Eccentric Musings (jakaEM)

"I have undergone sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy." Emily Brontë


still figuring this place out - Jen W

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Friend of My Youth
Alice Munro
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Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
Margaret Atwood
Parable of the Sower - Octavia E. Butler I've started and stopped this review several times--as I did the book itself--and I wasn't sure why I was having such a hard time putting my thoughts into words until I read reviews of The Road. That's the problem. I'm comparing this novel to The Road, perhaps naturally enough: both are journeys through dystopian landscapes, with evidence of the degradation of environment and humanity all around, central characters who represent 'goodness' and 'morality' and 'hope' in the midst of nothing but bleakness, deprivation and violence. So let's just get this out of the way: McCarthy's bleakness is the bleakest; his violence the most violent; his detail the most stark and horrific. This is not The Road, not even close.

But what McCarthy doesn't do, the thing that Butler does here (and maybe others do too; I'm not as well-read in the dystopian genre as I'd like to be) is show us the tipping point; the genesis of the horror. Butler creates a character who is knowingly sliding into the abyss and fights against it. Through Lauren Olamina, she creates a utopian worldview within a dystopian world, like a living kernel inside a dead husk. For me, though, even while clearly central to the novel, the Earthseed religion (cult?) was one of the least interesting things about this book.

Instead, I prefer how Butler shows the gradual descent into a world irrevocably and horrifically changed, a life that is unlivable by any standard and yet people live in it--and she shows us that we are already there. She gives us no distance, no perch from which to look down or forward, or wherever it is we look when we read dystopias.

Parable of the Sower's strength lies in how it explores the world between the "before" and the "after," and not just the "after" world. Butler focuses on the generation during which the slide down the slippery slope picks up speed, and guess what? It's the one right after ours! It's the future, but not too far ahead that we can complacently think we'll avoid it, or that it doesn't apply to us (because in most dystopias, no matter how much we ask ourselves how we would manage to live in them, don't we simultaneously console ourselves by reassuring ourselves that we don't?).

Butler drives the point home by creating a character - Bankole - who is us, the reader. Born in 1970 and therefore of our generation, Bankole's thoughts and memories of what it was like before the handbasket landed in hell are our own. He's a little morally ambiguous (and a lot creepy, but I'll come back to him in a minute).

Interesting to read this as oil continues to pour into the ocean which some say is unstoppable; as California is bankrupt; and as the world economy precariously recovers from near total collapse. Reading it in 2010, instead of when it was first published in 1993, one can't help but see Butler as even more prescient.

This, this, is how the world ends. Slowly, localized and then regional disintegration spreading like an oil slick. Environmental catastrophes mount; governments and economies fail. Food and water become scarce. And human beings--their individual behaviour, and the families, communities and social structures that support us--regress to our most barbaric in a heroic futile attempt to survive. Or at least, we regress to isolation, paranoia and self-serving cruelty, even if we retain (or perhaps especially if we retain) a shred of empathy. Empathy is a birth defect here, brought about by drug addiction. Not a mark of civilization, but rather a mark of its downfall and also a weakness that needs to be hidden.

The key in Parable of the Sower is how the devolution occurs bit by bit. It reminded me of The Pianist (I just put the book on my to-read list; I'm referring here to the movie or at least my memory of it). We accommodate and accommodate again, continually revising our expectations downward to the 'new normal' until we're living in a crawl space, awaiting a mouldy crust of bread every three days, and we think ourselves lucky for that.

Gang violence on the rise? Build gated communities and arm yourself. Water scarce or unfit to drink? Buy bottled. Lost your job? Take a menial one in a mega-corporation, despite the three degrees you went into hock to get as the ante for just getting into the game. Everyone's doing it, and at least you have a job, right? You've got it better than a lot of others, don't you?

Butler details the commonplace structures and systems that we know, and shows the interim step before they've completely collapsed. Home schooling is not an option for the fringe; it's the only education anyone gets and most don't get that. I love that she specifically links the collapse of civilization with the collapse of literacy and education (the collapse of humanity with the collapse of the humanities, you might say). Education, health care and the rest of society's basic institutions have not completely failed, but they are only available if you can pay and it is clear almost no one can. No police, ambulance or fire trucks will come; no insurance will be paid when they don't. We've still got our beloved shopping malls as places of sanctuary, but they are protected by power-drunk security guards and ringed by the impoverished peddling their wares and hooligans preying on them.

