First of all, let me start with what I like about Jim Kunstler’s writing in _The Witch of Hebron_. The thing I enjoy most is that he navigates the shoals of post-apocalyptic fantasy extraordinarily well. He neither falls into the masturbatory apocalypticism of something like _The Road_ nor the “good vs. evil fantasy” so common in PA novels, in which our heroes stand for good, light and humanity against cartoon bad guys who respond to the crisis in cartoon ways (lots of these, think _Lucifer’s Hammer_ or _Dies the Fire_.)
Kunstler’s post-apocalypticism comes in shades of grey – his characters never know exactly what the right thing to do is, they aren’t sure whether they are acting well or not, they do the best they can. They also don’t immediately self-organize in perfect ways, come magically together under a heroic leader – there isn’t one leader, nor one unified response. Instead, there are lots of responses, even within one small community. No one magically intuits everything that is going on (except, of course, for the weird queen bee woman who goes with the magical subplot of the religious community), knows everyone or has complete understanding.
In this, Kunstler’s novel may be more realistic, and better imaginative fiction in its conception than anything I can think of that is comparable. As I wrote in my review of _The World Made By Hand_ the genre of post-apocalyptic fiction is one that tends to lure writers into writing badly and unimaginatively – I know that seems a strange claim, since by definition conceiving a future must be an imaginative project, but there’s a strange unity in both high and low culture PA fiction – and that unity is that it isn’t very good. The thing is that Jim Kunstler can write – he often produces extraordinarily fine prose. There are places in _TWOH_ in which the book is beautifully or imaginatively written, and again, as I wrote about The World Made By Hand, in the limited genre of the post-apocalyptic novel, Kunstler’s prose and classic American coming-of-age novel qualities makes it a standout in its genre.
Unfortunately, that’s not exactly stunning praise. In the World Made By Hand I took issue in part with Kunstler’s gender politics – and there are issues there, which I’ll write about in my second post on this subject. In response to Carolyn Baker’s review of _The Witch of Hebron_, I wrote a quick piece at ye olde blogge, observing that in Kunstler’s novels, the losses of women’s social gains seem to be the opposite of what’s actually happening now, where men are the overwhelming early victims of the economic crisis.
At a recent reading in Colorado, the moderator, Michael Brownlee, read an excerpt from my criticisms and a recent review by Carolyn Baker, to which, it was reported to me by several attendees, Kunstler reportedly responded to our criticisms with the following:
“Fuck those motherfuckers!” When he was finally at the podium he began with, “I’m going to address the woman thing right up front. I’m appalled that educated, intelligent women of the boomer generation are so incapable of imagining a world where a completely different economic status has evaporated the gains of women. You need to get over it.”
At 38, I’m a bit crushed to find that Kunstler, who I’ve met several times at some length, apparently thinks I’m a baby boomer, when I’m young enough to be his daughter. I’m not sure which of us that reflects more poorly on. Given that I’ve spent at least as much time thinking and writing about the role of women in the post-peak future than he has I’m willing to make the case that the problem is not our failure to consider the subject. So I do want to talk about the gender issues in the book, particularly since Kunstler remains so defensive about his position on gender, but I’ll save that and give it its own post, because there’s a larger issue in _The Witch of Hebron_.
To me, the more critical point is that the book is unfortunately rather dull. Despite my distaste for some of _The World Made by Hand_ I rather enjoyed the it and Kunstler’s world-building. I found the cowboy-novel journey to clean up Albany entertaining, and the twist of the female prophetess to be genuinely interesting. That’s simply not true of _The Witch of Hebron_ – here everything is telegraphed in the first few chapters. The narrative unfolds in a way that is almost entirely predictable. On the rare occasions when what happens next isn’t something that one could figure out with minimal thought, the precognitive characters (of which there are many) reveal it, to ensure that even the densest of readers doesn’t actually have to read the next segment of the novel to anticipate it. The book isn’t uniformly tedious – the beginning and end are rather good, but the journey in the middle seems endless, full of Odyssean stops, complete with Odyssean foreshadowing, without Odyssean interest.
Its central story may be the coming-of-age of Jasper Copeland, but it is really the unwinding of modernity, and despite the fact that Kunstler is often heavy-handed and belabors his point, this part of the novel is of genuine interest at times – just not enough to cover up the drag in the middle. His question is what kind of people we become once the trappings of modernity are gone, and his answer is probably right – good, bad, ugly, depressed, unhappy, newly imaginative, and less modern. I suspect that what Kunstler has done right in this novel is come closer than anyone else writing in this genre to what happens to people when their world unwinds. One of the most interesting scenes occurs in the town school, when the children and their teacher discuss Halloween, history and what looks frightening in a world that knows much more about scary things than we do. Their teacher, Jane Ann Holder asks the children about what Halloween is about:
“To honor dead people who can’t be here among us anymore,” said Ned Allison.
“Yes. To acknowledge them. Our memory of them, at least.”
“I think that’s where the idea of ghosts comes from,” said Mary Moyer, twelve, a blossoming intellectual. “A mix of memory and imagination.”
“Very good,” Jane Ann said. “How many of you believe in ghosts?”
Several of the younger children raised their hands, a few tentatively, while checking around the room to see whether they had company in their belief.
“There’s no such things as ghosts,” said David Martin, fifteen, a cynic through and through.
“Maybe the boundary between memory and imagination isn’t as firm as we like to think,” Jane Ann said.
What is is and what ain’t ain’t,” David Martin said.
“Isn’t, not aint,” Jane Ann said.
Despite the dryness of the prose here, there’s something interesting going on – an adult is trying to persuade children to see the world in mystical terms, while children old enough to remember the old world resist. It is interesting that it isn’t the children, growing up in this new world, that embrace augury and the supernatural, but the adults – the doctor, who claims he comes from a scientific world understanding, but asks another man to reanimate the dead, the minister who has abandoned belief in God but believes in the power of magical prostitutes to cure his impotence (Yes, I know we aren’t talking about sex today, but it is hard to avoid, since the book begins with a weeping, odiferous hermit masturbating, floats through adult prostitution, the child sex trade and regular reminders that things like butter and mountains remind everyone immediately of breasts, and winding up with the news that future whores will accept payment in pork products.) This moment in the schoolhouse suggests that the shift to a supernatural worldview happens because the world the adults live in so emptied that they reach, desperately, for a new way of imagining it, and this seems to me a real insight, even if buried in a great deal of dross.
To me the most interesting part of _The Witch of Hebron_ which is, unfortunately, not quite interesting enough, is Kunstler’s speculation about what might fill the gap of scientific realism in a world that no longer has the structural support for that worldview. In this world, Washington Irving isn’t just a story – Headless Horsemen (or the like) and dark things seem emergingly possible, and human beings can do things that seem like magic – because magic is part and parcel of a world made by hand.
What did you think?
Note: For those of you who want to get reading ahead into our next selection (there will be one more post on this month’s book), Kurt Cobb’s _Prelude_ is on tap for January. February will conclude a three month exploration of Peak Oil Novels with Robert Charles Wilson’s _Julian Comstock_ and March’s book will move us into an older genre, the nuclear war novel with Pat Frank’s _Alas Babylon_. Both of the latter have been out long enough that no one should have trouble getting ahold of them.