Monday, April 28, 2008

world made by hand: a review

embiggen at your risk. rampant disarray. no focal point.

several months ago i read on James Kunstler's blog "Clusterfuck Nation" (such a wonderful title, doncha think?) that his new novel would soon be published and that he sought reviewers. i e-mailed my desire to review and the requested url of our modest blog. now let me say that i agree with his view of the present situation and of the probable future, and that in my opinion he says it with learned, literate, and historically informed elegance. i didn't really think that anything would come of my request.

just recently a copy of his book " World Made by Hand" appeared on our porch, surprising and delighting me. i read it immediately. in two days.

well. i will telegraph a bit of my review. through most of the story i was nodding right along with my superficial fan sort of mentality. he writes well. very clever. insightful. funny. actually more of "wow and oh yeah." i liked it. it seemed entirely plausible. but then....oops. a turn to what? oh shit. i can't just say this is all good. reality bites, in some modern cliche'. so the review is more challenging than i had considered. i do like the story. i do think the book is worth reading.

here goes:

the story is set in a small town in upstate new york at some near future time after both L.A. and D.C. have been devastated by what one assumes are nuclear bombs. there is no more gas or oil and so no more cars or trucks. there is neither state nor federal government still functioning. the protagonists are coping fairly well, having had the foresight to live in a small town with a gravity fed water system. i'm kidding about the foresight thing. but they do have a barter economy so the doctor is paid in garden produce. they eat well. Kunstler's descriptions of food are detailed and extensive. mouth-watering too. the food is probably quite nourishing. no empty calories. the social arrangements are mostly a holdover from more "civilized" times and there is not much crime in the town. as the view expands to the nearby areas and even on to Albany we see various other models of organization: a large farm run benignly by the owner to include what were called peasants in earlier eras; a recycling center at what was the town dump, run by low-lifes ruled by a petty tyrant; the port of albany run by a bigger, meaner crook. we learn of the wider circumstances as the main character sets out to find to find manufactured goods and then to rescue or ransom three men from the farm held hostage in albany.

the retreat to a more primitive way of living includes much more physical labor than we are used to and makes more stark the heirarchial structure of peasant life that has been there all along under our veneer of modernity. there is no more call for symbolic analysts. no employment for accountants or insurance adjusters. the picture is of a society succumbing to entropy at a fast pace. those in the town, with enough food, shelter, and clothing to be comfortable, retain a genteel sort of civil peace, disturbed on the periphery by aggregates of low-lifes. the future of the future doesn't look good. ok. near the end the narrative veers off into, well, i don't want to spoil it for you. about all i can say is that i think the introduction of magic doesn't serve the book well.

this is not a cautionary tale. it is prophetic. he's not telling us to shape up or face dire consequences. he sees dire consequences as inevitable. and this story doesn't even include the possible, perhaps inevitable consequences of global climate change. it wouldn't take a war to create the future he describes. we see the beginnings of it now: food riots, oil at record high prices as worldwide demand increases exponentially, various countries restricting food exports to feed themselves, gasoline at $4/gallon and rising, the possibility of an international financial catastrophe, endless war in the middle east.

i have been paring down, in anticipation of moving, my collection of assorted nuts, bolts, screws, tools and odd hardware with kunstler's dour outlook in mind. manufactured goods will most certainly be more expensive quite soon. my buckets of stuff will be handy no matter what. the picture at the top doesn't even show quite all my treasure. i suppose the redwood hot tub is a bit optional. i am leaving lumber behind.

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