FLIGHT BEHAVIOR by Barbara Kingsolver – UNSEEN ACADEMIC
This is an occasional series of posts drawing on my excursion into the academic side of creative writing. Having taken a career break from secondary schooling to pursue some post graduate study I’ve completed an MA in Creative Writing at Queen’s University Belfast. I’ve now started on a PhD project at the same university with the catchy title “Navigating the mystery of future geographies in climate change fiction.”
So the Hive has kindly given me space to post reviews of climate fiction books as well as blogging thoughts and articles on other aspects of my PhD experience.
Authors have found different ways to engage with climate change and while the setting is always earthbound, the timescales have varied hugely, from near present, through the medium term and into the far future. Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water and Will Self’s The Book of Dave swept forward centuries into the future to explore a society haunted by the done and dusted conclusion of climate change. Megan Hunter’s The End We Begin With, Helen Marshall’s The Migration and Saci Lloyd’s The Carbon Diaries all take a near contemporary setting to imagine the experience of climate change consequences and responses in the here and now. Other authors make a more intermediate launch into the future, such that our contemporary times still lie within the reach of human memory and the ultimate impacts of climate change are still evolving and uncertain – for example Rym Kechacha’s Dark River, John Lanchester’s The Wall or Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. James Bradley’s Clade is a merging of these last two groups in tracing the outturn of the anthropocene era – including climate change – over the seven decade or so course of a single human’s lifetime.
The further the books project into the future the more speculative they become. Some are categorised as science fiction, others as magical realism and that conceptual and temporal distance from our everyday experience makes it difficult for them to gain traction as addressing a very real contemporary issue. This is the catch-22 that Amitav Ghosh identified in The Great Derangement – the fact that serious literary fiction is constrained to depict the ordinary and everyday experiences, and the greater the scale of deviation from normal a story depicts, the less seriously it is regarded as literature.
However, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior is to my surprise, the finest climate change book I have read so far despite, or perhaps because it is absolutely rooted in the realities of the here and now. Lodged in the experience of contemporary rural America, it has barely a speculative conceit in its narrative, and climate change initially intrudes with the gentlest beat of a butterfly’s wings.
We meet the protagonist housewife and mother Dellarobia Turnbow on her way to a remote mountain shack for an assignation with “the telephone-man.” The latest but most serious intention to break her marriage vows. “The wife who keeps on having inappropriate crushes, falling off the marriage wagon, if only in her mind.” Dellarobia’s wedding to Cub was a school aged shotgun affair, derailing her college ambitions for a pregnancy that didn’t go to term, as Kingsolver puts it. “leaving them stranded. Leaving them trying five years for another baby, just to fill a hole nobody meant to dig in the first place.”
However, Dellarobia is dissuaded from her intended infidelity by a vision – the forested mountain is on fire in a sea of orange and red that she cannot properly decipher because, in her short-sighted vanity, she has left her spectacles behind. It is only later when there is talk in the family of letting a logging company fell the mountain’s trees for ready cash, that she persuades her in-laws and her husband to maybe take a look at what they are signing over. And then she sees the fire is simply clouds of monarch butterflies roosting in spectacular array across the mountainside. This unprecedented event seems, to the religious mindset of her husband’s family, like a divine if rather unintelligible message – with Dellarobia as its prophet. The revelation makes something of a local celebrity out of Dellarobia, a tourist attraction from their mountain and, over the autumn and winter months that follow, the focus of scientific and media interest from beyond their community. In particular an etymologist called Ovid Byron comes to study the Monarchs and reveals they have alighted by accident because the heat of climate change, logging and mudslides have destroyed their usual destination – a mountain in Mexico. Their arrival on Dellarobia’s family’s mountain is an aberration, a misstep in the monarch’s fragile lifecycle which could be a blind alley leading them to extinction. Ovid and his assistants are in a race to measure and understand what is happening, yet with little power to affect how the winter weather might make it play out.
Kingsolver weaves a brilliant intricate narrative that binds the experience of life in a rural Tennessee community in the Appalachians with the evident realities of climate change, the tumbling pebbles of change that are the prelude to an avalanche. The titular “Flight Behaviour” could refer as much to Dellarobia’s struggles within her floundering marriage as to the deviant migration of the butterflies. Each chapter heading has the same enigmatic duality in its gentle provocation of the reader’s expectations from the opening “The Measure of a Man” to the final “Perfect Female.”
