Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Review of World Made By Hand

I finished James Kunstler's latest novel, World Made by Hand, a few weeks ago and have been meaning to post about it for some time now. (By the way, Jenny, it's headed your way soon because I'm sure you have about as much time on your hands to read it as I did.)

It wasn't a fabulous book. It wasn't a very well-written book. It wasn't a very compelling book either character or plot wise. What it was ... was a kind of neurosis feeding train wreck, like I can't stop reading because I have some bizarre fascination with how this person imagines the end of the world as we know it. That morbid fascination, combined with a kind of residual school-assignment compulsion to read it because of what it represents for this historical moment got me through the entire novel in about a month. Kunstler should be praised for his short chapters, though, because it made it nice and easy to pick up and put down with short snippets of time... in large part because reading more than one chapter at a time was downright torturous.

One of the first things students are taught in literature classes is not to equate the narrator with the author of a story. Unless of course, the novel is a roman a clef, or story with a key to its autobiographical nature. Is World Made by Hand autobiographical? Of course not, but the aging protagonist who turns out to be Jewish in almost an after-thought kind of way in the novel's bizarre religious twist ending and who seems to be the most fuckable guy in town does tend to lead one to the conclusion that Kunstler enjoys fantasizing about himself in different apocalyptic scenarios. The unfortunate part of all this is that he lets us in on those fantasies.

World Made by Hand is a pedantic novel, a kind of Pilgrim's Progress of the peak oil era. And like many novels whose primary purpose is to teach a lesson, the prose is stilted, the characters cardboard, and the conclusion is downright ludicrous. Kunstler takes pains to paint his protagonist, Robert Earle, as a kind of moral golden boy, a reluctant messiah aided by the newly arrived Brother Jobe and his New Faith congregation. Kunstler's world made by hand moves in mysterious ways, and the supernatural twist the New Faithers represent reads as a cheap theatrical ending. Kunstler plunks down his deus ex machina in the middle of a small town New York high school turned cult compound in the form of a "queen bee," an immense woman fond of tea cakes, prone to seizures, and with a penchant for yellow satin mu-mus. Queen bee dribbles spit up food and pours forth a prophecy, declaring Robert "the chosen one":
I'm annointing you, son, on behalf of you know who. Don't be thick. Take the responsibility, or be goddamned.

Indeed, Robert is chosen by nearly every female character in the novel, not just queen bee, including his best friend's wife, a newly widowed mother young enough to be his daughter, and a New Faith floozy who tries to seduce him at a hoe down at Brother Jobe's suggestion.

Although Robert, unlike his best friend, is able to consummate his relationships, he remains oddly impotent throughout the book. He is curiously unable to act in any of the crucial moments of the book, passively allowing events to play out around him and push him into reaction. Indeed, the New Faithers and the plantation owner, Stephen Bullock, are the primary movers of the novel, and it's only through their energy and input that Robert accomplishes anything at all. Ultimately, queen bee's vengeful justice enacted through Brother Jobe is what provides closure for the novel's overarching plot line.

The novel fails, too, on the level of either a how-to book for surviving in a post-peak world or as a chronicle of the peak collapse. The details for either are left so vague as to offer little useful information though one definite take-away message is to save your marijuana seeds if you have any. I imagine there are some folks out there who might find that comforting....


*Editing to add that Sharon Astyk over at Casaubon's Book is hosting a post-apocalyptic book club if that's your cup of tea: reading list. Me, I'll stick on the bright and shiny side of life.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting to have your review.
What i had heard was the major take-away was "learn a trade".

i found his 'The Long Emergency' hard to get through... so i wasn't even sure i wanted to even try to start this one.

imo, it's easy (too easy) to slide into that *getting older" pov, where you see the changing world as *getting worse*... not getting better, or even just different.

i think it's important to keep our pov framed with a positive *energy*... and get excited about what's coming. Even if life might be more difficult... well, it's also more challenging, and gives us more opportunity to connect with each other for support.

---hope to see you some day soon, linda :)

ps... i know we're having plenty of rain this year...
But, about rain barrels...
i saw someone from this company,
http://www.hydro-logix.com/firm.html, do a wonderful presentation about rainwater (and other kinds of water) harvesting. He was very knowledgeable, and well researched. i think you would enjoy checking out his website/systems...
:)

Christy said...