Wait a minute. Bottled water? Poor or no access to health care? Armed homeowners defending their property? Factory farms and multinational corporations running amok with no regard for environmental or labour laws? Debt slaves, largely Latino and African-American, held captive in 'company towns' in the US's most populous state? That sounds like ... NOW.

These details are equally as disturbing as the more obviously horrific ones, the cannibalism and the roving bands of drug-crazed maniacs who rape and torture. The former are the source of this book's power, and what I responded to most viscerally: their vividness, their logic, the inescapable proximity of the world Butler creates which looks remarkably similar to the one we live in now had me jittery and anxious.

HOWEVER (you knew that was coming, right?): Butler's ideas are better than her execution of them and some of the ideas at the crux of her story are the least well developed, even unnecessary. The central conceit--a teenaged girl, the next messiah leading her followers to salvation via her own unshakable belief in the Earthseed philosophy--is secondary and almost silly. Why did Butler need to have her protagonist invent - oh, pardon me, discover - a religion? Wouldn't it have been enough for Lauren to foresee the eventual destruction of her family, her community and all that she knows and loves (a broader reflection of the destruction of the entire culture around her) and send her on her journey, picking up a ragtag band of fellow travellers as she goes?

If it was Butler's intent to show how new religions and religious leaders (cults and cult leaders) emerge, then she didn't focus on it clearly enough. I do like the metaphor: Earthseed, humanity as a handful of grains scattered across the planet, taking root, growing and dying at the whim of our environment. But really--the Destiny? This is clearly an idea for the sequel. Here, it just seems unfinished and unnecessary; an element of which even Butler is unsure, self-conscious and, through the words of her characters, scornful.

Butler seems not to follow through on some of the most important ideas, the ones that are at the core of her novel. She does well at showing us how racism slides back into slavery. I think she does less well at showing us how gender roles regress to oppression of women. Women are inconsistently oppressed here, and sometimes barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen, but often not. I'm missing the feminist POV that this novel is said to possess (surely Lauren doesn't carry that banner all on her shoulders, does she?). Someone, I'm sure, will elucidate (and possibly chastise) me for this.

Also, little things. The littlest is that typos were scattered like Earthseeds throughout the last third of the book. That is such a pet peeve of mine.

Also, dogs. She didn't get the dogs right; didn't do enough research here I think. It doesn't make sense, especially in one generation, that dogs end up banding together to terrorize human beings. Dogs are omnivores, not carnivores--they don't revert to feral as quickly as cats do, and it is far more likely that their domestication and obedience would turn them into tools used for defense or as weapons by aggressors. (She hints at the former later in the novel; so it's not like she didn't know she had an option here. I think she was trying to make everything fit the regression theme). Even in real-world places where feral dog packs are a problem, they are not particularly dangerous except for the threat of disease they may carry. They rarely attack humans; they forage in garbage--that's how they ended up being domesticated in the first place. If Butler wanted to play on the reader's sympathy, she could have used the dogs differently, and she would have been better to make the threat feline--cougars or some of the bigger cats; I don't mean Fluffy, your neighbour's Persian--especially in southern CA.

Also, Bankole and Lauren. Ewwwwww.

She has Bankole voice the concerns she imagines her reader will: the philosophy is adolescent, simplistic and the need for the "Destiny" portion of it superfluous and silly. On the coupling of Bankole and Lauren, he's suitably squeamish, but not enough to keep his pants zipped. Again I say, ewwwww.

Bankole's entire character is there for plot and structural reasons. He's otherwise flat, unconvincing and unnecessary. She tries to bring some mystery to him, some tension--is he good? is he evil?--but it's half-hearted and we know as soon as we meet him what his purpose in the story is.

One last flaw to mention: the voice of our protagonist. Early on, she's understandably breathless, earnest and exclamation-point-filled (this is, after all, a 14-year-old girl speaking to us). But that tone and style spills over into long, expositional sections that bolster the philosophy (even as she ages, and becomes more focused on her mission of conversion and salvation). Lauren's voice, especially when she preaches either directly or indirectly, undermined my ability to take the philosophy at the centre of this novel at all seriously. Was I supposed to? I think I was. But all I could ever hear was this track from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon playing in my head after every Earthseed verse.

This one hovers in a high 3 almost 4 for me, so I'll leave it at 4 for now. It's 4 for what it did well seemingly without trying, which overcomes the weaknesses of what it was trying to do well.