BOOKS AND ARTS MARCH 22, 1999
The Poisonwood Bible
by Barbara Kingsolver
(HarperFlamingo, 546 pp., $26)
Barbara Kingsolver is the most successful practitioner of a style in contemporary fiction that might be called Nice Writing. Nice Writing is a violent affability, a deadly sweetness, a fatal gentle touch. But before I start in on Kingsolver's work, I feel I must explain why I feel that I must start in on it.
I do so for a younger version of myself, for the image that I carry inside me of a boy who was the son of a sadistic, alcoholic father, and of a mother who was hurt but also hurtful, and abusive. And I do not feel the need to make a pretense of sweetness or gentleness as I confess this.
"She told me that maybe one out of every four little girls is sexually abused by a family member. Maybe more," says Taylor, the protagonist of Kingsolver's first novel, The Bean Trees, reporting her conversation with a social worker; but in her "Author's Note" to The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver writes that she herself was "the fortunate child of medical and public-health workers, whose compassion and curiosity led them to the Congo. They ... set me early on a path of exploring the great, shifting terrain between righteousness and what's right." It is easy for Kingsolver, then, to spin such tragic conceits. But I remember my father's heavy hand on my face and the door slamming behind him, as if the slap were a firecracker and the slamming door its echo in some grotesque celebration of violence.
The flesh has its own memory, and sometimes my skin heats up before the flashback lays its heavy hand across my consciousness. It is the opposite of when you touch something hot and it takes a second to feel the pain. I cannot really talk about all the ways my father hurt me. Later, when the door slammed for the last time, and my father left for good, I lay in the dark with my older brother and younger sister and listened to my mother and her boyfriends. Sometimes the men she brought home stayed the night, and sometimes they didn't. I can remember my little sister, Mandy--my brother and I called her "Ostrich" because of the way she buried her head in the bedclothes when she heard the strangers' voices--crying herself to sleep.
I also remember my mother storming into the bedroom that we shared, and screaming at Mandy to shut up. Sometimes my mother kissed me very hard on the mouth, a kiss that no mother should ever give to a son. Then she returned to the bedroom where her boyfriend of the hour, or her crazy solitude, waited for her. Those nights are like sudden breaks in a film at a dingy porn-house. They are desolate lapses in a desolate movie that no one should ever have to see.
Since she was born with Gibson's syndrome and was mentally impaired, Mandy might have had in her unlucky brain an avenue of escape from all the pain. I don't really know. She went to live in a special place when I was fifteen. As Gibson's got worse and worse, she lost all recollection of me. I remember a strange girl-woman sitting in a big chair, wearing a white blouse, a pleated navy-blue skirt, and a plaid bow tie. She would stare for hours at art books that she held upside down in her lap. Her small bare legs hung motionless off the chair and looked like skittles. They made me wince.
The plaid bow tie had belonged to my maternal grandmother. It was the only one of her husband's things that she was able to bring to this country. David Schnorr, my grandfather, died in a concentration camp. So when I read the portrait of a Native American woman named Annawake in Kingsolver's Pigs in Heaven, I think of my mother's father, because Kingsolver approvingly has Annawake make a historical analogy: "That's us. Our tribe. We've been through a holocaust as devastating as what happened to the Jews...." (David Schnorr had been a minor literary figure in Odessa. He was not as lucky as Barbara Kingsolver.) And when I read no less than two novels by Kingsolver centered on a cringingly cute little girl named Turtle--The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven--I think of the real little girl we called Ostrich.
This hurts me. I really don't want to use my family to make a point. But when Kingsolver writes so facilely about lost people, I think of my brother's drug addiction, and the hand that he lost in Nicaragua to the machete of a contra, and his psychotic breakdown in the offices of The New Yorker, where he was a frequent contributor. And I think of my father coming back to live with us after a car accident left his entire right side paralyzed. Once I cried from rage and shame after he hit me; now, whenever I saw him in his wheelchair, I cried from rage and guilt.
That was during my first year of college. In my third year, my mother became gravely ill. Fortunately, my brother had straightened his life out, and he returned home with Luisha, his black wife, who had been his nurse in the psychiatric hospital. Together they tended to my mother. It was Luisha, having grown up hearing stories about the lynching of her great-grandfather, who taught my reckless brother lessons about dignity in adversity. She had seen her own teenage daughter shot dead before her eyes by drug dealers in her neighborhood. We were all very proud of Luisha.
