World Made by Hand, by James Howard Kunstler, is the tale of the citizens of a small town in New York state some indeterminate time in the future after oil has become unavailable, and calamity, in the form of terrorism, political upheaval, and lethal epidemics, has overtaken the United States.
Since I found writing what amounted to a synopsis of Bringing Down the House tiresome - and dare I wonder whether a similar feeling overtook those who read that post - I will focus my attention on one aspect of World Made by Hand, which is the aesthetic quality of the landscape. This is one aspect of the book which I believe provides much of its charm. I would have liked to have discussed Kunstler's use of the religious (and supernatural), but it, along with Kunstler's overarching theme - the contrast between our present and that of the characters - provide innumerable examples and do them justice would require more time and effort than I am willing to put in. It may be said that looking at Kunstler's use of the landscape involves reference to his 'new dispensation', and to the extent that it does, I will thus be treating with that larger theme.
Citations are taken from the 2008 publication by Atlantic Monthly Press. The book is written from the perspective of its protagonist, Robert Earle, a carpenter in a small town in New York State by the name of Union Grove; in the direct citations, then, any reference to the first person ('I,' 'me,' and so on) refers to him.
I had noticed how often Kunstler (through the eyes of Robert) would 'look' at the landscape, the environment around his protagonist, but it did not really occur to me that it might be important beyond being, in effect, decoration until I remembered another book I had read sometime ago, Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, by Brian Rosebury (the reviews for which on the Amazon webpage for the book, incidentally, being themselves a worthwhile read). One major thrust of Rosebury's work was to argue that, in many respects, Middle-earth is itself a 'character' in The Lord of the Rings, and that one strength of Tolkien's writing is his deft use of the landscape to elucidate the 'character' of the land and to bring to life, as it were, the vision of life which he communicates in the work. I believe that Kunstler is aiming for a similar effect in World Made by Hand; we shall see how well he carries it off.
So goes the opening of the book:
Loren and I walked the railroad tracks along the river coming back from fishing the big pool under the old iron bridge, and I couldn't remember a lovelier evening... . Down by the rushing stream, banks of wild yellow irises shimmered in the twilight, and up in the vaulted corridor that the tracks cut through the trees, the mild June air was filled with twinkling green fireflies. [p. 1] Kunstler immediately draws our attention to the landscape. Notice that, at least here, the sense appealed to is that of sight: we 'look', as it were, with Robert at the 'rushing stream' (here 'rushing' is an appeal to the ear), the 'shimmering irises', the 'vaulted corridor', the 'twinkling fireflies'.Indeed, in the first part of the opening chapter, Kunstler provides a number of visual images:
We stopped halfway across the bridge in the lovely pink light that remained... and peered down to the water. Scores of big trout finned in the current beside the crumbling bridge abutment. A nice hatch of cream-colored mayflies fluttered off the water... . The swift little mud swallows that nested under the bridge did an aerial ballet through it, gorging themselves. [p. 4]Let's look some more at how Kunstler describes (and uses) the landscape in World Made by Hand.
It was about a three-mile walk home to Union Grove. ... Walking, it was impossible not to pay attention. On a mild luminous evening like this, the landscape came alive. The crickets had started up. In the distance a last glimmer of sun caught the top of Pumpkin Hill where men were still out mowing the first hay crop... . Washington County is a terrain of gentle hills and close valleys that grows more rugged as you get east over toward the Vermont border[.]
... Across the bridge, Lovell Road came to a T at old Route 29, which used to be the main route between the Hudson Valley and Arlington, Vermont. It was a standard state two-laner. We headed west toward town on it. When the sun finally went down, the sky above the hills remained pale blue, the cloud bottoms all salmon and orange. We walked right down the middle of the highway, over the faint ghost of the double yellow line. [pp. 4-5] I have omitted several points where Robert narrates (as it were) some of the changes between 'now' and 'then' (our present being 'then'). As we can see, Kunstler does not sustain throughout the chapter the precise descriptive narrative that he wrote in the opening paragraph. Nevertheless, from his description of natural plenitude (with the fish), the picture of beauty he painted at the beginning, and his focus on the beauty of twilight in June, I would say that one of Kunstler's rhetorical goals is to get us readers to enjoy the loveliness of nature and perhaps look for it in our own lives. Of course the best way to do this, as I believe Kunstler tries to do, is not to state it explicitly, but to weave it into the fabric and texture of the book. Notice, again, that the main focus of the imagery is visual; we 'see' the sunset, the fish, bugs, and birds, and the rolling hills.
