Kindred strikes me as sort of an easy read. Well, it’s a very tough read in that it describes graphically some horrendous stuff. But it is not difficult in the way that something like Ulysses is. You can just sort of cruise along and not stumble over much about the technique or the structure of the story. It’s not exactly a beach read, but it maybe could be if not for the awful subject matter. I think what I mean (though I feel weird saying it) is that it is not especially complex or difficult to follow.
The last read we did here, Bubblegum, comes to mind as I think about this issue of difficulty and complexity. Bubblegum also had horrifying stuff in it that was unpleasant to think about. Aside from that, it wasn’t a Ulysses-hard read. It went down pretty easily. I didn’t plod through it as I’ve plodded through some of the big difficult books. But it had complexity and heft (literally and figuratively) in a way that, for me, Kindred does not. Bubblegum required that I keep many characters and ideas and even modes of reading in my mind all at once, even while the act of reading it was pretty easy. But I had so much more to say about Bubblegum. It pulled so many more things together and sparked a lot of speculation and ideas as I read.
Kindred sort of doesn’t. I’m having difficulty trying to come up with any particularly interesting things to say about it that aren’t obvious. Perhaps this is a strength of the book: If the thread is pretty easy to find, any message the book is designed to convey is likely to come across more clearly than if the thread is tangled up amid a bunch of unspooled yarn. Still, the book feels a little thin to me, and I’ve found it hard to say much here at the end that seems very interesting.
Rather than torture you with my effort to do some big meaningful synthesis, I’ll leave you with some questions and notes I jotted down after finishing the book, while trying to figure out what I wanted to write about. Maybe y’all will have something more meaningful to say about one or two of these things in the comments. Or maybe you’ll have something to share that’s altogether different, in which case please speak up!
Abandonment and Acquisition
We see a lot of abandonment in the book. Rufus is terrified that Dana will abandon him. Kevin is accidentally abandoned for five years in the past. Kevin and Dana’s families sort of shut them out. Rufus’s mom leaves the family behind. Plantation owners force abandonment on enslaved people by tearing families apart. I don’t have a thesis here; it’s just something I noticed that seemed interesting in a book that is in large part about the acquisition and holding of people.
I feel a little dim, but I felt like there must be some very heavy significance to Dana’s leaving her arm behind. The book starts out with this detail, and the removal of the arm as Rufus clutches it seems important as the climactic moment of Dana’s final return home. Yet to me, that scene felt sort of clumsy and vague. And the best explanations I can come up with for the significance of the arm thing are trite things about embodiment, or Dana literally and figuratively leaving a part of herself in the past (taken from her by a white man), or Dana’s returning to the present diminished or broken by her experiences in the past. What big significant thing am I missing?
There are a few references to external sources. I didn’t write them all down, but there are slave narratives and history books. There’s a fake external reference to Kevin’s first successful novel. We don’t learn what Kevin’s novel is about, but the title is a Biblical reference to Moses and Aaron in Meribah (striking the rock to produce water — which by the way may be another example of abandonment in a way, as Moses here may have sort of left God behind). Then of course there’s the Bible itself. And then there’s a reference to Robinson Crusoe, a slaver lost to the world he knows (that’s about all I remember; it’s been ~30 years since I read this one). Were I more industrious, I might try to make some elaborate set of connections among these various sources.
Is there something about stereotypes to poke at here? The overseers are stereotypically bad. Dana is painted (by Alice, at least) as sort of an Uncle Tom type character. Kevin at times seems a bit like the white savior type. Dana and Kevin’s families behave about as you’d expect when they learn that the two are in a relationship. Stereotypes (or perhaps archetypes) can be useful in literature that seeks to make a point. Reliance on them in lieu of more complex characterization can also make characters seem sort of flat. Is Butler relying on stereotypes here, and if so, does it suit her purpose or does it subtract from the complexity and beauty of the book?