After a while, my uncle Jeremiah came to help out with Tobey, who had been his lover and was now his friend and companion. Jer had been in jail in the '60s and had the soles of his feet beaten so badly by prison guards that he could barely walk. Tobey was HIV-positive and too depressed to work. I admired Jer, and I loved Tobey's spirit. Eventually I took a couple of years off from school and came back home to look after people who had so injured my young life. At night, my mother cried out, my father whimpered, my brother banged his fist against the wall, Luisha screamed in her sleep, Jeremiah sobbed, and Tobey wept. Sometimes I could not make sense of what I was doing there. But somehow I stayed.
I have a pretty good life now, but I cannot forget those nights. They, and all the history behind them, are why I write criticism. I write for the little boy that I was, the little boy crushed by untruth. He was surrounded by facts, but they were inaccurate facts. They did not correlate with the reality of human freedom. They were not true, or beautiful, or good. So these facts might just as well have been fiction; and any fiction that preserved their raw unreality would be an emaciated lie. It would not be true fiction at all.
Thus whenever I see the promulgation of such illusions by two fraudulent Russian artists, or by sanctimonious academic theorists, or by icily virtuous novelists, I sit down and I write for the little boy who craved the truth. I write for all the young boys and young girls who crave the truth. I strike for the children, and for their children's children. And I hope that anyone who takes exception to the ferocity of my tone will think of my father's hand across my face, and of my cruel mother, and of my dying mother, and of poor Ostrich, and of what the Nazis did to David Schnorr. And I hope, cherished reader, that you will not be angry about what I have to confess to you next.
By now you will have realized, I hope, that nothing that I have written here is true, except for the quotations from Kingsolver and the references to her work. I made everything up; I meant it to be satire. I have passed beyond the boundary of good taste, and I apologize to anyone I have offended, since I know that the situations I described happen, and I know how much pain and sadness they bring. And though I have my own portion of pain and sadness, I also know that there are degrees of suffering. But the actuality and the complexity of suffering: that is precisely my point.
For at least the past decade, American writers have been pouring forth a cascade of horror stories about their condition or the condition of their characters. The Holocaust, ethnic genocide, murder, rape, incest, child abuse, cancer, paralysis, AIDS, fatal car accidents, Alzheimer's, chronic anorexia: calamities drop from the printer like pearls. These are elemental events of radically different proportions, and the urge to make imaginative sense of them is also elemental. Some contemporary writers treat these subjects strongly and humbly and insightfully, but too many writers engaged in this line of production turn out shallow and distorted work. They seem merely to be responding to a set of opportunities created by a set of social circumstances. In their hands, human suffering goes unimagined, and the imagination goes hungry and deprived.
There are a handful of reasons behind this trend. For a start, we live at a uniquely prosperous time in a uniquely prosperous society, a moment in which tragedy and catastrophe seem all the more confusing and inexplicable, and so their depiction is all the more gripping. Also, we are fortunate to inhabit a culture in which practical techniques for mastering life's hardships have become so successful that it is perhaps natural for writers to develop a technique--a Calamity Style--for the conceptual mastery of life's inevitabilities.
Maybe we also feel, in our increasingly freewheeling culture, less protected as the forms of gratification multiply. The more gratification you seek, after all, the less stable and constant you are, whether you consciously feel yourself shifting or not. In this sense, these catastrophic tales are the emblems of a faintly enveloping anxiety. Then, too, since we live in such flush and tranquil times, more and more people have the privilege of shunning conventional work-routines and taking up creative labors. Writing, which requires no special training, holds out the promise of the freest kind of life. The problem is that not everyone who takes up the occupation of writer has the writer's gift. Thus extremity becomes an aid to straining imaginations.
But I think there is one reason for Calamity Writing that looms much larger than the others: it advances the amoral pursuit of a virtuous appearance. This is where Calamity Writing blossoms into the plastic flower of Nice Writing. The portrait of people doing evil things to each other, or of someone sick and dying, or of a person psychologically hurt, flatters the portraitist. It can enfold the writer in a mantle of invincible goodness. The artistic worth of the portrait fades away as an issue. What remains is the invaluable appearance of goodness.
I am not talking about hypocrisy. I am talking about the mere appearance of goodness as a substitute for honest art. The trend is everywhere. It is to be found, for example, in Lorrie Moore's short stories, especially "People Like That Are the Only People Here," the longest tale in Birds of America, her acclaimed new collection. The story is about a newborn baby dying of cancer. That is, the story's emotional register begins, from the very first paragraph, far beyond the reader's capacity to develop his or her own response to it. The effect is to place the supremely empathetic author in a protected niche, far beyond the reader's capacity to criticize. In this way Nice Writing fosters Nice Criticism. Anyone who writes nice writes with impunity.