The narrative’s focus on butterflies may be simply serendipitous; Kingsolver’s end note acknowledges she was inspired by the true story of the destruction of the Monarch’s roosting site on the Mexican mountain – though the colony’s diversion into Tennessee is entirely her own fiction. However, I cannot help thinking of the butterfly effect in chaos theory, described by Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic park
“The shorthand is ‘the butterfly effect. ‘ A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking, and in Central Park, you get rain instead of sunshine.”
Here, the effect seems to work in reverse with the butterflies en masse affected by the climate, though at the same time, the tiny creatures blow a veritable storm through Dellarobia’s settled if not exactly happy life. The butterflies – as one relatively small symptom of climate change – open a gateway for Dellarobia and her community to consider wider causes and consequences of climate change.
The prose is as consistently delightful as the story is thought provoking. Kingsolver’s command of character and setting is magnificent, evoking the trials of poverty struck rural America as Dellarobia drifts from thrift store to church gatherings to farm life and lambing. At the same time Kingsolver’s meticulous research into the science, with a variety of lepidoptrists acknowledged in her end note, ensures the science is conveyed credibly and accessibly through the eyes of the astute if somewhat under-educated Dellarobia.
Although I took my time over reading Flight Behaviour, that is no reflection on Kingsolver’s writing which was always ready to welcome me back enveloping me in Dellarobia’s tale with prose of great warmth and subtlety. There were just so many places where I had to stop and make a kindle note – “nice line” or “beautifully written.” Yet also there is a consistent voice to the narrative, the bitter humour of a religious rural America struggling to make ends meet.
When Dellaorobia first unwittingly spies the butterflies.
The forest blazed with its own internal flame. “Jesus,” she said, not calling for help, she and Jesus weren’t that close.
Or in the local church, following her mother-in-law’s lead
They all attended Hester’s church, which Dellarobia viewed as a complicated pyramid scheme of moral debt and credit resting ultimately on the shoulders of the Lord, but rife with middle managers.
Or this observation, conveying the pride, poverty and the obstinate conservatism of her family and community.
She smiled at the sight of her tall husband in a pink flannel shirt. In many years of laundry days she’d watched that thing fade from burgundy to a plain, loud flamingo, but he still called it his red shirt and must have seen it so. Cub was not a man to wear pink on purpose.
Flight Behaviour is above all else a beautifully crafted story about a woman unhappy in her marriage in the tradition of Madam Bovary or Anna Karenina. While climate change is a theme that runs through it, Kingsolver never loses respect for her characters who are their own people following their own tale rather than cyphers for a proselytising political polemic. Instead, there is a perfect balance between Dellarobia’s character arc and the climate change narrative that illuminates it.
Adam Trexler cited Flight Behavior in his analysis of climate fiction – Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change rightly described Kingsolver’s work as
“a complex, moving portrait of the contemporary Anthropocene, integrating science, place, politics and economics in unexpected ways.”
There are three particular aspects of Kingsolver’s book which seem particularly relevant to me now writing in January 2021 – still in the midst of Covid and the aftermath of Trump. More relevant perhaps than they might have appeared to Trexler in 2015, or to Kingsolver in 2012 when Obama was still president.
The expense of caring
The first of these centres around Dellarobia’s response to a climate activist pushing a pamphlet of itemised sustainability pledges. The measures by which one might reduce one’s adverse environmental impact are quickly dismissed by Dellarobia, who hasn’t been to a restaurant in two years let alone needed to take tupperware to bring the leftovers home, who always shops in thrift stores for second hand goods, who has not the money for gas for unnecessary journeys. The activist abandons pushing his list of pledges long before getting to the final admonitions to “fly less” and make “socially responsible investments.”
Trexler’s take on this is that “The implication is clear: blame for carbon emissions falls disproportionately on bourgeois consumers, not the working poor.” I would disagree. I know many people of my children’s generation are very focussed on climate and environmental issues and I don’t dispute that individual action is laudable and to be commended. However, placing the onus on middle class individuals risks distracting from the responsibilities of governments and corporations through the policies and practices that they promote. In a similar vein, I have watched the UK government, with media support, successfully seek to blame an “irresponsible public” rather than their own confused guidance and unsafe policies for rising Covid cases. The implication that I draw from Dellarobia’s encounter with the environmentalist is that caring about the environment is a luxury, an indulgence even, which simply does not resonate with the working lives of the poor. I saw this just this week (Joe Biden’s inauguration week) when Biden signed an executive order against a particular pipeline as part of his commitment to rejoining the Paris accord. Ted Cruz immediately sent a (spectacularly stupid) tweet.
