World Made by Hand / James Howard Kunstler
New York : Atlantic Monthly Press, c2008.
I've just finished this dystopian novel, one based in a near future US when the end of oil, climate change, global pandemics, and -- can't forget-- nuclear bombs dropped on L.A. and Washington D.C. have all combined to end Civilization As We Know It. I liked the idea of this, I liked the writing style, and the first few pages drew me in. Sadly, though, it did not live up to its promise. I have to state right now that I am VERY much in the minority in my view of this book. It has received tons of fantastic reviews from all sorts of newspapers and from other writers, and the author, well-known for his non-fiction in the area of urban planning/oil supply/disaster forecasting, has a really professional and well-designed website full of fascinating information. As I have not read anything else by this author and was quite unaware of him beforehand, I can only judge this book independently as a work of fiction. And in that respect, I found it lacking.
The story begins with a stranger coming to town, a religious man who is bringing a whole settlement with him, drawing down the suspicions of the townspeople. After Brother Jobe and his followers settle into the old town high school, we meet another resident, Stephen Bullock, who has successfully turned his land into a working estate, complete with tenant farmers. Bullock sends our main character Robert Earle (with travelling companions) downriver to find a missing boat crew, thus showing us the corruption of what remains of the cities. The rest of the book then focuses on the interaction between all these characters and a group of rednecks who live up at the old town dump, excavating it for useful material and selling it at extortionate prices. All these tribes, fighting it out amongst themselves...
Robert is a former software marketing whiz turned carpenter. It astonished me how many practical skills all the white-collar men had to fall back on after the disaster -- and I do mean "men". This book is utterly and completely patriarchal. He says quite frankly on p. 101:
All the trustees were men, no women and no plain laborers. As the world changed, we reverted to social divisions that we'd thought were obsolete. The egalitarian pretenses of the high-octane decades had dissolved and nobody even debated it anymore, including the women of our town.I'm afraid I didn't buy this idea for a minute. The novel is full of these kind of patronizing references to women in their survivalist world:
p. 17: At forty-seven, Jane Ann was still [emphasis mine] a beautiful woman, with deep breasts, a slim waist, and a small behind.
p. 309: The trout liked the pool there at the junction of the two streams... It energized them and they fed more. I was impressed to discover that she knew this... I clapped my hands in appreciation. Hearing that, she finally turned around. What a sight she was in a wet cotton dress.
And a particularly egregious example can be seen in the character of Britney, a young woman with a daughter, whose husband has been killed. She quickly moves in with Robert (who is older than her father) because she feels 'safer when he is there'; she crawls into his bed, leaps on top of him and then says "You have a family now". She never seems to leave the house, rather staying home and cooking enormous meals every day, doing laundry and acting either very babyish or as if she is not quite all there. When Robert is out and about doing his manly activities as mayor, he returns home to find her sitting in bed saying submissively, "I thought you weren't coming back. I thought it was something I did". Aaargh!
Because of these attitudes, I had difficulty placing the year this was supposed to be set in. Although in tone and vision the story relied very heavily on Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, (I could almost hear Frank beneath this text) it also implies it is very current. One of the characters says with nostalgia, "Oh, you should have known the 60's", suggesting perhaps that our adult main character did not. Robert states that when the bombs hit, they started losing tv, radio and Internet, yet other references seem to place it closer to the early 80's. He also says that when the second bomb hit DC just before Christmas, people began referring to it as 12/21. The timeline was confusing and distracted me from the story. But perhaps that wasn't such a bad thing, as a story which began with such potential turned into a manly solve-everything-by-shooting-someone, violent, distasteful, classist and sexist book. Not only do the men in Union Grove rule everything, they are also all white, although the author does throw us a bone in the last chapters by revealing that Robert is actually Jewish.
Still, the writing itself was quite competent, and the details of survival, as always, fascinated me. However, I balked at accepting his vision as either plausible or meaningful. If I want a story about a capitalist patriarchy struggling to maintain itself after nuclear war, I'll just go back to the classic Alas, Babylon. Recommended only for dystopian diehards.