Barbara Kingsolver can be a very funny writer; her infrequent outbursts of humor make up her best quality. And those plots: when they do not hit patches of dense cuteness and saccharine emotion, they unfurl swiftly and engagingly, as the newspaper reviewers like to say. Still, if it were not for professional purposes, I would never read her. The loveliness becomes unbearable. From The Bean Trees:
But it didn't seem to matter to Turtle, she was happy where she was.... She watched the dark highway and entertained me with her vegetable-soup song, except that now there were people mixed in with the beans and potatoes: Dwayne Ray, Mattie, Esperanza, Lou Ann and all the rest.
And me. I was the main ingredient.
From Animal Dreams:
Sure I remember when we almost drowned in a flood. Plain as day. God, Codi, don't you? We found those abandoned coyote pups, and the river was flooding, and you wanted to save them. You said we had to.
From Pigs in Heaven:
Taylor puts up her hand, knowing what's coming. "Mama, I know I wasn't nice, but she's a kook." She glances at Turtle, who is using Alice's ballpoint carefully to blacken the entire state of Nevada."
A kook in need of kindness."
From "Paradise Lost," an essay in the collection High Tide in Tucson:
I went to the Canaries for nearly a year, to find new stories to tell, and to grow comfortable thinking in Spanish. Or so I said; the truth is closer to the bone. It was 1991, and in the U.S. a clamor of war worship had sprung like a vitriolic genie from the riveted bottles we launched on Baghdad. Yellow ribbons swelled from suburban front doors, so puffy and ubiquitous as to seem folkloric. But this folklore, a prayer of godspeed to the killers, allowed no possibility that the vanquished might also be human. I grew hopeless, then voiceless. What words could I offer a place like this? Five hundred years after colonialism arrived in the New World, I booked a return passage.
"An easy book to enjoy," The New Yorker said about Kingsolver's first novel, The Bean Trees; "rich fodder," said the Denver Post, meaning well, about her second novel, Animal Dreams; full of "issues that are serious, debatable and painful," said the Los Angeles Times Book Review about Pigs in Heaven, her third novel; "delightful, challenging, and wonderfully informative" wrote the San Francisco Chronicle about High Tide in Tucson. The standard congratulations are especially appropriate for Kingsolver's work, for they echo her work's self-congratulatory quality. Still, if these smug and trivial books do any violence to clarity or to reality, it is a minor aesthetic crime. It is a matter for the local authorities. Let Elle or Allure handle it. When they are praised for their seriousness, well, that is another matter.
Kingsolver does not exactly outrage me, because she is so damn nice; but she is becoming outrageous. With the publication of The Poisonwood Bible, this easy, humorous, competent, syrupy writer has been elevated to the ranks of the greatest political novelists of our time. The New York Times Book Review praised The Poisonwood Bible as a "profound work of political, psychological, and historical understanding." An obtuse profile of the writer in The New York Times Magazine declared that "perhaps only Kingsolver, of all contemporary novelists, has the expertise to pull off" The Poisonwood Bible's portrayal of white Europeans and Americans confronting black Africans in the 1950s and 1960s. In The Nation, John Leonard anointed Kingsolver as "our very own Lessing and our very own Gordimer."
Nearly all the reviews that I have read of The Poisonwood Bible have praised it in approximately the same lofty terms. Those who found something to criticize in the best-selling novel couched their criticism in the most anguished idiom, as if they were forced by circumstance to leave litter in a National Park. Writing in The Washington Post, Jane Smiley rightly observed that Kingsolver's portrait of Nathan Price, an abusive father and fanatical Baptist missionary, is so flat and one-dimensional as to be totally implausible as a fictional construction. But this is not, Smiley adds, Kingsolver's fault. No, Kingsolver's admitted "failure" is the fault of American culture.
And yet. Nathan's enigmatic one-sidedness reflects our culture's failure to understand the humanity of those who seem to be the source of evil.... The author loses interest in Nathan, tries to compensate by giving him a dramatic death that seems pale in the telling. This failure goes right to the heart of who we are as a culture and how we look at ourselves: Yes, there are those who hurt others and show no remorse, who do not acknowledge the damage they have done. But they, in the end, are us. They should be acknowledged, allowed to say who they are, recognized. Loved, even, if not by readers and citizens, then at least by their own creators.
Smiley's peroration on self-abnegating goodness is the bonus of virtuous appearance that Nice Critics instantly reap when they nicely review Nice Writing. Since Kingsolver is the queen of Nice Writing, she has been the constant beneficiary of this kind of criticism. You can find a representative example of her niceness in a talk that she gave in 1993 called "Careful What You Let in the Door." It appears in High Tide in Tucson, which came out that same year.
