Thursday, August 23, 2012

Book Review: World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler

My lovely wife brought me the audiobook of World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler, so we could listen to it together on our way to my 10 year high school reunion. And I have to think back that far to remember I book as terrible as World Made by Hand.

I love post-apocalyptic literature, from the deathly serious, like Lord of the Flies, to anything as glib as Slapstick. I think that this kind of science-fiction gives us the chance to see humanity reduced to its roots. In the same way that Hemingway strove to boil things down, to write "one true sentence," the post-apocalyptic world brings the true things into focus.

There are two common mistakes.

The first kind of mistake is what I call the Rabbit Hole Mistake. The author imagines a world so vast, so complex, so different from our own that describing that world takes all of the air out of the book. Tolkien didn't make that mistake in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, but if you've ever tried to read any of his notes, The Silmarillion, or the unpublished tales, you quickly understand that you've gone too far down the rabbit hole.

The second mistake (I think, the worse mistake) and the mistake of World Made by Hand is the Tract Mistake. You'd know a tract if you saw one. The Bible thumpers hand them out on street corners. At restaurants where I've worked, the after church brunch crowd would always leave them on the table, often wrapped in (or in lieu of) my tip.

A tract is poorly written, littered with straw men and false corollaries, and exists only to foist the author's belief upon us. A tract novel exists in a limbo, marketed to adults, but written with all the grace and subtlety of a children's chapter book (which is to say, none of the grace or subtlety that makes writing interesting to me).

Kunstler believes that the United States is hurtling towards the end of the world's oil supply. In World Made by Hand, America loses the war for the last oil, and nuclear bombs destroy Los Angeles and Washington DC. Somehow, in his telling, America has the resources for war, the world sees the end coming, but instead of dumping billions of dollars into solar, hydro and wind power, our leaders (and all of us) step happily off the ledge. But don't think too much about how we got here.

Kunstler presents us with a Marty Stu, a protagonist who is such the predictable leader that it's stomach churning. He is so faceless, so without definition, that I can't remember his name without looking it up; ah yes, Robert. A former IT executive who finds he's really a master carpenter once the lights go out, whose logic and love for the community make him its moral pillar (so much so that he's thrust into the role of mayor for no reason other than that there are no "real" men around to take the lead), who finds women throwing themselves on his bed (seriously, when we start the book he's boning the preacher's wife, and by the end he's scooped up the only available hotty in the county despite a 20 year age difference).

Where Kunstler really gets me is in his social assumptions.

On gender roles: there are no women on the town council, and the ladies are fine with that. We've gone back to the old gender roles once there's no more oil, and that's okey-dokie. Also, there's no mention of any homosexuality. Maybe all those gays died off in one of the flu epidemics that washed through.

On race relations: there's racial strife in Philadelphia and New York and all them scary big cities. Thankfully, there are no black folks in Upstate New York. There used to be a family or two, but they all moved away while Robert wasn't paying attention.

On people's ability to help each other: nobody has really thought about banding together because we're all just so, so solipsistic.

I spent the first half of the book trying to figure out what Kunstler's religious angle was. There's a lot of religion in this book, and all of it looks bad: the local preacher is sexually impotent, so he's given his tacit approval to Robert sleeping with his wife, keeping her happy while he keeps up the pretenses of normalcy for the head family of the local church; the book starts when a religious colony moves in, they're militaristic and intimidating at first but their leader comes off like a con-man, so you know (through the protagonist) not to trust them. And then in the second half of the book, shit gets weird- there's a bloated, sweets eating seer, and Brother Job obtains the power of teleportation cause he might be an angel.

While listening to the audiobook, it took us a while to figure out what was so annoying about the conversation. First, there was very little authentic dialogue: everyone speaks in complete sentences, with little to no profanity (except from the villains- oh, and there are villains). Second, every sentence of dialogue ends with "Robert said" or "Brother Job said." Every one. In case, you know, we're not strong enough readers to keep track of two people speaking in turns.

But on the bright side, at least I got to meet Robert, the everyman who's a little too perfect. I like to imagine he's out there now, toiling away to make the world after oil a more livable place, now that he's stepped out of his grief and taken up his rightful place as a leader of (only white, heterosexual, god-fearing) men.

Book 31 of my book-a-week challenge.

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