We rolled on for a while without speaking, and I couldn't resist the sheer enjoyment of the journey. Robert is riding in a Foley rig driven by the leader of a sect called the 'New Faith Brotherhood Church of Jesus', by the name of Brother Jobe, who has recently arriven with his group in Union Grove. The landscape had changed so much over the years. A lot of what had been forsaken, leftover terrain in the old days, was coming back into cultivation, mostly corn, some barley, oats, hay, and lots of fruit trees. Everywhere that had been a parking lot, the pavement was breaking up and growing over with scrub, sumac, and poplar mostly. The roadside commercial buildings going out of town to the west were in various stages of slow disassembly... . One particular building fascinated me...: a bungalow that obviously once had been a regular house before it was engulfed by commercial sprawl... . The bungalow had finally evolved into a gift shop selling all kinds of... handicrafts to motor tourists bored by the interminable hours behind the wheel... . The word Gifts [italics original] was still there in fading four-foot-high letters on the asphalt shingle roof. [pp. 74-5] This isn't the first passage where Kunstler (via Robert, of course) points out the crumbling ruins of the 'old days' and contrasts life for the people of Union Grove now to what it was like for them then. Despite the hardship and difficulty the people face, Kunstler makes it clear that it is not all bad: I omitted it in the quotation, but Robert describes the 'handicrafts' sold at the old gift shop as 'poorly made and perfectly useless'; I quoted the motorists spending 'interminable hours behind the wheel' and omitted the following clause, 'and desperate for any excuse to stop for a while.' There were other quotes I could have used from earlier in the book. As I said, most of them focus on the ruins of the 'old days', and are an opportunity for Robert to reflect and comment upon what has changed. Meanwhile, there has not been a lot of simple enjoyment of the scenery, not even in this passage, in which Robert claims 'I couldn't resist the sheer enjoyment of the journey.'Robert's journey takes him to Albany, the description of which is worth quoting:
We made our way around... down grassy lanes between fields of one crop and another. The corn was knee-high and lush. The buckwheat was in flower. ... Bullock was fond of soba noodles made from the grain. Robert and Brother Jobe are visiting the man, Stephen Bullock, who is supposed to be Union Grove's elected magistrate, and who also happens to be what amounts to a feudal lord. He was particularly proud of his experiments with spelt, an antique precursor of our common wheats and apparently immune to the rust disease that lurked in our soils. ... The hillsides above his grain fields were dotted with brown and white cattle, some dairy and some steers for beef. ... There were ten acres alone in potatoes and as much in kitchen vegetables. [p. 81] Although descriptive, this passage lacks the kind of visual imagery which, I think, Kunstler used to good effect in the opening chapter. After the description of the corn 'knee-high and lush', there is little imagery: it is all bare-bones 'here was this and there was that.' We don't smell the earth or the vegetation, we don't see the colours, we don't get a sense of precise spatial relationships between the hillsides and the fields and Bullock's compound.
The pavements on Route 4 were badly broken, and we walked in line along the shoulder, where the asphalt had worn away altogether and the dirt was beaten soft by hooves. Robert is now venturing to Albany to search for a missing boat crew with some of the New Faith men. Black-eyed Susans, blue bugloss, chicory, and Queen Anne's lace bloomed there. Here and there, carcasses of the odd truck and automobile that had not been collected years before... sat rusting in the flowers. Now and then the road came very close to the river, and we could see through the trees along the bank. [p. 127] If I may digress, Robert's journey to Albany reminds me of 'Heart of Darkness' or 'Apocalypse Now'; it is a journey through a crumbling world. However, Kunstler is not writing a book in the same kind of vein as either Conrad's novel or Coppola's film, so there is by no means any real correspondence. Back to the topic at hand, this brief passage lists some flowers growing on the side of the old highway. I know that I don't recognise any of them (except chicory) and would not know what they looked like if I saw them. When I first read the book it seemed to me that there were more passages like this (and like those of the sort I quoted from the first chapter), but it seems that it is not the case. At any rate they are more prevalent whenever Robert is journeying somewhere.
[W]e had made some headway down the river road again, and we stopped to water the horses at a place where a cool rill formed a sandy delta on the shore as it entered the Hudson. There were big flat rocks to sit on, and a grove of locust trees for shade. [p. 134] Another brief passage. The reference to a 'rill' is worthy of Tolkien.