Three years earlier, Kingsolver had published Animal Dreams, a novel that was partly about American involvement in the Nicaraguan civil war during the 1980s. Its dedication reads "in memory of Ben Linder," a reference to Benjamin Linder, a young American engineer working in Nicaragua whom the contras killed in an ambush. In her essay, Kingsolver writes:
It matters to me ... that we citizens of the U.S. bought guns and dressed up an army that killed plain, earnest people in Nicaragua who were trying only to find peace and a kinder way of life. I wanted to bring that evil piece of history into a story, in a way that would make a reader feel sadness and dread but still keep reading, becoming convinced it was necessary to care.
There is something characteristically fishy about Kingsolver's language here. Why are all the good, murdered Nicaraguan people "plain" and "earnest"? If some of them had been complicated and ironic, then would caring readers have regarded killing them as a public service? And if the Nicaraguan peasantry really had been behind the Sandinista revolution, would it have been because they were trying to find "a kinder way of life," and not because the revolution offered peasants ownership of their land and the freedom to decide for themselves whether to be kind or unkind? The surfeit of sentiment rings with an absence of true conviction.
This does not bode well for fiction. You can fault Kingsolver for not knowing--or refusing to know, or not caring--that the mass of impoverished Nicaraguans astutely saw the Sandinistas as elites trying to steal their land and impose their will; or for not acknowledging that the Sandinistas were displacing and murdering Nicaragua's Miskito Indians; or for not knowing--or not caring, or not being convinced of the fact--that "Ben" Linder, whom Kingsolver never met, was carrying a rifle when he was cut down. But the writer has her politics, and she is entitled to believe that her advertisement of virtue is sufficient for her politics. In politics, certainly, rhetoric can be very effective. Yet the political novelist is not entitled to think that her politics are sufficient for her art.
Gordimer or Lessing--for all their differences--would have so complicated a novel about Nicaragua that the truth about the revolution, when it finally unfolded, would have been already embedded in the novel's multilayered psychic and social world. And they would have retained, as they do, their political values. Yet Animal Dreams is not about character or society. It is about "serious, debatable, and painful issues": a father with Alzheimer's; a corporation's health-threatening exploitation of a small town; class prejudice; ethnic prejudice; cruelty to animals.
Its sub-subplot of a young woman agriculturist from America named Hallie--whom we never meet--doing volunteer work in Nicaragua--where we never go--is just one heart-tugging flourish among all the others. It clinches the novel's principal plot, which is the not-terribly-gripping saga of Hallie's sister, a thirty-two-year-old woman named Codi, who goes back to her hometown to figure out who she is and what she should do with her life. (Kingsolver's books are self-help books disguised as novels.) When Codi learns that the contras murdered Hallie, she suddenly matures. Hallie's murder, she tells us, is like a "flower in the soil of another country." One woman's political assassination is another woman's step toward personal growth.
There was once an American president whose cloying promise to Americans of a "kinder, gentler nation" was a gift to anyone who wanted to prove his or her principles without acting on them. The simple derisive repetition of the phrase guaranteed the right adversarial status. Kingsolver may be a favorite figure on the left, but in truth her "kinder way of life" rhetoric spans the ideological spectrum. Who, really, is for evil corporate interests or for class or ethnic prejudice? Is there anyone who would like to go to bat for cruelty to animals, or for Alzheimer's? Kingsolver's novels are filled with indictments of people and forces that make children suffer. They are bursting with tender affirmations of motherhood. In the acknowledgments to Pigs in Heaven, she thanks Nancy Raincrow Pigeon and Carol Locust, among others, "who helped me understand the letter and spirit of the Indian Child Welfare Act." I dare you to give that novel a negative review.
Such a guaranteed universal appeal is why, Kingsolver might be surprised to know, she has been referred to enthusiastically in places such as the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Economic Policy Review and Management Review. According to the ABA Journal, a judge ordered women offenders to read Animal Dreams. They love Kingsolver even in The Washington Times, and they like her fiction even in The Weekly Standard ("a gentle allegorist ... easy, flowing prose, engaging characters, and a biting wit"). And there is no reason why they shouldn't. Under the guise of a strong political stance, Kingsolver purveys a potpourri of tried-and-true soppy attitudes that are attached, with demographic precision, to an array of popular causes. She is something new: a political novelist who is careful not to step on anyone's toes. There is not a single sentiment expressed in her fiction that you could not express in an exchange with a stranger at a convention, or during a job interview, or on a first date.
But this seamlessness with the superficial rhetorical conventions of everyday life is actually a terrible disjunction from life. It is why Kingsolver's working-class characters look and sound like the idea of working-class people held by a professional couple's privileged daughter who studied music and languages at DePauw. (I mean Kingsolver.) Her working-class characters are dumb or saintly, and her young working-class women--except for her brilliant, confident, heroic fictional personae--are almost always stupid and selfish and reckless with the nail polish and mascara. They are literary tautologies: they are so much like themselves that they bear no relation to who they really are.
