Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible" had been recommended to me by a few people whose opinion I trust in such matters as giving myself over to a 649 page work of fiction. (It comes to that in the mass market paperback edition.) But I was wary. So much interesting stuff to read and here I was about to give myself over to a book that had made its way onto the grocery store aisles, siding up alongside the latest fat lip of pulp by Daniel Steel (“The Cottage"), John Grisham (“The Summons") and Stephen King (“Dreamcatcher") to say nothing of the King Sized Snickers and Hubba Bubba. Still, the blurbs on the cover were mollifying. Supportive, cheerleading blurbs from Jane Smiley (“…ambitious, successful, beautiful”), The New York Times (“Editor’s Choice”) and The Nation (…magnificent fiction and a searing indictment”) all helped me to overcome my own supermarket prejudices (where we buy food, not literature) and nudged me over threshold of self-restraint and into the all-important, carefully constructed terrain of the “impulse buy.” I think I bought some lip-balm too.

And still, still I had to contend with Oprah! “The Poisonwood Bible” was one of the most popular choices in her book club. How, I wonder, can I begrudge this billionaire her zeal for turning her denizens onto the pleasures of reading prose fiction? And what a rare treat for many of these anointed authors, to suddenly look up from their cloisters and find themselves with a mass audience. And what an even greater treat for the publisher, hoping against hope for the magic wand of Oprah approval and marketplace synergy. Little books made large, is that so terrible? What kind of jerk was I to feel disdain for the millions patiently making their way through the arduous pages of Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon”, or even to judge the worthiness of numerous other books with never having read them, so sure was I that they’d be infected by the wishy-washy aura of Oprah’s didactics of empowerment?

In his zippy little book, "Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality", Neal Gabler writes about the origins of American mass-produced entertainment, particularly the dime novels that first emerged around 1850 and sold in Michael Jackson “Thriller” like quantities. Glancing through it again, I found a couple passages that seem pertinent to this Oprah conundrum.

“Prior the arrival of mass-produced entertainment, American culture, like European culture, had been the special preserve of the wealthy, the educated, the refined- this country’s own aristocrats, virtually all of them landowners. They assumed the responsibility for determining what qualified as good because they felt they alone were capable of enjoying what one critic has called the ‘highest pleasure, the pleasure of complexity,’ which ‘must be learned.’ “

I wonder if part of what irks me about Oprah and her co-option of the books in her club (after anointing, publishers were quick to print up special “Oprah Editions”) was the depressing fact that millions of (mostly) lower and middle-class American women were sitting at home awaiting their hyper-wealthy leader’s latest consumption orders. What’s more depressing I wonder, millions of people watching other people talk on television or millions of people allowing their cultural agency, if they’re endowed with such a thing at all, to be dictated by the choices of a billionaire entertainer? (And books do take a significant amount of time to read.) Because, look, there on the cover of my copy of “The Poisonwood Bible” is the Oprah insignia of approval, a beacon for her tribe, a guarantee of freshness. The book’s been “Oprahfied.” But ultimately I have to fess up, just like poor Jonathan Franzan, and admit that just because Oprah dribbles dubious platitudes and is fiercely wealthy doesn’t exactly invalidate what she’s done and seems committed to continue doing- leading millions of people who might not otherwise enjoy any more words then those found in the tattered, disconcertedly damp People magazine found in the reception room of their dentist’s office to pick up a book (sometimes very good ones, too) and read. And what might that accomplish? Oh, that’s a big one. Why in the hell do we read? To each their own answer. Nevertheless, given that Oprah insignia on the cover, I haven’t felt this embarrassed to be seen in public with a book since reading Judy Blume’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret" back in elementary school. I feel as though it somehow makes me a member of the Oprah tribe. When I read it on the Bart, I half expected a guffaw and accusing point from some literary hipster lapping up the last 50 pages of Volume III of Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past.

In any case, here’s another lengthy quote from Gabler regarding the cultural aristocrats’s indignant reception or the new popular entertainment in 19th century America.

“Cultural aristocrats sneered, the new popular entertainment was primarily about fun. It was about gratification rather then edification, indulgence rather than transcendence, reaction rather then contemplation, escape from moral instruction rather then submission to it. As one elitist put it, the difference between entertainment and art is the difference between ‘spurious gratification and a genuine experience as a step to greater individual fulfillment.’ …Moreover, while it was a tenet of culture that art demanded effort to appreciated it, specifically intellectual effort, entertainment seemed to make no demands whatsoever, intellectual or otherwise. By contrast, to the extent entertainment enlisted the mind at all, it was only in the service of the senses and emotions; it was passive response rewarded by fun.”

I wanted to quote the above, especially the first half, because I found that for many years I probably would have sided with (or at least felt more sympathetic to) the arguments made by the so-called “cultural aristocrats” in a knee-jerk kind of way. But over the years, especially when it comes to film, I’ve had just as much fun watching so-called high minded works as I’ve been edified and intellectually fulfilled by the so-called crass entertainments of the Hollywood machine. (Granted, some of the intellectual fulfillment comes in pondering the mechanics of how something so dreadful could have been made, but that’s a fascinating subject in and of itself and if a lousy film spurns such questions, then great.) In fact, I wonder if the ultimate work of art doesn’t eschew the polarities of the above divisions and instead seeks to include a combination of both. “If art isn’t entertainment then what is it?” Pauline Kael once asked. “Punishment?”

