world made by hand by james howard kunstler

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.

0 Comments on “world made by hand by james howard kunstler

  1. Meh. I was underwhelmed by it. I didn’t find the writing compelling and I had a hard time getting through it. I’ve said several times though that I made the mistake of reading it immediately after Into the Forest, so I was spoiled by how much more I like that one. Actually I talked to Jean about A World Made by Hand, and how she wrote Into the Forest specifically to combat all the depressing stuff that is always in PA lit with a ray of hope for our survival. So I’m glad you mentioned that.

    Generally though I think it is safe to say that most people would keep going on the way they have always been going on, just because they can’t conceive of anything else. Even in Into the Forest they keep waiting for the power to come back. But it would make an interesting study to see how often rape comes up in PA novels by men vs. women because I think there is a real correlation there…

  2. Yeah ditto on the writing thoughts. At one point in drafting this I had the line “the writing completely lacks nuance” in it, but I took it out considering that his play with the weird supernatural-esque stuff at the end could be filed under nuanced. But I’d reckon he’s a better nonfiction writer. And like I said, the story got me through, that and all the little details that I found interesting. I also happen to be attached to the region that this takes place in, which made me like it all the more.

    I’ve been thinking about the rape in PA fiction a hell of a lot lately. To take stock of what I’ve read…
    World Made by Hand: no rape, but sexual abuse
    The Road: I don’t recall any explicitly, though I seem to recall some being implied
    Into the Forest: Rape
    A Canticle for Leibowitz: Don’t recall any rape there either
    The Year of the Flood: Multiple rapes and attempted rape
    Dr. Bloodmoney: No rape that I can recall

    A number of those I haven’t read recently enough to recall. But I think I’m going to start keeping track. I don’t imagine that rape would somehow stop because civ has come to an end, but its interesting that so many PA authors feel it important to include it in their books. Can anyone add anything to this list?

    Just started Dies the Fire, which I have heard a lot about.

  3. I’m not surprised so much rape is included – just today I read that 25% of all adult women in MN (and have heard even worse statistics) have been raped, and that is in our so called civilized society. Ugh, *shudder*, can’t imagine how so many men can be so sick.

    Anyway, I read Into The Forest a couple years ago and did like it, but there was a rape in that book too.

    The best book I’ve read lately, a recommendation from this site I’ve been meaning to tell you, is The Dispossessed. Seriously it’s been weeks and I think about it on a near daily basis and already want to read it again.

  4. Oh Nikki didn’t see your response comment before I posted that. I don’t recall specific description of rape in The Road, but think it was definitely implied with the pregnant women whose newborns were used as food.

    Not sure if it counts because it’s “teen fiction”, and not immediately PA, but no rape in The Hunger Games! Only murdered children…

  5. FVM: Hahaha, yeah, no rape, just murdered children. Go figure. Anyway, yeah I mean considering the amount of rape happening in “civilization” I also imagine it would continue post-civ, though I do think that all these authors writing completely speculatively and fictionally don’t often think to portray it any differently and I think that choice of inclusion means something. Where are the scenes with women characters prepared for that shit who kill men trying to rape them in cold blood, for example? Actually, the entire depiction of women in PA fiction could use a little work. There are always these roving bands of evil dudes, but I don’t recall ever reading about a roving band of women doing whatever it would make sense for them to do in this context. Though I did just start reading Dies the Fire which has a female lead who is a Wiccan musician and she and her friends are hiding out up in the mountains and maybe some refreshing things will happen there. But among another set of characters (ALERT SLIGHT SPOILER) there have already been two attempted rapes that some dudes run in and save the ladies from at the right moment. But luckily those ladies have more agency than often gets attributed to female characters in PA who men try to rape/do rape.

    I am SO GLAD you loved The Dispossessed!!! I really need to go back and read it again. That book is totally responsible for starting me down the path I am on today.

  6. I love Kunstler’s book The Geography of Nowhere. I’d say it’s less about the problems of URBANITY than about the problems of the SUBURBANIZATION of landscape in our cities as well as in what used to be open country. Kunstler explains quite eloquently how urbanity can be done right and routinely was done right in many American cities and towns of all sizes until after World War II.

    I didn’t realize he’d also written fiction! Cool.

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