Kingsolver is so committed to keeping up the appearance of conventional morality that she sometimes mixes up her molasses-sweet descriptions of animals with her molasses-sweet condescension to the downtrodden. Seeing some pigs wander into her yard, the elderly Alice in Pigs in Heaven thinks: "The poor things are just looking for a home, like the Boat People." Underneath all the whispering of sweet nothings into the reader's ear, Kingsolver doesn't really seem to like human beings. She is sweetly lethal. It is the obverse side of her unremitting Niceness; perhaps it is the source of her Niceness. She describes her characters with an air of haughty repulsion, the way adolescents will stand in a corner at a party and quietly annihilate the other people there, until the other people come over and reveal that they do not have the power to hurt.
He was bald and red-faced and kind of bossy.
Otis is very old and bald with bad posture and big splay feet in white sneakers.
Her eyelashes were stuck together with blue mascara and sprung out all around her eyes like flower petals.
The woman has colorless flippy hair molded together with hairspray so that it all comes along when she turns her head.
Her doughy breasts in a stretched T-shirt tremble.
The manager has fat, pale hands decorated with long black hairs.
They look strange: one is shrunken-looking with overblown masses of curly hair; another is hulky and bald, the head too big for the body.
The cousin she's just met is a thin, humpbacked woman in canvas shoes and a blue cotton dress that hangs empty in the bosom.
The woman has swollen knuckles and a stained red blouse.
This is perhaps the same icy indifference to humanity that is behind Kingsolver's portrayal of a retarded character who speaks perfect English. It is a safety measure for the preservation of the Nice Appearance of respecting retarded people: "Mom, I accidentally walked on the railroad tracks to Havasu." (The retarded character is named Buster; and Buster happens to be, Kingsolver tells us in her essay "High Tide in Tucson," the name of a real-life hermit crab she keeps as a pet.)
It is the same polar numbness, this time to social reality, that lets Kingsolver depict the evil corporation in Animal Dreams as leaving its lucrative position in the small town without a legal challenge. And a cognate authorial glacialness has the lower-class Native American man in that novel, Loyd Peregrina, immediately decide to abandon his decades-old business enterprise of investing in fighting cocks. Why? Because the heroic Codi, his new girlfriend from a higher social stratum--and Kingsolver's fictional persona in this novel--thinks that the spectacle of battling birds is mean and icky. Even if the income from training the birds helps Loyd to survive. This is the sort of cruelty of which the saintly-in-their-own-eyes are especially capable.
And what cold-heartedness lies behind The Bean Trees's subplot of a Mayan couple from Guatemala, with connections to the left-wing guerrillas, escaping from the death squads to the United States. The Guatemalan soldiers, the narrator tells us, wanted information from the couple. So the army abducted their infant child--for Kingsolver, political violence is not political violence unless it affects the adorable Turtles of the world--and threatened to give her to a presumably upper-class family unless the couple told the army what it demanded to know about their rebel comrades. This, miraculously, gave the couple the time and the opportunity to flee.
In the real Guatemala, however, during the army's onslaught against the Indians in the '80s, the army simply tortured people from whom they wanted information. They raped the wives in front of their husbands, they beat the husbands to death in front of their wives, they killed the children in front of their parents. In The Bean Trees, Kingsolver introduces us to a relatively Nice death squad. For Nice Readers must not get the idea that politics has other features besides Nice Attitudes. Otherwise they might stop singing the vegetable-soup song, and get real.
From the terror in Guatemala in The Bean Trees, to the revolution and the counterrevolution in Nicaragua in Animal Dreams, to the plight of Native Americans in Pigs in Heaven, Kingsolver has, as she would say, "booked a return passage" to Africa and produced The Poisonwood Bible. Of all her books, though, her new book most closely resembles Animal Dreams. They both embody the full flowering of the Quindlen Effect.
I date the Quindlen Effect from December 13, 1992, though other readers might have their own favorite moments from the newspaper career of Anna Quindlen, the former New York Times columnist and one of the original Nice Queens. On that December day, Quindlen published a scathingly indignant editorial comment on the Glen Ridge sex assault trial, in which four male high school students were accused of sexually assaulting a twenty-one-year-old retarded woman.
True to her niche, Quindlen attacked with scathing indignation actions that no sane Times reader would ever defend. No neutral observer would defend four boys who manipulated a retarded girl into performing oral sex on them and inserted a broomstick and then a bat into her vagina; no more than any neutral observer would defend death squads or evil corporations. But Quindlen went on. She displayed a surfeit of sentiment ringing with an absence of true feeling that was downright Kingsolverian: "Most neighborhoods are divided into three kinds of children: those who torture the slow kid, those very few who defend her, and the great majority, who stand silent." But the great majority of teenagers in Glen Ridge, New Jersey did not stand silent as the assault took place. The assault took place in a basement, and the great majority knew nothing about it. And most neighborhoods are really not like that.