Kingsolver’s novel is ambitious. In the prefatory “Author’s Note” Kingsolver writes that she “spent nearly thirty years waiting for the wisdom and maturity to write this book.” For the books first two-thirds that wisdom and maturity hold sway. There are over 1000 reviews of this novel at, so it feels oddly redundant to give a plot summary. Alas. The book is about the Price family, led by the fire and brimstone patriarch, Nathan, a evangelical Baptist who, in 1959, has decided to take his wife and four daughters to the Belgian Congo and convert the heathens. Of course it’s not that easy. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold…

The novel is divided into seven chapters with alternating narration provided by the wife/mother, Orleanna and her four young daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May. No Nathan Price, mind you. Kingsolver casually adorns each with their own particularities- certain cadences, compulsions, malapropisms, interests, burdens- just enough spice to give each their individuality. More importantly, I cared about each of the character’s and enjoyed the Rashomon like flux of different perspectives. Kingsolver clearly has great affection for each of these girls, especially the three teenagers (Rachel, and the twins, Leah and Adah) and uses their curiosity, natural angst and sense of dislocation to explore and offer the reader an amusing, oftentimes illuminating account of their peculiar and, as it goes, unfortunate experience. If some of their characteristics overstay their welcome (Rachell’s malapropisms, Adeh’s backwards fethish) it’s a minor irritant at worst. More importantly, she gives each her own particular and peculiar voice- voices that mature and attach themselves to ideals that will come to confront the strange culture they’ve been set down in.

Nathan Price’s mission is in a village called Kilanga which “runs along the Kwilu River as a long row of little mud houses set after-one-the-other beside a lone red snake of dirt road.” Kingsolver has a way with the landscape and it is good. The novel’s first two-thirds resides in this village and we get to know, among other things, many of its inhabitants, its culture, it’s system of governing and other social customs. Kingsolver’s talent here is that this never feels like a history lesson or a commentary on our Shared Humanity and she deftly weaves these elements into her narrative until the novel’s themes of forgiveness, guilt, betrayal, selfishness, sin and democracy gone sour begin to come into focus.

Nathan Price is blinded by missionary zeal. His is a brand of immutable Christianity, of fundamentalist absolutism- where the flexibility of the imagination is frowned on and The Word is immutable. Kingsolver’s contempt for this character is glaring and it’s a weakness. He’s a cliché of less then endearing characteristics. She works too hard to make us dislike him. Examples abound and grow wearisome. Nathan’s theological implacability, his refusal to adopt, dooms the family. His good works are, in fact, harbingers of destruction. The youngest child, Ruth May, dies because of the sins of the father. Nathan represents how good intentions can go awry- how what seems “normal” to us in our own culture can, in fact, be incomprehensible in another. Unfortunately, he’s never anything other than a blunt sounding board for Kingsolver’s own post-modern gaze. He’s not a character but rather the first and most prominent of Kingsolver’s exhibits detailing Western hypocrisy in its dealings with Africa. He’s representative of the colonial mentality- the pious white man’s burden to save the primitive heathens.

If we place Nathan Price aside, however, and focus on the narratives of the four daughters, the novels first two-thirds is beautifully written exquisitely controlled. Kingsolver’s clearly loves these characters and the people of the Kilanga village they’re inhabiting. Sure, some passages do feel like history lessons- that is, there’s an unfortunate sense that it’s not the character who is learning about the ways of the African, but the reader. Will there be a quiz for reading clubs? Still, these stumbles are rare and for the most part, it’s a joy to read.

Then comes the last one-third of the novel and Kingsolver’s loving close-up of 5 woman confronting, enduring and questioning pulls back, it seems, in order to assess the big picture of consequences. Fine. But she keeps pulling back further and further until her characters loose their essence. After over 400 pages, covering a little more then a year, Kingsolver decides to follow and drop in on her three chief protagonists over the next few decades of their lives. Her goal is nothing less then to demonstrate how that time spent in Kilanga has gone on to shape their destinies. But the characters loose all their shape, all the contours Kingsolver had just spent so much time carefully crafting and delighting in, and her once tightly nit character study becomes a historical pastiche. A story with a smattering of polemics organically woven into the narrative becomes, to the readers misfortune, polemics with what feels like the burdensome obligation to provide a continuation of the story. It’s as if, pouring over her history books (there is a bibliography provided) Kingsolver grew so irate over the U.S. complicity in so many of the horrors of modern Africa (and we empathize, there are many) that her characters suffer their uniqueness to become her outraged mouthpiece. They become less like characters and more like representatives of various attitudes- the apathetic, the guilt-ridden and the intellectually tenuous. She looses the center of gravity established in Kilanga and the book becomes an unruly sprawl of sadness and anger. It’s not that I disagree with any of Kingsolver’s politics, or even the necessity, especially now, of sharing with the reader the U.S.’s oftentimes murderous contempt for those democratically elected leaders whose will did not tow our own. It’s that I’m left feeling let down. Having demonstrated for over 400 pages her ability to write with engaging sympathy, poise and discernment, the final 200 pages feel bloated and arduous, more a tirade then a satisfactory conclusion.

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