Wow, I can't believe you finished it. I returned it to the library after only 6 chapters. It was just so poorly written and skipped the part I was most interested in which was right after the collapse. I would recommend Dies The Fire, I enjoyed that book and it covered the first year after a disaster that ended life as we know it.

Danielle said...

linda, interestingly enough, Kunstler has a pretty positive spin on the apocalypse, although it is definitely a nostalgic harkening back view. There was just such a lack of character development that I found the novel very difficult to get through. Then to be blindsided by the crazy religious twist at the end was just too much.

Thing is, I did enjoy The Long Emergency. I found it an interesting and compelling read even when I didn't always agree with his theories and conclusions. His fiction just isn't nearly as complex or nuanced or as well-thought out as his non-fiction.

Christy, thanks for the recommendation. I'm not sure I really want to get into the apocalypse genre right now. I read this in large part because Kunstler wrote it, and it was given to me as a gift. Personally, I don't do well dwelling in the apocalyptic what ifs. I do better being positive, proactive, and grounded in the current moment.

Jenny said...

Yikes, sounds like he needs to stick to non-fiction. I too enjoyed The Long Emergency--well not the subject matter so much but the actual discussion of it was intelligent and thorough. I also enjoy his essays and his website.

Interesting....

The Purloined Letter said...

Excellent review. I read it on an airplane this spring and when we finally landed, I felt this odd sense of having been in two diametrically-opposed worlds at once. I have such a love-hate relationship with Kunstler...

Polar Bear and The Dodger said...

hey, I was wondering what your design for an outdoor shower was? We are looking to make a solar one and have been playing around with different ideas. thanks!

el said...

Thanks for the review. I've read (and I mean that term loosely) his book about suburbia as it is a professional interest of mine (urban design) and I thought he was a blowhard then. Luckily, I got the book in a secondhand shop. I was surprised then when he started putting all these other peak oil books together, as obviously he's on a tear, but...here's my point in saying any of this. Why is it that the putative heads of movements (self-appointed in the main) such incredible jerks? And when are we going to find a peak oil person who is believable without resorting to cant?

The eat-local, eat-better movement has three great spokesfolks in Kingsolver, Pollan and Mark Bittman (the NYTimes Minimalist column). None of these three really comes across, at least to me, as ridiculous. Kuntsler, though, just sounds like a egoist, and a gasbag to boot.

Danielle said...

Hannah, I agree—the love/ hate thing, that is. Kunstler says some things that need saying, and I admire his iconoclasm from that standpoint. But in the end, he really comes across as a shock-jock, a Howard Stern character.

El, I think Richard Heinberg seems to be a pretty intelligent spokesperson. I haven't read his books, but I've read some online stuff and seen talks and interviews, and he seems like a really decent guy. I'd like to read some of his stuff, but unfortunately, our library system doesn't have any. I'm going to need to do an interlibrary loan, which is kinda like pulling teeth out here.

Polar Bear, it's still in the design stages, but I'll definitely post about it once it's up. It'll be pretty low tech: pretty much just some black hose, maybe a water barrel painted black, and a hose splitter.

Verde said...

Ha Ha! Now I don't have to read the book. Thanks for the review

el said...

Thanks, D, for the recommendation. I have read an essay or two of his and you are right he's not so dire/smug. I saw you posted Sharon's bookclub too. I took her off my blogroll because she's so depressing to read! That, and she needs an editor so badly it makes my head spin. But I will say the girl does a good job of waking people up to things.

Wendy said...

I was going to read this book, and I'm waffling, still. It's like one of those movies that Ebert and Roper review - there's always that desire to see for oneself.

However, this is the second review by a literate person who said 1) it was poorly written; and 2) it lacked any real character development. So, I'll probably skip it.

I did enjoy The Long Emergency. I guess Kunstler would be well-advised to stick with the facts ;).

Ren said...

I'm really grateful for this review because I was really wondering about it.
I read the description and was NOT drawn in or interested at all. I think because it was fiction mainly and I was hoping for more insight about a post-peak oil world. Not that anyone really knows how to predict at this point.

I appreciate the detailed info. I definitely have no desire to spend my money on it...I'll put it towards something useful like a grain mill perhaps.:)

Ethan said...

Amen, brother. That's pretty much exactly how I felt about it. I was glued to it, though, as it was both an assignment to read and kinda a guilty pleasure too.