Father and Son
Does Rufus become his father, as Dana had wondered about back on page 68? Which of the two of them is worse? I’m not sure what to make of Rufus’s insistence that Tom is fair and has a sort of honor (granting as much requires a little cognitive dissonance at any rate). Tom’s cruelty is at least in the service of profit and enterprise, whereas Rufus’s is oddly based in a sort of perverse personal greed. He hurts Alice and Dana because he wants to exert some personal claim over them. Maybe the whys and wherefores of the cruelty are beside the point. Maybe it doesn’t even make sense to compare and contrast the two men when the result is cruelty toward a whole group of people. Still, I found myself noodling on it a little.
I often focus on weird things when I read, like how authors use random (or purposeful?) marks on the page. Last week, I gave some thought to names. As I wrapped up the reading, I thought about chapter names. We have the river, the fire, the fall, the fight, the storm, and the rope. It’s an interesting variety of names. They’re all basic words. Fire, storm, and river are sort of elemental. Fall, fight, and storm might point metaphorically to some greater force or set of events or circumstances (i.e. a sort of fall from grace, or the greater fight/storm against racism). Fall may also do double-duty (or triple-duty) given that it can represent a season of dying. Rope is sort of the outlier here, in a couple of ways. For one, it’s the most concrete of the names. A rope is a thing you can hold in your hand. All the chapters but “The Rope” also refer to the things that put Rufus’s life in immediate danger and called Dana to him. But the rope — presumably the rope by which Alice hanged herself — is much less directly the cause of Rufus’s mortal peril. I might’ve expected that Dana would return to find Rufus himself hanging by his neck. Indirectly, I suppose the rope did bring about Rufus’s death, as it is Alice’s death that sends him over the edge, but the connection here seems much more tenuous. I wonder if there’s something to be made of this. I’ve got the germ of an idea about how enslavement and racism indirectly hurt white people too, as the rope (even as late as Butler’s lifetime used for lynchings of Black people) indirectly led to Rufus’s undoing, but it hasn’t quite crystallized for me as an argument yet and feels like a bit of a stretch.
I found my own key in the first week’s reading: “‘People don’t learn everything about the times that came before them,’ I said. ‘Why should they?’”
It’s easy to lose sight of, since these days we’ve been fairly steeped in the 1619 Project and the subject of slavery has sidled up to the Holocaust as Oscar bait, but there wasn’t a lot of thought about the enslaved experience at the time Butler was writing. Roots had only just been televised (and hadn’t when the book was set). The only two earlier films I can find that tried to depict the subject at all realistically — i.e.: Gone With the Wind doesn’t count — were released in 1969 and 1971, and one of them was an Italian exploitation flick.
Reading this now has kind of a similar effect to adapting The Giver ten years after all the YA dystopiai it inspired had made their box office splashes.
Someone who’d already read the book asked before I started why it was built around the time-travel story. Aside from your “Paradoxes” post, I think sending a contemporary (when it was published) protagonist back served to connect a contemporary reader to the historical period, offering an answer to the rhetorical question above.
As much as we, until recently, have tried to ignore it, we are descended from these people; Dana’s family tree just literalizes it. It may not be as revolutionary an assertion as it was in the ’70s, but we must try to understand our own history, and the nuance of it. Depicting slavers as inhuman monsters ultimately does no more good than romanticizing it away (cf. Arendt). And so Tom Weylin has a sort of honor, and Rufus shows a sort of tenderness. It doesn’t excuse what they do, but it helps us see that we’re related to these people we’d be more comfortable disavowing entirely.
It’s fairly mainstream now to acknowledge that we are bound together in this common, ugly heritage, but when Butler was writing we were only just starting to talk about it.
Really great point about the timing and the paucity of very public thought about enslavement and its legacy.
As for the flatness of the characters, I agree that caricaturing types prevents us from connecting with them as much as we might otherwise, but I also just don’t find any of the characterizations here to be especially rich. Certainly I’m a descendant of people not so very different from the Weylins, but there’s not enough positive humanity in them to make me feel any kinship to them. I suppose similarly, I feel for Dana not because I find her a fully realized character but because of the awfulness of her situation and legacy.
