A world made by hand—the words first send visions of people sitting around knitting and doing handcrafts and then, perhaps more accurately and in the sense that it is used in the title of Kunstler’s book, of having a hand in creating a new society. Agency! Without it the world may feel secure in some way, stable, but thoroughly out of reach. I want to have a say in how the little world I live in works. Today society is set up in a way that makes individual agency practically null, that makes change something that has to be fought for with nails and teeth instead of an ingrained, organic part of the system, something that happens naturally with the coming of each new generation in order to ensure that the world fits those living in it. If it was possible to make the world like this without something huge—be it revolution or collapse–I would stop dreaming about apocalypse. But for now individual agency in our communities feels like it is a thing of the past. Or perhaps, if all the PA lit has it right, of the future.
James Howard Kunstler’s 2008 book World Made by Hand depicts just such a world. Civilization and government have collapsed due to some global issues that arise due to squabbles over oil. Though no date is ever mentioned, the world depicted is so close to our own—minus all the cracks in the pavement and trees growing through floors—that it could be a picture of next week or next year.
In a small community in upstate New York called Union Grove a group of people have survived and have refocused their efforts on agriculture and animal husbandry. One group of people have taken over management of excavating the dump for useful items, any house not lived in has been stripped of useful materials, the local doctor experiments with the poppy in an attempt to manufacture sedatives, and fish are running the streams again in never-before-seen-by-civilized-eyes numbers due to the absence of new pollutants. Though the electricity comes on again for a few minutes from time to time, the only thing left on the radio are the ramblings of religious zealots.
Kunstler’s book follows the day to life of folks in Union Grove, looking at how the people who have survived war and collapse and sorrow and a nasty strain of “Mexican flu” deal with things like crime, justice, religion, sorrow, and love. The book is full of delightful little details: how a fish is gutted, how an outdoor shower works, what the people eat to get vitamin C. And when PA (that stands for “post-apocalypse” for the non-PA-lit geeks reading) literature is full of accurate little details like that it starts to feel a little bit like an instruction manual for survival as well as a bit of fun mental exercise.
The people of Union Grove have it pretty good, though the one thing they don’t have much of is community cohesion. When I imagine a world post-apocalypse, I imagine finally getting the chance to work things out from scratch: to build a world based on mutual respect and aid. But this almost never happens in PA lit. In PA lit people revert to a lot of raping and violence, and then they get on with the business of trying to recreate the world that has left them. But why? The situation in every single one of these books makes it more than obvious that there was something seriously wrong with the world that has passed, that has been a part of its passing. So why settle for mimicry when presented with the first real chance for meaningful agency, for radical chance and experimentation? Why are so many authors certain that people would revert to the worst parts of themselves? (I am constantly wondering why PA authors always make rape a huge part of any PA world. I think it’s important to ask ourselves why we can’t seem to imagine a world without it.) Why not try to build something that makes a little more sense? Sure, people are going to be traumatized and wallowing in fear and nostalgia in a PA situation. But this seems to be a line of thought largely unexplored in PA lit, the one exception being Jean Hegland’s Into the Forest, which is probably the most beautiful and inspiring PA novel I have ever read.
Overall World Made by Hand was an enjoyable read. The writing is simple, but the story propels you quickly through the book’s 300 pages. At its close, the story takes a strangely woo-woo occult-ish turn which might have put me off if I didn’t believe that we are not necessarily meant to take it literally, but as a reflection on the supernatural’s place in the novel’s handmade world. As in The Year of the Flood, religion plays a large role in the story—this time in the form of a strange hive community who call themselves “New Faith”—though it is the role of religion rather than the inner workings of the sekt that take center stage. Though it wasn’t an instant favorite, and I look forward to reading the sequel The Witch of Hebron as well as Kunstler’s nonfiction.
Have any of you read this book or any of his others? What did you think? I’m particularly looking forward to checking out Home from Nowhere and The Geography of Nowhere, two of his nonfiction works on the problems of urbanity.