnades of butterflies, first a few, then more, as her eyes adjusted to their wintry aspect.” The more Kingsolver trills and fusses in the prose, the more the whole thing starts to sink like a stone.
Some kind of weight is what she’s going for, of course. Kingsolver is the founder of the PEN/Bellwether prize for “socially engaged fiction.” The mere existence of such an award implies Kingsolver’s agreement with a school of thought that argues for less navel-gazing in fiction, for art that actually wants to transform something more than the reader’s self-conception.
Michelle Dean is a writer and recovering lawyer in New York.