I don’t mean that as a knock against Butler’s craft, to be clear. I think maybe she’s just working in a mode that doesn’t require a super strong attachment to the characters as characters. So maybe my wondering about this at all is sort of a category error, like wondering why there’s no meat on the vegan restaurant’s menu.
Y’know, there are some points of comparison with Bubblegum—a capitalist economy built on brutalizing other sentient beings, and the ways that requires a society-wide project to enforce the ideology that the suffering of those brutalized beings isn’t fundamentally real. (Obviously, of course, there’s a significant distinction between cures and other humans.) Honestly, though, I think Butler just had a different set of ambitions for this book than have generally been the case with the large, loose, baggy monsters by (almost) strictly cis White men we’ve read here previously. I’ve got a case to make in my post later today, but one gesture at it would be to say that I think she’s exploring a way to reconsolidate the (living) traumatic memory of our shared history. I’m drawing here on a metaphor of inexpertly understood knowledge of treatment for PTSD, but the gist is that traumatic memories may recur and intrude the way they do because the physiological experience of their formation prevents them from being properly consolidated in the brain like “normal” memories. So one of the avenues mental health professionals have looked at is how teach your brain (whether through mindfulness and directed cognition or through medications) to experience those memories as no different in kind from all your other regular nonintrusive, nontraumatic ones. And that’s just never in a million years gonna read like the more self-consciously writerly stuff.
As for Dana’s arm: You know what’s been haunting me? Remember after Dana sends Alice and Isaac away, hoping they can escape Rufus together, how on her walk back to the Weylin house she surprises herself by thinking “Home at last”? Now look back at the first sentence of the whole book: “I lost an arm on my last trip home.” I can’t figure out whether she’s using “home” to mean the Weylin place or 1976, and it’s killing me.
But the other thing I’ve been thinking about with her arm, which is a little more of an actual answer, heh, is related to China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station and a wonderful online symposium about it and his other Bas-Lag books from a few years back. Miéville engages a lot of philosophy and theory (economic, literary, social, political…) in his work, and one of the ways he chooses to do that is to try to resist what you might call the virtue structure of narrative: he wants bad things to happen to characters without those bad things being legible as punishments for their actions, because that’s how life works too. Sometimes shit happens. In PSS there’s a horrible outcome for a female character, which a woman reader in this symposium objected to on the grounds of being gratuitous in a way that felt like an unreflective relapse into bad gender tropes.
In his reply, Miéville cops to having tried something with that character that may or may not for succeed for any given reader, but the reason it stuck with me—the reason I’m thinking of it here—is a particular sentence from his defense: “I maintain that it was more respectful of her as a character to give her a fate that vigorously resisted aestheticisation, than to subordinate her to the logic of myth, symbol and genre.” Vigorously resisted aestheticization—I think that’s extraordinary. (In fact, I think I used some of this way back when we read 2666, although I may not have been so explicit about it.) And if you expand “aestheticization” to include that abstraction that turns experienced events into a told story, Butler’s explicitly doing the same. The Prologue to Kindred ends with Kevin and Dana both admitting to their inability to explain what happened to her arm and how.
In a way, I think this also kind of goes back to what I had to say about Moby-Dick lo these many years past, and how at the end of the novel, the whale is a fact, not a datum to be absorbed by any of the interpretive systems that characters have used to try to account for him. Same thing here for the loss of Dana’s arm, I think. Yes, it does still have a symbolic function, but it’s also just so strange and brutal that it will keep insisting on its own presence and reality before it lets us (or Dana) “read” it. (This also helps explain the incoherent quality to the narration while it’s happening, if you want to be generous.)
And of course after I hit “Post Comment” I remembered the other small thing I wanted to say about the loss of Dana’s arm, which is that it’s explicitly her nostos algos (“my last trip home”), and makes a very visible and embodied contrast to the nostalgia that animates/provides cover for the Lost Cause myth of the South.