Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Review: World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler

Although neither of us typically read much fiction, we finally received our long awaited copy of James Howard Kunstler's, World Made by Hand. This book was devoured in one day's time. Gripping, compelling and a force to push the reader toward broad social introspection, this novel is difficult to put down.

Kunster's, World Made by Hand is clearly woven from his non-fiction work, The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. The Long Emergency details the difficulties that lie ahead for societies completely (and foolishly) organized around the existence of cheap fossil fuels. He builds quite a convincing case toward a looming degredation of life as we know it as limited resources are inevitably depleated. Ravaging resource wars, climate change and technologies introduced just a little too late for mass adaptation equate to a sour end to the American lifestyle in Kunstler's view. Building upon the research supporting The Long Emergency, Kunstler dives in deep projecting his vision into a future, possibly only a decade or so away, that spells drastic change from the mechanized and somewhat detached, long-distance lives Americans are currently living.

Under the surface, World Made by Hand asks us to take a look at our own personal belief systems relative to the design of modern daily life. Kunstler offers a variety of realities easily related to in a troop of well-developed characters trying to make sense of a world where everything has changed in the absence of mass production, mega-shipping and the systems they'd taken for granted most of their lives, i.e. running water, electricity, antibiotics, daily news and ten miles drives to the grocery store from suburban subdivisions. Kunstler ravels and unravels personalities as they transition from college students, lawyers and other professional positions to farm hands, food producers, candlemakers and a few sad alcoholics. Their lives become completely local. Undercurrents of global warming produce themselves throughout the book with attention to growing seasons, sheer record-breaking heatwaves, crop yield, dengue fever, a Mexican flu epidemic, gypsy moths and other challenges met by the townspeople of Kunstler's fictional Union Grove, New York. Although the idea of a return to "normal times" is desperately clung to and often a notion of the townspeople and the main protagonist himself, Robert Earl, each character finds normal to simply mean the circumstance of the present situation, whatever it may be.

In a moment of frustration, Robert Earl opines that he is tired of sleepwalking through life as if recognizing he'd been doing it even before the jihad bombs went off in Washington D.C. and L.A. shattering the US economy while choking off what's left of international trade. Within no time the character is provided ample opportunity to square off the illusion of security his old life as a software executive was built upon. Kunstler even focuses attention on the alternative; a heavy price for maintaining the illusions we tend to sell ourselves. Robert Earl embarks on a week-long horseback journey to Albany that by car would have taken only a day. Relying on the kindness of strangers for overnight shelter Robert and his group are taken in by an old woman offering her backyard for camp and a hot dinner. Sadly this particular woman lost her mind as she lost her definition of reality. Robert fails to know exactly how to react when served rocks and grass rather than the new potatoes and greens the stranger had promised. For the old gal, it must have been all about using the china (form with no substance). Haunting symbolism is not lost on Mr. Kunstler.

Kunstler is not just spewing doom and gloom, though. Humanity will and does survive, only in a different reality matrix. The individual and collective coping mechanisms he defines are the magic, the human touch Kunstler expertly spills over with hope. A consciousness seems to begin to reveal itself in these characters that is either forgotten or mowed over in their previously mechanized world. The world of current, modern society. Kunstler even proffers up a little mysticism as he paints an appreciation for life's simplicity, it's fleeting and organic qualities magnified; the respect built working side by side through dependance on neighbors and friends; the kindness and honor of men; love. These qualities present themselves as Robert Earl's story unfolds to reveal the power and ingenuity of average people who had not planned for the future they find themselves living in.

Kunstler addresses the serious question of what could happen right here in the United States should we as individuals, communities and a nation fail to be roused from a hard sleep in the aftermath of a long and cheap energy fiesta. Despite his account of a US economy rocked by energy shortages with bombs delivering a final governmental knock-out punch being fictional, the core concepts are not that far out of the realms of possibility considering the magnitude of the US' current oil dependence. The main character summarizes this nicely;

I argued that the human race should have known it was in for trouble, at least we in the United Stated should have, given how insane our way of life had become. (p. 181)

This is a great read that will undoubtedly broaden the perspective of anyone even remotely interested in America's oil dependency issue. With meticulous precision Kunstler dissects the industrialized world and rebuilds it by the hands of a weary yet persistent set of survivors once known as middle-class Americans.

In James Howard Kunstler's richly imagined World Made By Hand, the bone-weary denizens of Union Grove (with its echo of Our Town's Grover's Corners) cope with everything from mercenary thugs to religious extremists, yet manage to plant a few seeds of human decency that bear fruit.
- O Magazine


dan said...

Nice review of a very important book. This book wouold make a great movie in 2012 or so. Hope they do it. It's a good cautionary tale.

-- Danny Bloom

Harry Brinson & Stacey Barrington said...

Thanks, Dan. Yes, there is already talk of making a movie, but we'll see.

"It's a good cautionary tale."
Absolutely! But the million dollar question is, will the masses trend toward forward thinking, or cling desperately to belief systems designed around limitless growth?

We'll all be watching from front row seats.