Review Of Octavia E. Butler’s “Kindred”

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Octavia E. Butler's Kindred

Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a bunch of young adult literature. No, it’s not really art, but in most cases, that’s acceptable, as it has no pretense to anything higher than functional and didactic storytelling for kids. The plots are simple, the symbolism obvious, the moralizing heavy-handed, and the purpose, clear. Students learn something (although it has little to do with English) and, in the hands of a creative instructor, can be forced to think about it in radical ways, beyond the scope of the typically insipid ‘lessons’ such books offer. All of this makes me wonder about the intrinsic value of books like Kindred, which is essentially a kid’s book disguised as a serious work of art. In brief, it’s not a good novel, but it at least ensures good criticism, for it attempts many things and does them badly — a hallmark, I suspect, of teen books in general. Trash like Gayl Jones’s The Healing, for example, are so utterly devoid of art or idea, maundering around banal, plotless, and lazy, all-describing inner thought, that detailed criticism is gratuitous, while Kindred is, by comparison, a failure with some good ideas lost to poor execution. It’s more instructive to look at these well-intentioned failures as there’s something to learn here.

A very obvious problem is the treatment of ideas. Butler handles her themes so didactically and without nuance that Kindred simply can’t be real literature, only functional, moralizing prose. All it says of slavery, relationships, and racism is not only unoriginal, but banal and expected, as if it’s a text designed to socialize the reader into mainstream thinking on these topics. Again, think kids’ lit. A novel of sci-fi aspirations, it really isn’t, since the mechanism of nor reason for its only sci-fi element, time travel, isn’t explained, nor serves any real logical purpose, except, perhaps, as an excuse for the story. It’s a minor flaw, one that even great works could have, but given all the other problems here, it’s difficult to overlook. The plot revolves around a black woman free of personality named Dana, her obliviously white writer-husband Kevin, and Rufus, a stupid, one-dimensional white boy from the antebellum South whom Dana repeatedly saves from death. Dana, a struggling writer in the 1970s, disappears into the South for hours, days, or months every time Rufus is in danger, while her body, in this world, is unconscious for no more than several minutes at a time. She returns to her apartment precisely when her own life is threatened. Sometimes, she’s able to take Kevin with her by holding on to him once the dizziness sets in. She is disappointed every time, however, as Rufus, with whom she develops a motherly (but mostly unexplored) relationship, didactically grows into a violent, insensitive product of his era. Note the rich potential in these ideas and how a talented writer can shape them into profound art. Butler is not that writer, at least not here, although, to her credit, she has some good or decent lines, but never a whole compelling passage, and good ideas, none of which are developed far enough. Yet, for every decent line, there are, maybe, five times as many flagrant clichés of every type imaginable. Again, lots of aspiration, but virtually no delivery.

Other basic issues are Butler’s lack of insight, evocative description, characterization, and so on — in brief, a lack of most things I’d judge a book on. In terms of insight, Kindred is quite childish, offering nothing but purely functional information about slavery and its consequences. Slaves are beaten, children are sold, girls are raped, but there is zero attempt to get into their, or the system’s, minds, and thus no psychological depth or novel social or philosophical cogitations. All is expected. Add to this the fact that Butler is throwing around little banal historical lessons, and you’ll see what I mean by ‘childish’:

Would I really have to go all the way to some northern state to find peace? And if I did, what kind of peace would it be? The restricted North was better for blacks than the slave South, but not much better.

  It could work, if such comments are juxtaposed against some great description, is revealing of something greater, or set next to unconventional philosophical heft to offset the obviousness of these ideas, but there’s nothing, just functional, obvious history. And look at this conversation between Dana and her husband after she returns from the South, almost having been raped by a patroller. The dialogue is not only functional, plot-driving fluff, but also full of clichés. It invokes the schlock technique of having a character newly touched (and thus enlightened) by the supernatural talking over the heads of the incredulous — just flip through any random crap on the Sci-Fi Channel, and you’ll see this practically word for word:

I thought back to my reading. “A patroller is…was a white man, usually young, often poor, sometimes drunk. He was a member of a group of such men organized to keep the blacks in line.
“What?”
“Patrollers made sure the slaves were where they were supposed to be at night, and they punished those who weren’t. They chased down runaways — for a fee. And sometimes they just raised hell, had a little fun terrorizing people who weren’t allowed to fight back.”
Kevin leaned on one elbow and looked down on me. “What are you talking about? Where were you?”
“In Maryland. Somewhere on the Eastern Shore if I understood Rufus.”
“Maryland! Three thousand miles away in…in what? A few minutes?…This is getting crazier and crazier,” he muttered.

