Wendell Berry: “Nothing Living Lives Alone” (PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012)

06/05/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The Threepenny Review, Spring 2011.

Andy Catlett, now an old man, looks back, as old men in stories often do, on his life. (To his credit, “Andy Catlett has tried to use appropriate hesitation and care in speaking, in any way particularly personal, of the diminishment of the world. He dislikes hearing old men, including himself, begin sentences with such phrases as ‘In my day’ ….” And yet.) In particular, he remembers a better time, “when he was eight or nine years old until he was fourteen, when he experienced intervals of a freedom that was almost absolute.” Back then, before industrialization swept every aspect of the country, there used to be an emphasis and demand for “higher standards and a greater passion for excellence”: one worked hard to produce tobacco, say, and that difficulty was rewarded/relieved “by the sort of talk that people do for pleasure.” There was a sense of having earned your rest, and “there was an implicit recognition and acceptance of the human lot” — i.e., happiness from the lack of freedom: “Nobody then and there was speaking of ‘alternatives’ or ‘alternative lifestyles,’ of ‘technology’ or ‘technological progress,’ of ‘mobility’ or ‘upward mobility.'” Oh, and we weren’t destroying the environment quite so badly, back then, for Andy, at least in the second section (of three), is merely an admittedly odd example of a time most of us seem determined to forget — as impatient of “the secret lives of of the woods and tall grasses” as he was as a youth. That’s right: Berry liberally uses “We” throughout this second section, criticizing the shift from “vocations” to “jobs” and tackling, as if it were an essay, the dangers of “an ’employee’ helplessly dependent on an employer and ‘the economy’ and interchangeable with any other employee.”

Backing away from this approach, or better disguising it, Berry’s final section isolates a specific incident. Young, energetic, inquisitive, and receptive, he’d run beside the farmhands and other men and attempt to assist them (“he’d learn to do what he was capable of doing”); he’d pick up land husbandry from his grandfather and home economics from his grandmother (it was 1945); he’d be “in-formed” (literally) by his environment. On the day in question, Andy spends five pages chasing a squirrel through the branches of a series of trees, losing himself in the pure act of being a quadruped. Does Berry describe the event well? Sure. But Andy’s happiness, no matter how exactly written (or perhaps because of this) doesn’t translate off the page any better than Berry’s Thoreau-like musings on the importance of nature, of isolation, of hard work. The text itself, ironically, lacks the merest shred of the freedom that Berry and his characters speak so wistfully of: there’s so little room for interpretation that you’ll have to read paragraphs over and over again to follow their precise (and yet so slight) plotting. To be clear, this is due in part to Berry’s three-part approach, which forgoes a straightforward narrative for a series of musings that center around Andy and the loose concept of freedom but do not always tie together in doing so. Quite frankly, it’s a bit of an unrewarding slog, and I think it coasts a bit on the broadness and good-will (among environmentalists, at least) of its title. If this were an essay, if it were not preaching to a chorus of so-called liberal, elitist readers, would it convince anyone of what has been lost? And as fiction, then, should we see it trying to hard to do exactly that? I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and leave it one rung above a more pretentious story, but I’ll certainly never revisit this one, and am hardly inclined to give the author a second chance.

Wendell Berry on “Nothing Living Lives Alone”

Sure enough, Berry’s almost eighty years old and lives on a farm; this doesn’t necessarily make Andy a stand-in or the story a veiled memoir, but it speaks to a generational divide, both in content and style, that I do not easily cross nor appreciate. (I’m laying all my biases on the table, here.) The sedentary style of prose, the lack of action . . . hell, even Berry believes that this piece “seems to me to impose some strain on the term story” and all but verifies that it is, in fact, his attempts to “deal directly and explicitly with what I see as the paramount change in my time and place.” You remember those old commercials for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups? (“You got peanut butter in my chocolate! You got chocolate in my peanut butter!”) Well, if this is an experimental “new” form of pseudo-fiction, the esstory, it’s one that I have no taste for.

Karen Carlson on “Nothing Living Lives Alone”

Karen’s more forgiving/accustomed to polemic than I am, yet even so, writes that “I’m in the odd position of basically agreeing with many of his conclusions, and feeling annoyed by them at the same time.” She also reads the squirrel-chase as a metaphor for industrialization, in that as we climb higher and higher, losing ourselves in the improvements, do we lose all contact/connection with our true selves/the ground? And how can we go about finding our way back down again? (Berry is critiquing freedom, mind you — the freedom of choice — so Andy’s recklessness, despite being the most entertaining/liberating portion of the read, might be a sly condemnation of such freedom. That gives the author more credit than I’m willing to extend, but probably as much as he’s due.) Karen also drills into one of the issues I glossed over above: whether Berry is being earnest or ironic. This, in fact, might be why we both have adverse reactions to the story: it’s clearly an earnest message — and as I said before, it’s preaching to the choir — but Berry does extend these ironic bits about his unease with the narrative form he’s chosen (all the way into his author notes), you know, that hipster-like preemptive self-effacement, and each instance weakens what he’s actually hoping to accomplish. After all, if you really feel bad about lecturing us or baring this part of your soul, why write it or publish it? It’s not as if getting this from your mind onto the page and into a magazine is an effortless task. (Note: if it is, I hate you.)

Is there a conclusion to be drawn here? Well, resistance, primarily. Both Karen and I are actively looking for things not to like here (though Karen’s admittedly coming at it with some bias, whereas I don’t really know Berry at all), and perhaps that stems from the holier-than-thou message, the inelegance of its proclamation, or simply the fact that nobody likes to be told that we’re living “wrong.” But I stand by my original assertion: Berry’s undone by his own insistence and the strain this imposes on his work. Whether it was easy to publish this or not, every paragraph is a narrow-minded strain on the reader, a this-is-how-it-is-and-was dictate that isn’t any fun to read, to think about, or to pursue.

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