Flight or flow: where will it take us?

Flight Behavior by Barbara KingsolverA woman on a path to destroy her life stops in her tracks when she witnesses a vision of magical fire. It turns her around, but the fire turns out to be an illusion—really it is something much stranger and more confusing.

From a glimpse of flame the tale turns to water, water and more water: rain, ice, streams and floods. The dust jacket of Barbara Kingsolver’s newest novel, Flight Behavior, seems to dissolve into raindrops, or are they tears? The story’s characters bear their unhappiness grimly, scarcely weeping, yet their world cries enough to drown them, Alice-like, in a pool of tears.

Kingsolver’s vision of rural Tennessee, like Wonderland, presents twists on reality, a near future altered by a small, bizarre but convincing misfortune. This watery environment is more than pathetic fallacy. A family’s breakdown plays against a subtle dissolution of the natural order.

Despite the dramatic backdrop, Flight Behavior lacks the narrative tension of Kingsolver’s previous work, The Lacuna. Her skill as an essayist floats this raft. Essay-like episodes explore different elements of our calamitous times. Some offer comic relief. The protagonist, lucid and compelling, paces through them unifying the vision. Will the human race prove clever enough to find a path?

The author’s gift for lyricism is what truly shines:

Monarchs covered the trunks like orange fish scales. Sometimes the wings all moved slowly in unison. Once while she and Ovid were working in the middle of all that, he had asked her what was the use of saving a world that had no soul left in it. Continents without butterflies, seas without coral reefs, he meant. What if all human effort amounted basically to saving a place for ourselves to park? He had confessed these were not scientific thoughts.

Kingsolver addresses a pressing moral question without preaching. She looks at it from as many angles as possible: classism, racism and economics play into it, not only science and politics.

Sometimes we need fiction to convey truth. The possibilities enacted in Flight Behavior are barely different from what is really happening on Earth. One book can hardly turn the flood, but like the butterfly effect it might bat a wing—or flick a drop—in the right direction.

I discuss Kingsolver’s nonfiction memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle in The new geography of brunch.


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