And so on. This is as deep as Butler gets — functional history on antebellum dress, railroad construction, and the master/slave relationship, cloaked in fiction. It doesn’t help that Kevin is, as noted, obliviously white and presented as such, in a dull, hackneyed fashion, with the expected moral lessons. As he considers the treatment of slaves on the plantation, he says to his wife:

“…This place isn’t what I would have imagined. No overseer. No more work than the people could manage…”
“…no decent housing,” I cut in. “…And no rights and the possibility of being mistreated or sold away for any reason, or no reason. Kevin, you don’t have to beat people to treat them brutally.”
“Wait a minute. I’m not minimizing the wrong being done here. I just…”
“Yes you are. You don’t mean to but you are.”

  This kind of surface level analysis is Kindred’s staple. At other points, Kevin, in a wistful moment, wishes to go West, to discover how much of the American myth is “real.” Dana, expectedly, is hurt by Kevin’s insensitivity to the plight of Native Americans. None of this surprises, nothing here is evocative — it just reveals whatever the reader already knows of Kevin, that, especially for a writer, he’s not very complex, interesting, or philosophical. Yet this one-dimensionality doesn’t take the book very far. It’s not that Kevin’s lack of characterization makes a subtle point about slavery, or anything for that matter, since none of the characters is very interesting. Stereotypes can work well if they’re calculated, precise, and purposeful, and not just a defect of the writer’s style. And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with treating these themes (white complacency, guilt, the difficulty of experiencing cruelty in the abstract) in a novel. It’s simply how they’re treated — in a clunky, unevocative, didactic, superficial, unoriginal manner — that’s problematic.

Kindred is also unimpressive on a purely technical level. Usually, the description, imagery, etc., is very plain, but at important points, Butler goes for poesy and fails every single time. Consider the scene where Dana is whipped, identical to other whipping scenes:

Then I was out of the cookhouse. Weylin dragged me a few feet, then pushed me hard. I fell, knocked myself breathless. I never saw where the whip came from, never even saw the first blow coming. But it came — like hot iron across my back, burning into me through my light shirt, searing my skin…

  This utilizes practically every cliché of slave violence. Dana is “knocked breathless,” “never sees” the object of violence, never “even sees the first blow,” and when the whip strikes, it’s “like hot iron,” “burning,” and “searing skin.” It’s remarkable that Butler was aware of these platitudes yet pressed on. She probably read a few slave narratives, grew familiar with the historical context, etc., but was lazy enough to simply repeat the kinds of descriptions she was accustomed to. Another trope of kid’s literature — its lack of interest in originality or depth, since, for didactic purposes, the above suffices. Again, that’s perfectly fine, but it’s just not art, especially not good art.

Perhaps the book’s biggest flaw is its treatment of the relationship between Dana and Rufus, since it’s central and the only potentially interesting thing here. Consider it. Dana grows almost motherly towards Rufus, but he continually disappoints her, culminating in his attempted rape of Alice, Dana’s ancestor and the ostensible reason for the time-travel. Rufus slowly grows psychotic over the course of the narrative, conflicted over his grudging respect and fear of Dana, his lust, and his racism. A great or even good writer would immediately know where to take this. An excellent option would have been to focus on Rufus, perhaps even on the minutiae of his days, like his chores, thoughts, or whatever else, to build a palpable obsessiveness. Another option is to give him life via expressions and gestures around Dana, peppered with lots of description, to probe his mind some other way. Instead, this relationship is mostly inert and very surface despite being so important here.

I don’t want to criticize this book for what it isn’t, except in one case: in that it’s not good, which ought to be one of the very few demands on any art. All else is bias. Butler had lots of creative options, took few, and thus, here’s the result. It’s amazing that Kindred has been paid so much academic and critical attention, and not only ‘as art,’ but as a philosophical and sociological tract. In fact, it’s neither done well technically, and even worse as a social text, for it lacks any depth to qualify while far richer and nuanced books on the same subject, like any novel of Charles Johnson, are ignored or, perhaps even worse, put in the same category. I challenge anyone to produce something from the novel indicating otherwise, for I see absolutely nothing myself.

[This article originally appeared on the Cosmoetica website, on 2/8/2010.]

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