Even though I’ve had a Kindle for years, I allow myself to buy the occasional ‘real’ book. Last Saturday I picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour (2012). Of course, I’d heard about the novel before, but frankly I was hesitant about reading another ‘climate/environmental novel’.
Given my field of research – ecocriticism – that hesitation may be strange. I have to admit that it was mainly caused by that other climate novel – Ian McEwan’s Solar (2010). Although I’ve written about it in my dissertation – and my forthcoming contribution to the Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism – I’ve always felt ambivalent about it. My interest in Solar is solely ecocritical: in my research I looked at the ways in which the novel challenges ecocritical assumptions, and in that sense it’s quite interesting. As a reader – and a literary scholar -, however, it disappointed me.
I really enjoyed Flight Behaviour, and am glad I picked it up. Because of its subject matter, I couldn’t help comparing it to Solar, and came to the conclusion that it’s a much better ‘climate crisis novel’ than Solar, for several reasons.
Flight Behaviour works as a climate crisis novel because it does a much better job at making climate crisis – and climate change – tangible. If you haven’t read it, the novel is about Dellarobia, a young mother and farmer’s wife who, on her way to meeting her lover, comes across a sea of orange in the woods behind her home. Mesmerized, she never makes the tryst, and returns home instead. The sea of orange (she’s not wearing her glasses when she first sees it) turns out to be a roost of Monarch butterflies, very rare and threatened, and not at all common to the region where she lives.
In the rest of the novel, the magic of these butterflies appearing in the Appalachians comes to stand for the environmental changes taking place all over the world, and the freak weather patterns affecting the region. At the same time, the woods as a potential source of income for Dellarobia’s in-laws, her sudden celebrity following a television interview, a crush on the scientist who comes to investigate the butterflies, and the intricacies – and small-mindedness – of rural religion place the butterflies, and the woods in which they live, at the centre of a complicated web of agents and interests.
Solar lacks a recognizable image: in fact, it abounds in images that don’t work – global warming is dispelled by Beard’s sojourn in the Arctic, a powerful story of a man in the forest felling trees becomes a cheap sales pitch. Climate change never becomes real in this novel – instead, it’s just one element of a larger satire in which nothing is ever taken seriously. A synecdoche like the Monarch butterflies – or like the silent spring in Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring (1962) – is absent, whereas such an image is vital to an issue as complex as environmental change.
Flight Behaviour works as a climate change novel because it shows the complexity of the climate change debate through intelligent conversation, without resorting to sarcasm or cynicism. It takes its readers seriously. Dellarobia challenges climate science through her talks with Ovid Byron – the scientist studying the monarchs. Their discussions aren’t merely about believing or disbelieving – Dellarobia is not a disbeliever, but rather someone who until then had never considered believing. Instead, they show the full complexity of the environmental change debate. Environmental crisis is not merely about science or measurements, but a thoroughly cultural debate, determined by background as much as education:
“‘I’d say the teams get picked, and then the beliefs get handed around,’ she said. ‘Team camo, we get the right to bear arms and John Deere and the canning jars and tough love and taking care of our own. The other side wears I don’t know what, something expensive. They get recycling and population control and lattes and as many second chances as anybody wants'” (444).
Belief in environmental crisis, Dellarobia suggests, is only for those who can afford to worry about it – those that aren’t either busy worrying about making ends meet on a day-to-day basis or are anyhow deemed to stupid, too redneck, to understand it. This presents a much more nuanced, and thorough, view of environmental crisis, and the debate surrounding it, than Solar, which in all its satire stays flat and shallow.
Flight Behaviour works as a climate crisis novel because it’s a better novel. Literary critics, particularly those outside of the UK, came down hard on McEwan, accusing him of creating a claustrophobic experience by focalizing the entire novel through Beard, who is not only thoroughly unlikeable but also an unsuccessful allegory for humankind, and a hardly productive contribution to environmental debates both within and outside of the book.
Also, it seemed that the narrative was constantly trying to decide whether it wanted to be a nonfictional text on environmental science or a novel. At the end, it ended up as neither, and got stuck in commonplaces.
Flight Behaviour, on the other hand, works as a novel first and foremost. Its characterization is well-rounded and developed, and although the pace is sometimes perhaps a bit too slow, the narrative arc holds up all through its 597 pages. It is a complex novel, with dialogues that are lively but never too drawn out, and Kingsolver impressively weaves together different narratives and characters.
Finally, Flight Behaviour works because it’s not about climate change. Climate change is one of its narratives, alongside other fully developed narratives. Leaving aside the narrative of the butterflies and the larger narrative of environmental change, there is still plenty left: an intelligent character who reflects on herself and her life, a community set in its ways, stories of poverty and class. In fact, calling it a ‘climate crisis novel’, as I do here, sells it short.
A novel – any novel – should first be a novel: a (literary) text, using literary and narratological devices in a way that differentiates it from other texts. A novel is not a pamphlet for environmental activism – but can nonetheless reflect our debates, opinions and confusions about environmental change and crisis.