However, Cruz did exemplify the narrative that the long-term climate change agenda is incompatible with (and inconsequential when compared to) the immediate working class priorities around jobs and survival. This is especially so in the US where the tying of health care to employment and a lack of entitlement to paid holiday make employment essential for accessing the basic necessities of human existence.
Which is not to say I agree with Cruz, simply that – like many politicians and corporate entities – he is tapping into a real visceral concern of communities that Kingsolver so compassionately portrays. Poverty is an existence of constant stress and governments need to make it possible for everyone to be able to afford to care about the environment. The widening inequality gap is an impediment to meaningful action. In a similar vein one could also highlight how most of the world’s historic carbon debt was racked up by gas guzzling western countries embedding a global advantage through the industrial revolution. That geo-political inequality created a gap that emerging economies are keen to close. Inequality historic and current is the botox of our civilisation, – some may think it helps them look and feel good – but it paralyses action and reaction in the face of a climate crisis. As Dellarobia remarks to Ovid
“There’s just not room in our house for the end of the world.”
The inarticulacy of science
The second aspect of climate change that Flight Behavior flagged up for me is the debate with science. At one point Dellarobia drags a reporter in to the makeshift lab Ovid Byron has erected in their barn, intending that he – the voice of reason, of science – should make the case for the significance of the butterflies and the climate changes that triggered their mis-migration. Reporter and scientist are both disappointed in the event. Ovid is initially hesitant to the point of inarticulacy in front of the camera before descending into irritability and anger in an interview that is clearly unbroadcastable.
“Ovid shot Dellarobia a vivid, trapped look. She felt sick. He was so good at explanations, he had all that education, he could handle little boney-nosed Tina, that’s what she’d thought.”
But in a delicious twist Dellarobia’s friend Dovey has recorded the encounter on her smart phone and posts it to youtube where it quickly goes viral. Again, Kingsolver skilfully depicts an issue around the presentation of climate change science in and through the media. In its dryness and its inherent admission of statistic uncertainties, science lacks some of the clear certainties and emotion that the media crave. Tina’s audience is one that climate science will struggle to engage with and convert and – in Dovey’s viral youtube Kingsolver suggests that a more openly honestly emotional response may have a greater reach, as Ovid firmly berates Tina.
“You are letting a public relations firm write your scripts for you. The same outfit that spent a decade manufacturing doubts for you about the smoking-and-cancer contention.”
Tribalism and the distortion of information.
The third issue is not so much of climate change, but more of politics and information in general. Dellarobia and Dovey shopping in a warehouse, discussing Dellarobia’s father-in-law’s war service.
“Everybody wants to be rich too, but there’s still some kind of team spirit. You should hear Bear on his rant against raising the taxes on millionaires. He says they worked for every penny, and that’s what he went in the military to protect.”
“Wow. He was a gunner in ‘Nam to protect CEO salaries.”
They then move on to the issue of belonging and misinformation in a pre-Trump era.
“Is it hateful if you don’t agree with your home team about every single thing? Because I can agree on maybe nine out of ten. But then I start to wander out of the box on one subject, like this environment thing, and man. You’d think I was flipping everyone the bird.”
“Now see, that’s why everybody wants internet friends. You can find people exactly like you. Screw your neighbours and your family, too messy.”
It is left to Ovid’s wife Juliet to pinpoint the problem when information becomes entangled with group membership.
“once you’re talking identity, you can’t just lecture that out of people. The condescension of outsiders won’t diminish it. That just galvanises it.”
This is a lovely book that can be enjoyed entirely on the merits of its beautiful prose, witty characterisation and elegant structure. However, Kingsolver also manages to skilfully address not just climate change itself, but expose some key underlying issues within the climate change debate. She shows where the voice of science has lost its power in confronting climate change, a message the people in Dellarobia’s community are too caught up in their own dilemmas and poverty, too isolated in bubbles to hear. Poverty and inequality may not make people deaf, but it turns the whine of the climate change concerned into a white noise of static hiss. At the same time, conventional climate change mantras, in focussing on individual actions pass the blame and the responsibility onto bourgeoisie middle class, much as the UK government has with Covid-19. Yes, we can all be more responsible, but we must also be more equal and we must be more united in expecting corporate and government action.