Along the riverbank itself, which for decades had been a little-used "park" functionally cut off from the city by the freeway, now stood ranks of rickety wharves, some with boats docked along them, rowing crafts of different kinds, homely prams, skiffs, even canoes, and a number of the shallow-draft, gaff-rigged catboats that were the workhorses of the Hudson River trade. There were quite a few larger pilot cutters, sleek, fast boats with a lot of deck, that came from as far away as Baltimore, and skipjacks that were favored by the fishermen downriver in the broad Zappan Tee. A battered sloop sat in a drydock with its mast down and hull scraped. These wharfs led onshore to boathouses, warehouses, and stores associated with them. None of the new buildings were up to the quality of the ones that had been demolished earlier to make way for the freeway.Moving along, there is not much description of the natural world until Robert and the party he is accompanying return from Albany to the Bullock farm.
Albany once again looked like a frontier town. A few of the new buildings along the waterfront were brick, almost surely salvage, and fewer were a full three stories. The majority of wooden ones were generally clad in unpainted rough-sawn board-and-batten or clapboard. ... Not all of the buildings had been completed, and it looked as though the work had ceased months ago due to some calamity and had not resumed. Some wooden scaffolds remained in place but no sign of tools or materials. [p. 141] Putting the word 'park' in quotation marks like that seems a bit odd, at least in terms of maintaining Robert's first-person perspective, but that is a bit of a digression. The wide variety of boats which Robert mentions being present is at odds with the quietness of the 'new' Albany, concentrated on the riverbank. I did not quote the rest of the second paragraph, which goes on the describe how silent things are. At any rate, the description of the 'new' Albany is sparse, although it allows us to visualise the place in our imaginations.
Once we passed through Starkville proper, the landscape grew recognizable, and I felt tears of gratitude well up inside as the familiar contours of Willard Mountain and the little range of hills known as the Gavottes came into view.And speaking of the Bullock farm, although not a portrait of a landscape, the following passage is descriptive:
At our journey's end another long day had spent itself. When our party entered the front drive of the Bullock farm, we'd marched twenty miles since breakfast... . The sun was down, but plenty of purple afterglow remained and to the east a coppery quarter moon was rising in the warm haze. The antique foursquare manse never looked lovelier, with trumpet vine blossoming over the pergola outside the kitchen, rose in the arbors, two potted fig trees beside the door, swallows dipping around the eaves, and purposeful human activity evident everywhere your eye came to rest. Lights glowed warmly inside the big house and a Debussy recording played. [p. 188] Bullock has got electricity regularly as he has a working generator. Despite Bullock's reputation as a bit aloof (and even uncaring), and the fact that he is, as I said, a feudal lord, Robert's description of his farm is warm and inviting. This is also one of the few passages to luxuriate in description, but even here it is sparse, and Kunstler, through Robert, simply names rather than describes Willard Mountain and the Gavottes.
A beverage bar was set up on a long table under the arbor off the kitchen, with pitchers of Bullock's own cider, sparkling and jack, and beer, and jugs of whiskey, and a vast punchbowl with some sweet, potent brew flavored with lemon verdana and raspberries. Across the way from the bar stood more long tables groaning with puddings, new potato salad, sugar snaps, radishes, pickles, sauerkraut, creamed new onions, corn bread, cakes (real cakes made with wheat flour), pies (ditto the flour), berry crumbles, cookies and confections, butternut fondants, even a tray of fudge made from chocolate - an ingredient that few of us had seen for some years. Among all those things the Bullocks had placed enormous bouquets of purple loosestrife, now coming into bloom wherever the ground was damp, and black-eyed Susans. Removed from the center of things, where the smoke would not be bothersome, they had set up a barbeque operation. Over one fire, a pig roasted on an iron spit turned by a teenage boy who nipped at a cup of something as he worked the crank. Over another fire, a Bullock servant wrangled rows of beefsteaks on a steel mesh grill. Next to him, yet another Bullock man turned sausages with tongs. [p. 209] So there is some description of the environment, namely the plants with which the Bullocks decorate the area where the tables are, the food and drink on which are described in detail, no doubt for the purpose of evoking in the reader a hunger for what one might call 'real' food (earlier in the book a character says he is happy that they no longer eat processed crap). 'Beverage bar' is, as a term, unfortunate, as is the term 'barbeque operation', but there we are. This reminds me of a feast from one of the Harry Potter books (Rowling being one to describe meals in detail), except, of course, for the considerable quantities of alcohol.More of the natural world:
I knew where to find Loren and Jane Ann if they were picking wild blackberries. Loren and Jane Ann are friends of Robert's. They'd up on the railroad tracks along the Battenkill. A particular stretch where one side of the cut faced due south was especially rich with fruit, and I headed out that way. ... On the steel bridge where the tracks cross the river a half mile outside town, I stopped for a while to watch the river... . A few dun-colored caddis flies were coming off the water. I watched an osprey rise off the stream with a good twelve-inch trout in his talons. When he was gone with his prize, plenty more trout were visible finning in the feeding lanes in the shadow of the bridge's trusses and girders.What, then, shall we make of all this?