During that time, though, there was a place where the neighborhoods really had deteriorated. Right next to Quindlen's commentary, the Times published an essay by the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic exposing the mass rapes of Bosnian Muslim women by Bosnian Serb men. Drakulic was not attacking actions that everyone already despised; she was exposing actions that few Americans knew were happening. Her essay included chilling first-person descriptions of rape and mutilation and murder in Bosnia. The last account, given by a sixteen-year-old girl, ended with a paragraph that was also the final paragraph of Drakulic's piece: "I would like to be a mother some day. But how? In my world, men represent terrible violence and pain. I cannot control that feeling."
Looking at the Op-Ed page that morning, it was hard to avoid the implication that it had a theme. With Drakulic's article right there alongside Quindlen's article, the point was made that the male violence in Bosnia and the male violence in that suburban basement were phases of the same moral phenomenon. The analogy was appalling, and not only owing to its childish moral equivalence. It was appalling also because the moral equivalence promoted the idea that condemning the male violence at home would suffice as a response to the male violence abroad. (And of course we never did fight the violence in Bosnia, not until it was too late.) In the hands of monsters of empathy such as Anna Quindlen, the immediate preoccupations of the American self subjugate and domesticate and assimilate every distant tragedy.
Lenin famously declared that imperialism was the final stage of capitalism. He was wrong. A narcissistic capitalism, in fact, is the final stage of imperialism. Kingsolver is the bold anti-imperialist who fled to sunny Spain in order to escape government repression in Arizona during the Gulf war. And she is also the narcissist-imperialist par excellence. For the conclusion of Animal Dreams depicts an inversion based on a Quindlen-like connection. Kingsolver transforms the contra helicopters that mow down plain, earnest people in Nicaragua into the helicopter in which Codi's mother died after giving birth to Hallie. If it had not been for Hallie's letters describing those helicopters, we learn, Codi would never have remembered seeing her mother taken up in the helicopter. This was a memory that she needed to recover so that she suddenly could become an adult. Thus Hallie's death is redeemed by Codi's finally getting a life. Black night in Nicaragua; morning in America.
Kingsolver has perfected the Quindlen Effect in The Poisonwood Bible. The novel's cartoonish mainspring is a tyrannical Baptist missionary named Nathan Price, who takes up residence in the Congo in the late 1950s with his wife, Orleanna, and their four daughters. Told by Orleanna and each of her daughters in turn, The Poisonwood Bible portrays Nathan's fanatical insensitivity to the Congolese, which alienates his small congregation, resulting in the death of his youngest daughter Ruth May (the children again), and in his own madness, and in the disintegration of the family.
The novel has a silver lining, though. The silver lining is the indignant Kingsolver's most characteristic device. The other daughters--the bigoted right-wing Rachel; the sensitive and conscientious Leah; Leah's twin, the hemiplegic clairvoyant genius and verbal prodigy Adah--all come into their own by novel's end. In the course of all this, we also enjoy saintly glimpses of Patrice Lumumba, Congo's first democratically elected prime minister, whose probable murder by Mobutu's men got an enthusiastic green light and support from an Eisenhower worried about Lumumba's alliance with the Soviet Union.
"There is wisdom in every sentence," wrote the editors of the New York Times Book Review about The Poisonwood Bible. I hope they are not referring to the analogy that Kingsolver makes between Nathan's harshness toward the women in his family, and Belgium, whose King Leopold annexed the Congo in 1901, and cold-war America. As Orleanna puts it, again and again:
And where was I, the girl or woman called Orleanna, as we traveled those roads.... Swallowed by Nathan's mission, body and soul. Occupied as if by a foreign power.... This is how conquest occurs....
Nathan was something that happened to us, as devastating in its way as the burning roof that fell on the family Mwanza; with our faces scarred by hell and brimstone we still had to track our course.... But his kind will always lose in the end. I know this, and now I know why. Whether it's wife or nation they occupy, their mistake is the same: they stand still, and their stake moves underneath them.... A territory is only possessed for a moment in time.... What does Okinawa remember of its fall? Forbidden to make engines of war, Japan made automobiles instead, and won the world. It all moves on. The great Delaware moves on, while Mr. Washington himself is no longer even what you'd call good compost. The Congo River, being of a different temperament, drowned most of its conquerors outright.... Call it oppression, complicity, stupefaction, call it what you like, it doesn't matter. Africa swallowed the conqueror's music and sang a new song of her own.
