When Old Friends Let You Down

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I’m a long term Bob Dylan fan so I know what it is to find myself a little disappointed with the odd piece of slightly inferior art. One song, one show, one substandard novel in a lifetime of truly fantastic work is not enough to compromise my devotion. However, this year I’ve had a rotten run of substandard reads from writers I’d usually take a bullet for.

It started with Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue which, and this is extremely rare for me, I abandoned after a hundred pages. Then there was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch– less said, the better there, (an outlook clearly wasted on Ms Tartt). I managed to finish it, but instantly regretted bothering and ever since have wished to have the three weeks of my life squandered on The Goldfinch returned to use more profitably, possibly reading Agatha Christie paperbacks. With Murakami’s three volume mega-beast of a novel sitting on my bedside table, I’m starting to wonder if all my go to writers are going to prove themselves bloated and disappointing this year.

Chief amongst the old friends who’ve recently let me down is Barbara Kingsolver. Last week I waded through Flight Behaviour; a book I’ve been saving up as a comfort read for months. Since my first read of The Poisonwood Bible, I’ve been a massive devotee of Kingsolver’s work, enjoying her unaffected writing style and way of painting carefully drawn, utterly believable and strikingly nuanced characters. Kingsolver is a master of the small town saga, slowly revealed. Her novels unfold gently and take time to breathe. The message is always there, but frequently complex and always implied rather than preached.Flight Behaviour however, seemed to have a real, driving mandate to tackle issues around climate change. Where Kingsolver’s other books casually address similar issues, this latest offering lost me with its awkward conversations littered with science speak, it’s statistics and slightly schizophrenic chief protagonist who fluctuated between backwater hick and extremely nuanced and eloquent devotee of environmental awareness. Many of her observations about the environment seemed contrived and purposefully placed to drive Kingsolver’s point home rather than enhance the novel as a whole.

I know a lot of people enjoyed Flight Behaviour and there are small sections of the novel which reveal Kingsolver as the master storyteller and character-creator she so obviously is, (I’m particularly thinking of the relationship between the main character and her children). However, there are large sections where the writing takes a backseat to the issues which I felt Kingsolver was trying to force upon her readers in an uncharacteristically heavy-handed way. Now, I’m a bad and evil person when it comes to using art for the purpose of advocacy. Unless the creative vehicle is extremely well-delivered- imaginative, engaging, believable- I’m uncomfortable with using art as a means to advocate for an issue, no matter how important. I’ve been burnt by issues-based fiction in the past. I loved Dave Eggers writing and thought You Shall Know Us By Our Velocity was a subtle, stunning and witty commentary on American capitalism, then he started preaching about real life important issues in books like What Is The What and Zeitoun. I grew bored. They weren’t half as well-written as his “proper” fiction. Ian McEwan, (whom I adore and have made a point of reading in entirety), also lost me with Solar, where the story seemed to fade into insignificance behind the science.

Of course I’m not suggesting that fiction isn’t the place to tackle important issues. The environment, injustice, war, politics and sexuality, amongst other fundamental issues, appear with significant frequency in most of my favourite books. Yet, in the context of a novel, I am most likely to engage with the issue when it’s delivered in the guise of a story, rather than forced upon me, awkwardly in the shape of ill-placed facts and statistics. Flight Behaviour is a decent novel about climate change but it’s not a great advocacy novel for the science and the story haven’t fused properly. They sit awkwardly side by side like second cousins trying to mingle at a family funeral. Kingsolver is more than capable of weaving the harsh truth into her fiction; The Poisonwood Bible challenged religious assumptions, ideas of empire and patriarchy without ever once sounding like a sermon. It was a book which stuck with me for a long time and made me ask difficult questions about my own beliefs and practices. When art advocates well, it can prove to be the most powerful tool for changing prevailing attitudes.

I’m not done with Barbara Kingsolver. She has many more great novels and short stories to write but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little disappointed in her latest offering. In the mean time I might go back and revisit The Poisonwood Bible.

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