... We sat there, the three of us in a row, watching the swallows and the fish and the caddis flies and the yellow irises blooming along along a sandbank below. [pp. 238-9] This passage happens to be the last of its kind in the book, so far as I was able to tell (largely because by this point the plot is moving along). I don't believe I cited every example, but I should mention that Robert, nearly every time he passes by a stream or river, mentions how many fish there are, frequently comparing it to the dearth of fish in the 'old days'.
In retrospect, I found that there were fewer passages than I thought which were descriptions of the landscape, without reference to the crumbling ruins of the 'old days' (a phrase I think I have used several times in this marginal commentary). I omitted many passages whose purpose was to describe those ruins. In other words, there were fewer appeals to the aesthetic, to the beauty of the natural world, in Kunstler's book than I had thought there to be. What is more, few of those passages showed the kind of appeal to eye and ear that the opening passage did (I think I found one or two more), and at a few points, Kunstler let the names of the geography do the talking: instead, say, of describing Willard Mountain or the Gavottes, he merely names them and (as it were) expects us to imagine we know what they look like.
Now, from this I think we can conclude that an appeal to the aesthetic of the landscape was not one of Kunstler's foci. It may be said that, given my initial impression, he does a good job with what few such passages he includes. Much more frequent are the descriptions, as I said, of decrepit roads, houses and malls stripped of materials, decaying and depopulated municipalities (Union Grove being, for the most part, one of these), and so forth; sometimes, but not always, including what one might call 'editorial' thoughts of Robert's contrasting his present favourably with his past. Another focus of Kunstler's would, naturally, be the plot.
Yet I cannot but help think that the book would have been better to include more of Robert luxuriating in the beauty of the revitalised natural landscape, using the kind of effectual description we saw in the first chapter. The technique which (according to Rosebury) Tolkien used to great effect in The Lord of the Rings, to make, as it were, the world a 'character', would have served Kunstler in good stead, I believe. More effective than the ruminations of the characters about how bad the 'old days' were, really (despite the hardships of the present), and more than the frequent reference to the rubble of the past, would have been a constant appeal to the senses of the beauty of the 'new world', something which Kunstler sometimes does: the smell of corn bread, the flowers on the roadside or by the bank of the stream, the rill flowing into the river. One might say that had Washington County been, as it were, a 'character', Kunstler's point would have been more effectively made.
I say that Kunstler's book would have been more effective had he focussed more on the landscape, because while I enjoyed the book, I did not come away from it altogether desiring that we should be willing to give up our conveniences. Nor did Kunstler's ruins have the same appeal (not to say glamour) of, say, those in Tolkien's work. Of course, the ruins in The Lord of the Rings were meant to evoke wonder and pity in readers; in World Made by Hand they are meant to evoke a certain amount of disdain. Perhaps I might put it better if I say that, rather than having Robert, or others, comment about how harmful, how useless, how ugly life in the 'old days' was, or having him think such thoughts whenever he described for us the ruins of the 'old days', it would have been more effective, I think, if Kunstler merely juxtaposed those ruins with the piercing and sensuous beauty of the natural world reclaiming its space (as he at least once does, in part, when he describes the parking lot of an old strip mall being overrun by various shrubs) and doing its own thing.
All the same, I acknowledge that even Kunstler's limited appeal to the aesthetic of the landscape is effective, because I came away from reading the book the first time thinking that he had done so more often than he in fact did. For that he deserves commendation.
That, then, is my take on one particular aspect of World Made by Hand.