Wisdom in every sentence. And here is Leah on the same theme:
Anatole explained it this way: Like a princess in a story, Congo was born too rich for her own good, and attracted attention far and wide from men who desire to rob her blind. The United States has now become the husband of Zaire's economy, and not a very nice one. Exploitive and condescending....
"Oh, I understand that kind of marriage all right," I said. "I grew up witnessing one just like it."
The reduction of history to an afternoon with Oprah is bad enough. But it is really extraordinary, is it not, that our very own Gordimer has written a "political novel" about Africa that does not refer to the present-day shattering events in Africa. In The Poisonwood Bible, we hear a lot about how American men, especially bad American Baptist missionary men, physically abuse their wives and daughters (though, as ever, Kingsolver is too nice to portray the abuse). Yet we do not get the slightest reference, or the most veiled allusion, to the Rwandan genocide and its ongoing blood-drenched aftermath, one of the least nice events in modern history, in which even the children were killed. For Kingsolver, Africa is happily singing "a new song of her own." Something like the vegetable-soup song.
In The Poisonwood Bible, instead of the momentous present, Kingsolver scavenges for heart-rending bulletins from the past. It is all so easy, this sentimental carpetbagging of a far-away history. We hear about how Belgian overseers on the rubber plantations disciplined their Congolese workers by cutting off their hands. About how the Belgians jailed Lumumba at one point, and how he miraculously "got out" in time for the elections. What Kingsolver doesn't tell her readers is that by 1959, when her novel begins, such cruelty had been defunct for over fifty years. (For the amputation of hands as a widespread instrument of torture, it is contemporary Sierra Leone to which one must look.)
In 1908, the Belgian parliament bought the Congo from King Leopold as a response to the international outcry against the atrocities that Belgian companies had been committing on the Congolese. By 1959, the Belgian Congo had the highest literacy rate and the most widespread health care of any European colony. Almost all of those improvements had to do with the work of missionaries. Most of the missionaries were Catholic, but some were Protestant like Nathan Price. And Lumumba did not magically "get out" of jail in time to get elected prime minister. The Belgians let him out, knowing full well that he was going to win.
This is not to say, this is really not to say, that the Europeans did not do atrocious things in Africa right up to decolonization, or that Belgium did not display calamitous self-interest in rushing Congo's independence when the colony was completely unprepared for it. (The Belgians had prohibited the Congolese from obtaining a university education, and when independence came there was not a single trained administrator or military officer.) It is also not to say that Europe and the United States do not have to answer for some portion of Africa's ordeal. But it is Kingsolver who is not playing fair with her readers.
For again she substitutes the image of goodness for honest representations. Almost every reviewer has rightly praised her beautiful evocation of the African landscape and her vivid treatment of African life; but not a single reviewer I read mentioned the twenty-eight-book bibliography that Kingsolver obviously felt obligated to include at the end of her novel, a list with books such as The Accidental Anthropologist, Congo Trails, Congo Cauldron, The River Congo, Back to the Congo, Travels in West Africa, Swimming in the Congo, On the Edge of the Primeval Forest. Many of these books are travel books containing beautiful evocations of the African landscape and exhilarated treatments of African life. They lift the spirit with their vividness, the way Putamayo's compact discs do. The influence of this apolitical, upbeat ethnography accounts for the difference in the style of Kingsolver's new novel. And it is why the The Poisonwood Bible is so distant from its subject.
Still, the Nice Writing has not disappeared, and it extends its usual protections. You would not know from any of the reviews also that all the women in the family express the same tough ironic contempt for Nathan. Here is Ruth May: "`Africa has a million souls,' is what Father told him. And Father ought to know, for he's out to save them all." This is presented as the thought of a five-year-old girl, who is supposed to be brutally suppressed by her authoritarian father.
"Ultimately," the Times editors wrote, "this is a novel of character; the women discover themselves as they lose faith in Price." But the women in The Poisonwood Bible are on to their father's hypocrisy from the very beginning of the novel. They express their skepticism in the same jaunty sarcastic tone, which is the identical tone Kingsolver used for her earlier fictional personae, Taylor and Codi. This is the fifteen-year-old Rachel: "[Father] was getting that look he gets, oh boy, like Here comes Moses tromping down off of Mount Syanide with ten fresh ways to wreck your life." This is the fourteen-year-old Leah, supposedly in her father's thrall more than her sisters: "`Heavenly Father, deliver us,' I said, although I didn't care for this new angle ... what was this business of being delivered through hardships?" This is the fourteen-year-old Adah, who refers sardonically to Nathan as "Our Father" and "Reverend": "When the Spirit passed through him he groaned, throwing body and soul into this weekly purge. The `Amen enema,' as I call it. My palindrome for the Reverend." If this is the story of women struggling for psychic autonomy, they do not have terribly much work to do.
Barbara Kingsolver does not finally give a hoot about Africa. She does not care about Africa (I mean, intelligently and respectfully care, with a sense of its alterity and its complexity) any more than she cared about the simple folk of Nicaragua. That is why the penultimate climax of The Poisonwood Bible is not about Africa. It is about our very own Gordimer's favorite domestic themes: cruelty to children and cruelty to animals. Thus her novel begins its climax in a scene depicting the Congolese villagers engaged in a hunt. They set the brush on fire and herd the animals inside the flames.
For every animal struck down, there rose an equal and opposite cry of human jubilation.... Of the large animals who came through the fire--bushbuck, warthog, antelope--few escaped. Others would not come out and so they burned: small flame-feathered birds, the churning insects, and a few female baboons who had managed against all odds to carry their pregnancies through the drought. With their bellies underslung with precious clinging babies, they loped behind the heavy-maned males, who would try to save themselves, but on reaching the curtain of flame where the others passed through, they drew up short. Crouched low. Understanding no choice but to burn with their children.
This breaks new ground in monster empathy. Abusive husbands are like conquering countries; mothers and children are the same whether human or animal. Killing is killing. And although, as Kingsolver herself tells us, the villagers are starving, she goes on to explain that this massacre was so cruel that it brought down upon the village a streak of terrible luck.
It is an icy marvel, this spectacle of a writer who can manipulatively wax so emotional and with such impressive virtue over the killing of animals by starving villagers in a place where, in reality, hundreds of thousands of people had just been exterminated. In a place where, perhaps at the very moment Kingsolver was writing her book, men were raping and murdering wives in front of their husbands (those selfish "heavy-maned males"), and beating the fathers to death in front of the mothers, and killing the children in front of their parents.
But Kingsolver has too much respect for other cultures to refer to the bad things that happen in them. Other cultures have different attitudes toward life and death. Through Adah, who later becomes a medical researcher--she works on the AIDS virus and the Ebola virus!--Kingsolver guides us through African values:
People are bantu; the singular is muntu. Muntu does not mean exactly the same as person, though, because it describes a living person, a dead one, or someone not yet born. Muntu persists through all those conditions unchanged.... The transition from spirit to body and back again is merely a venture.
In the world, the carrying capacity of humans is limited. History holds all things in the balance, including large hopes and short lives.... Africa has a thousand ways of cleansing itself. Driver ants, Ebola virus, acquired immune deficiency syndrome: all these are brooms devised by nature to sweep a small clearing very well ... the race between predator and prey remains exquisitely neck and neck.
In Africa, then, death is a state of mind. There they are used to dying, and dying is so exquisitely good for them. The Times editors enthusiastically took this up: "perhaps [The Poisonwood Bible's] greatest character is collective, the Congolese, whose perfect adaptation to the harshness of their lives amid drought, hunger, pests and diseases is simply beautiful." What a ravishing, talented, instinctive, unself-conscious race of people. And how beautiful is their extinction!
In Kingsolver's Africa, only her intrepid heroines, not the Africans themselves, get the burdensome dignity of moral struggle, confusion, and anguish. Here is Leah, who has chosen to live in Africa with her Congolese husband:
I rock back and forth on my chair like a baby, craving so many impossible things: justice, forgiveness, redemption. I crave to stop bearing all the wounds of this place on my own narrow body. But I also want to be a person who stays, who goes on feeling anguish where anguish is due. I want to belong to somewhere, damn it. To scrub the hundred years' war off this white skin till there's nothing left and I can walk out among my neighbors wearing raw sinew and bone, like they do.
But enough of this frigid treacle. Let me tell you a story about my family, and this time I am writing the truth. My grandfather, Saul Siegel, who died a few months ago at the age of ninety-two, was with UNICEF in the Belgian Congo in 1960, when Congo got its independence. He was there during the riots and the strife and the civil war, and he stayed for some time after the United States installed Mobutu. I could not even begin to describe the lives that he saved and the good that he did. He knew that true goodness is the virtue that dare not speak its name. He knew all about the cold, calculating phonies who spray their virtue into your eyes like mace, and also about the cowards and the fools who abet them to aid themselves. I loved him very much. I sat next to his bed and watched him die as he struggled to keep breathing. I saw the light start to fade from his beautiful green eyes, and I let him pull me toward him by my shirt with his trembling hands so that he could whisper to me his farewell. With my heart full of love and grief and terror, I leaned toward him, and he pulled himself up a little and he rasped softly, and then he screamed: "Get Kingsolver!"
I did it again. I lied. I am sorry, but I cannot resist the temptation. The rewards are so great. And the words are so cheap.